04/02/2014 5:05PM

Harness Racing: Alive and kicking

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I recently read an article about the heyday of bowling and how its popularity has declined over the last two decades. As someone who has participated in both harness racing and bowling over the previous 20 years, I couldn’t help but find eerie comparisons between each recreational activity.

Bowling and harness racing were both wildly popular back in the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. People flocked to their local bowling alleys or racetracks to spend a day or evening of fun. Both activities were viewed more as social events—places you would want to attend. It was a night out and it many ways the popular things to do.

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Fast forward to 2014 and both bowling alleys and harness tracks are mostly empty. Whether young or old, people rarely speak about hanging out at their local lanes or heading to the track for a night of fun.

In its prime, bowlers like Don Carter and Earl Anthony were widely known around the nation. Similarly, harness horsemen like Herve Filion and Stanley Dancer were almost household names, getting attention not only from those that attended the races regularly, but also in local newspapers and via television coverage. Harness racing was also a fixture on local TV (at least in the New York area) 35 years ago.

Yet somewhere along the way, between the 1980’s (for harness racing) and 90’s (bowling), both sports began to decline in the public eye. What’s most interesting is that each is still alive and kicking but simply nowhere near as nationally popular as they once were. Bowling (according to Wikipedia) is a sport with over 100 million participants worldwide and over 2 million league bowlers in the United States alone. Similarly in terms of showing popularity, over $1.6 billion was wagered on harness races in the United States in 2013. Yes, billion!

For two supposed “dying” sports, each seems to be maintaining a reasonable base of customers. There are people in this country and abroad who enjoy bowling and harness racing. In many ways, the onus lies on those existing diehard fans to create the buzz and drag their friends to bowling alleys and tracks. That is one of the major points I took away from a speech by Rob Key of Converseon, the United States Trotting Association’s social media agency.

As an industry, we all need to work in unison to increase the popularity of standardbred racing. One track here, one driver there and one blogger in cyberspace hardly makes for a winning team that can drive our sport to the future. We need a focused effort from each group of the business model to say, “Racing is great, come try it!” We need to step away from our computers once in a while and head to the track.

There are some people doing a wonderful job promoting harness racing on a daily basis. Heather Vitale stands out for one. She bombards folks on twitter and other venues with harness content. She cares about racing. Another person that stands out for me is Jason Settlemoir. We may not agree on every issue, but here is a man that tries hard and works even harder. I’ve never met a track executive that was more interested and involved with the customer base.

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So, if you love to watch and/or wager on the sport of harness racing, get up and tell someone you know. Invite them to the track. Make a $2 bet for them and show them how exciting the races can be. Spread the word and I’ll do my best to do the same.