04/02/2012 9:25AM

Bergman: Big purses no substitute for competitive harness racing

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A few weeks ago Harness Eye and DRF.com columnist Bob Pandolfo wrote in another publication that the current brand of harness racing was “boring.” My former colleague touched a nerve when he suggested we needed to return to days of yore when “wooden sulkies” were the norm.

I see no chance that going back in time to the wood would rectify today’s product. As Pandy points out in his regular columns the sport has become incredibly speed favoring.

Yet where Pandy and I part ways is the reasons why. I don’t believe our problems have anything to do with equipment, lack of a hubrail, or even better drugs. I think the key has been slot machines.

Some say money is the root of all evil, but perhaps “free money” is the true root. Slot money has managed to inflate the purse structure at many a track in North America while at the same time thinning the competitiveness of all races. To me this is the core dilemma we see on a week-to-week basis that should be aggravating to all racing fans.

Yonkers Raceway management will toss out roughly $3 million in stakes money by the time the Blue Chip Matchmaker and Levy Series have washed out to sea at the end of April. The series for veteran pacers has been a godsend for owners of all caliber horses. Trainer-owner Mark Ford called it the “best buy” in all of harness racing when we spoke a few weeks back.

According to horsemen, purse money is important to bring out the best. The respected Eric Cherry, a breeder and owner, opined in a Hoofbeats column this month about four-year-old racing: “The first objective will be to have competitive races. These stakes should have purses higher than the normal overnight fare.”

I think Cherry is only half right. The first, second and third objective of all structured races should be competition. However, what people have mistakenly accepted too eagerly is that higher purses assure competition.

There is a grave imbalance in many of our harness races these days. Much of it has been created by a “wait until next week” attitude that has been embraced readily by trainers and drivers. The first two weeks of the Levy and Matchmaker saw multiple situations where horses that drew poorly just took the week off. A few weeks back Anndrovette’s connections pretty much admitted that they took it easy with the champion mare in the second leg of the Overbid at the Meadowlands, only to return in the final with a vengeance.

The imbalance has become greater as multiple racetracks compete for the same caliber horse leaving most races thin of competition of equal horses. For smart horsemen added money has encouraged more investment in horseflesh and the ability to profit. On the racing side we have not only seen more speed-favoring miles as Pandy suggests, but too many fields where favorites are 1-10 and longshots are 100-1.

As we all know it is virtually impossible to sell a gambling sport when a patron’s return for winning is laughably minute.
While we can’t go back in time, we should as an industry be able to learn from some things that did in fact work in the past. The Meadowlands initial success was built on a blend of talented drivers, trainers and horses competing against one another. What it produced was a betting game that was second to none the sport had ever seen.

We can’t reproduce the Meadowlands in that form again, but we can recreate a betting product that gives off the same vibe to horseplayers if we begin to change the way we put together races and program races.

And if sacrifice is the theme, we must ask the difficult question, what should the horsemen sacrifice to create a better, more competitive product?

I say horsemen, only because they have to be willing to accept the fact that horses entered to race can’t continue to take a week off at the betting public’s expense.

In order to have competitive racing, fields not only have to be balanced (80 percent of the field has a chance to win), but there has to be more incentive put on winning and less on finishing fifth.

While I’m in favor of protecting racing dates, I’m not in favor of simply carding 12-races each day and putting them on the program regardless of how ill-matched the fields are. It’s unconscionable that any racing secretary would want to card races guaranteed to produce 2-5 shots. Yet that’s what we continue to see with regularity. With so much purse money available what would be wrong if non-competitive races were left off the betting program?

Before an attorney steps in, let’s suggest that a horsemen’s rep, a race secretary and an independent gambler were allowed to view races after the draw to insure only the highest level of competitive races are offered to the betting public. Isn’t that what “quality” control is all about?

We also must determine if it is in the sport’s best interest for our horses to race 40 times a year? This is less related to last week’s NY Times piece than it is to the belief that in a high percentage of those starts the horses are not out to win.

In conclusion to gamblers and owners alike this is all about winning. The scales today are so imbalanced with owners, trainers and drivers guaranteed healthy purse money and gamblers left with the scraps.

What Pandy and I both want is a racing product that we can both believe in – a product that is captivating on the racetrack and offers the gambler a chance at a healthy return. It can be done but some changes will need to be made.