07/07/2014 12:12PM

Bergman: Cultivating a better tomorrow (Part 1)

Derick Giwner
Horses racing on the outside are a key part to putting on a good show for fans.

Over the next few weeks leading up to the biggest spectacle in modern day harness racing, Hambletonian Day, Jay Bergman will unveil his plan to revamp the system and breathe more life into our sport for fans and bettors. In today's piece he identifies some of the problems.

When we do the same things over and over again life becomes a routine. People get accustomed to one particular way of doing things and generally become comfortable within its environment.

To many in the standardbred sport small changes over time have been accepted. The advancement of the breed and the speed of races have evolved, and with them, so too has the way races are being contested. The core of our product has shifted so over time that too many have forgotten how different the sport was some 30 years ago from the way it exists today.

There’s no need for a lecture about the past being better than the present. The times are indeed different on the racetrack as well, but it’s not about better or worse.

What defines any business is its product, and when you are competing for public interest and discretionary spending, the need is to be in the public eye and distinctive.

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When the sport was at its most popular no one could question the public had far fewer options to choose from, but at the same time we can’t forget that the product was far different than it is today.

Have we lost ground only because of increased competition or have we lost ground because our product is not as captivating as it once was?

Sure alterations have been tried over the years in an effort to keep or advance interest in the sport. Some have been positive and some have not. In a sport/business with such wide-ranging interests, it’s always hard to get a consensus on any shift in policy. Much as our government, people tend to want to believe what they believe with conviction and show disdain for those who think oppositely.

One track does its business a certain way and others try something different. It’s easy to be a critic, and in a world of expanding social media there are many. But critics tend to point at the problems rather than solve them.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard industry people speak about this being a dying sport.

The core of our problems from this corner has more to do with ourselves than it does with those in the world yet to be introduced to our product. We have come together to put racing on television again this year and as much as that appears to be a good sign, one has to wonder what is gained if the product we are showcasing is so incredibly flawed.

To that point, we need to break down what is at the core of our business and hope to modify it in such a way as to revive it to its past glory.

More specifically, what we have lost over time is the appearance of competition on the racetrack. No matter how sophisticated our camera work has become, it is more and more difficult to find the horse you bet on the screen than it has ever been. Fields are so stretched out during much of the mile races that at times it’s impossible to tell whether the horse one backs has a chance to win, or better yet, gives the bettor the belief that there is a chance to win.

At the common core of interest in wagering on any sport is the belief that winning is in sight. If you can’t find your horse on the screen, the image fades and with it the attention span. It shouldn’t be lost on those trying to match wits with the slot-machine gurus that have captivated a generation, that increasing the pulse of players is as much a part of the game as producing a winning scenario. Keeping interest long enough that a player stays active in the game is essential for long term success and growth. Too many no-chance races from even those wishing to give our sport a chance, is frustrating and in the end self-defeating.

Before the sport became a made-for-television event with minimal on-track participation, it managed to achieve enormous popularity in large part due to its presentation. What pushed me towards this sport as opposed to thoroughbred racing had more to do with my ability to actually see my horse with a chance to win as opposed to lagging countless lengths behind a field. Before the advent of mile tracks in the metro-New York region and even in the post-Meadowlands era, half-mile tracks pushed the notion that you could “see all the action every step of the way.”

In those days it was a rarity to see a field of eight separated by more than 10 lengths in the first quarter. Yet my memory is clear enough to recall what made the races more captivating. By the time any field had reached the halfway mark, passing in front of the grandstand for the first time, they were paired up with four horses on the inside and four on the outside. Better yet, you could see your horse and every other horse and become more engaged in the product. At that point, with half a race to go, everyone holding a ticket in the grandstand had a reason to believe and a reason to root his or her horse to the finish.

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Now take a look at almost any half-mile track or for that matter mile track race we are currently try to squint to see on the television monitors. Not only does my horse look smaller, at the same time I can’t be certain that he’ll ever be close enough to the pack to have a chance to win. In other words, hope has faded or never even been ignited.

To those who believe we can’t change, then I guess hope has faded.

Yet anyone who has been around even the most pessimistic horseman knows there is always a glimmer of hope.

In parts two, three and four we’ll break down some of the reasons the product appears the way it does and define ways to change the look and hopefully stoke the passion in others that we feel for harness racing.