07/14/2014 10:39AM

Bergman: Cultivating a better tomorrow (Part 2)

Linscott Photo
When fields are bunched up it creates more excitement.

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 looks at the style of racing nowadays and the need for horsemen to step up.

(Click here to read Part 1)

The evolution of harness racing has occurred not just because horses are going faster than ever before. The changes in the dynamics of each individual race are a by-product of the speed we go as well as the money we race for. It’s a modification that has taken place without so much as an interest from racetrack ownership. It would be a grave mistake to believe that harness track owners spent much time at all dissecting actual races contested over the last 20 years. My guess is that most were either working towards achieving slot machine legislation or had already gotten the machines and were actively involved in that business.

No track owner can attempt to look the horsemen in the face and claim that racing comes first, or even a close second when compared with the potential of profiting from slot machines.

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Machines don’t have a voice, but horsemen do and should in the direction the sport and product takes.

Horsemen are in direct control of the way races are contested on a daily basis, though this is not meant to blame them for the patterns we have witnessed or the conclusions that are drawn. To be clear, horsemen are in the sport to profit, whether they are trainers or drivers the objective is the same—make as much money as you can.

Yet in the process, horsemen can’t be expected to fully understand the core of what the sport was about. With fans no longer packing the stands, horsemen have become disconnected from those who watch and wager on the sport. There are no cheers, and fewer boos to go around when drivers return after a race. That disengagement has created a chasm that has become too wide to bridge. Horsemen are no longer putting on a show for the public, they are working for themselves and the money made available by countless slot machines.

“You can’t have a betting product where the interests of all parties are not aligned,” said a racing commentator recently.

No truer words could be spoken.

Purse money and the availability of racing opportunities has re-defined what racing has become.

In other words: It’s not always about winning.

To witness many of today’s harness races with high purse strings you would think that it’s almost as important for horses to finish fourth or fifth than actually win. That’s the vision you get repeatedly watching horses go in circles while following each other. Sitting in, something formerly reserved for horses with no chance of winning, has now become a passion for drivers and trainers looking for “easy miles” and decent checks.

And today, sitting in really doesn’t carry the same kind of fear it once did for horsemen. With many tracks using the “passing lane” or open stretch as it has been referred to, the risk of not finding room in the stretch has been mitigated to the point that few drivers worry enough to move off the rail.

Then again, there is really no need to worry about much for trainers and drivers. With high purses available on a weekly basis and the ease of drawing in every seven days, what is really the downside of finishing fourth or fifth? Do it enough times in a row and everyone is making money.

That is everyone with the exception of the guy wagering $2 on the nose.

It’s almost as if we’ve come to the point in the road where horsemen no longer believe the betting public matters.

The reality, however, is that while racetrack owners may get richer from slot machines, horsemen won’t have that luxury forever.

Staring all straight in the face is the grim reality that politicians far and wide will find other uses for slot money that have nothing to do with horse racing.

A larger reality is that horsemen, the ones responsible for what we see on the racetrack need to be taking the first, second and third step to create something more compelling and captivating.

What prevails today on the racetrack is an endless number of races that we see action in the first quarter and action in the last quarter but very little that passes the visual test in between. This is genuinely true on half-mile tracks and unfortunately on mile tracks. It’s the style of racing that fewer and fewer can stomach and even less find betable. It has left us with some hardcore followers that simply know no other forms of gambling that are attractive enough or float from television screen to television screen to bet on any horse race, harness or thoroughbred within post-time reach.

In plain terms, changes must be in the offing if the product is going to be visually accepted and pass the “smell” test of true competition. If some horses are out for a check, or others are just in the race as filler, there’s no need for television. A private showing with invited guests will suffice; the public need not witness such displays.

The reality is that movement matters. Creating activity within each and every race is essential.

When Joe DeFrank, the original racing secretary at the Meadowlands in 1976, helped bring mile-track racing to the New York area, he did it with the firmest understanding of what was important both visually and to the betting public. DeFrank had witnessed mile-track racing at State Fairs and had recognized that so many of the races had played out with sprints in the first quarter and horses staying aligned mostly into the stretch where a quarter-mile sprint would determine the outcome.

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DeFrank knew that he was competing directly with then half-mile style racing where four-in-four-out at the half was what people came to expect. With that he served notice from the start that “movement” was what he wanted and what was needed to make the Meadowlands the success it proved to be. DeFrank defined a product that had a continuous flow to it. He expected drivers to pull to the outside and move, not wait for cover or stall the outer tier. The product was visually attractive and gave all bettors the chance to win.

Next week we will unveil my thoughts on how to entice more actual “racing” on the track.