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Bergman: Cultivating a better tomorrow (Part 3)
In his continuing series on improving the sport, Jay Bergman looks at a way to revamp the system and breathe more life into our sport for fans and bettors. In today’s piece he unveils his plan for making races more exciting.
When the Meadowlands was at its peak, it must be understood that much of the success was generated because the track was the only place to race for significant money from January thru August. The race office had the attention of all horsemen and could easily dictate the terms of entry, and often did.
Clearly those days are over as horsemen have a multitude of options available and race where they please and quite often on the terms they are content with.
That’s why in our society we can no longer yell, scream or cajole horsemen into doing what some believe is for the good of all.
To simplify, you can’t tell people what to do, you can only offer them incentives to modify behavior.
At the core of the motionless or less movement races dilemma discussed in parts one and two, is the structure we are currently living within. Horsemen, drivers and trainers have the incentive to get a check, any check each week. With conditioned racing the norm in most locations, the objective for many trainers is to keep horses within the ranks where they can earn purse money. At the same time slipping off the board once in a while will allow the horses to drop in class and therefore face easier competition with a better chance at winning. This scenario has played itself out on a regular basis, with drops in class generally producing odds-on horses and imbalanced fields.
It works well for the horsemen, but not as well for the betting product.
Obviously the way we have structured racing has determined the ebb and flow of behavior on the racetrack, and that behavior is not working to achieve a solid and more interesting product to bet on. It has in too many instances left odds-on horses and races lacking in any serious start-to-finish movement.
At the core of our need to revise and reform our product is to find a way to create action that is compelling from start to finish. The substance of this revision is to bring the horses closer together to each other within the second and third quarter of races and not just early and late. The idea is not that far removed from what Joe DeFrank dictated some 38 years ago when the Meadowlands was in its infancy. This time it is one that horsemen should volunteer willingly to try.
In order for us to invite change we have to revise the nature of how purse money is awarded and incentivize activity within a race and not just the outcome. As we’ve stated, lack of energy used within a race very often leads a driver to earn checks. This same lack of action may also produce a drop in class. The negative motion currently benefits the owners, trainers and drivers but is unappealing to the bettor.
What if we could put a system in where sitting in and earning checks would no longer be beneficial to the owners, trainers or drivers to the same degree. In other words, sitting in with regularity was not rewarded with a drop in class . . . EVER.
Our concept requires that 75 percent of the purse be divided based on where a horse finishes first through fifth with the other 25 percent awarded to the horses and drivers that exhibit the most movement in the race from start to finish.
Activity points would be a requirement for a drop in class. In this way, the betting public will get to witness a product that has more action and owners, trainers and drivers will be rewarded for putting on a better show.
There cannot be a better show unless we can forever close the “passing lane.” Whatever it has done over time to allow those fortunate enough to be sitting on the rail to become free, it has done infinitely more harm destroying the flow of high quality racing. There can no longer be rationalization that allows any benefits to those who don’t argue or contest the pace with purpose within the middle-part of the mile distance.
Whatever the problems the sport had during its more popular phase, putting on a good show was not one of them. Routinely races were displayed with horses inside and out and moving forward. There were quarter-moves, moves on the second turn, and moves before the half that allowed horses to get closer to the lead and at the same time raised the spirits of those with live tickets in their hands. Horses pulled to go three-wide coming off the third turn on half-mile tracks, sometimes bringing the entire field within a few lengths by the three-quarters.
When is the last time any of us witnessed that in one race a month, let alone four on a given night?
Yes, races were much slower back then and sulkies were heavier, but there’s nothing that should prevent horses with more refined equipment and slicker gaits from performing in the middle of the race. Only humans can prevent standardbreds from moving and only humans can put them in action on the outside to battle.
And those humans should be compensated for the effort, as opposed to a current standard that has rendered a once popular sport relatively meaningless in our times.
In our next installment we will clearly delineate the point system and offer a re-conditioned class structure that rewards active behavior within a race and penalizes horses that do not do any work. Points will be earned for racing on the outside and points will be earned for advancing whether two- or three-wide. Points will be earned for leaving and more points will be earned for going fast passing horses while wide. All of the efforts we should have looking ahead are towards producing a product that not only captures the attention of the novice and pro, but also offers hope to those who bet favorites and longshots, closers and frontrunners.
The reign of speed bias in the sport needs to be abolished now.
Race 1 Friday at the Meadowlands: Royal ice, a 3 year old trotter goes 1:51:3, 4 & 2/5 seconds faster than he's ever run. I know it's first time Yannick and the horse figured to improve but this horse never ran faster than 1:56??? Come on, improved by 22 lengths? Give me a break. That's another problem with this game. Consistency.
So one of the problems on the half mile track may be the passing lane that allows horses to sit 4th on the rail and not come out knowing that the worst they will do is get a check; Many times it is a horse coming to the outside sitting 5th with all of that ground to make up. Usually the 3rd quarter at Yonkers goes :28 and change so this horse will have to run a :27 and change to get near the leader and will have nothing left for the stretch. It is also said that the turns aren't as banked as they used to be which hurts horses on the far outside running in the 3 path which one rarely sees these days anyway. So one solution is to get rid of the passing lane which will make the drivers drive if they want to get a check. One thing I do like is the extra sixteenth of a mile. At Yonkers it allows the outside posts a chance to get into the race if they leave and it would probably do the same at the Meadowlands. Just trying to get a dialogue going. Where is it written in stone that a harness race has to be run at exactly one mile?
The institution of exotic bets in every race pushed large betters, who bet to win, out of the sport; therefore, reducing nightly handle. Harness racing needs to go back to win, place and show bets on every race, with one or two doubles per night, one triple or superfecta on the last race. I can no longer place a large bet on any horse, because the horse will plummet to an unplayable price. Current horseplayers are forced to play exotics with the win pools so small, resulting in a decrease of per capita handle.
Words, words, words. Wasted thought and wasted time. I wish I could believe differently. So much has been written on how to save the game. Very few will ever listen. Many insiders seem to think that big purses through slots subsidies are the answer...keep the embarrassingly rich happy, as they have all the top horses. Greed will be the undoing of this game. Perception is reality...or have we heard that before?
Can there really be a tomorrow in this game? The perception is the game is fixed. You can not convice otherwise to the regular people who know nothing about it. I tried. They rather drop it on slot machine than horse racing.. After going to the New M1, i think Gural is more foused on Night clubs and selling drinks than anything else. I am 53 and i took offense to the commercial with the young kid saying "this isnt your fathers racetrack" With a disco in it, he is corrrect!!!
Very interesting and thoughtful column, Jay. Aside from occasional races at Northfield and Harrington, one almost never sees a 3-wide move on a half-miler. Given the quality of stock at tracks like Yonkers, the lack of movement is all the more appalling. Will look forward to the next installment. I also agree that the introduction of the passing lane was probably the single worst "improvement" made in the sport, in decades.