11/22/2017 4:36PM

Bergman: A desperate plea to change the pace of our races

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The ageless Marv Bachrad was interviewing Yannick Gingras in the winner’s circle at Dover Downs and asked the sport’s top money-winning driver why he leaves the gate as often as he does.

“There are a lot of speed favoring tracks including this one,” Gingras said in reply.

That Gingras gave the obvious answer wasn’t much of a surprise. What is to this observer of more than 40 years is why those with authority and the apparent interest in the sport’s future have allowed this to happen.

You see, it is not a given that all must accept the status quo. That horses travel faster, to some accounts they can go at nearly full speed for seven-eighths of a mile, is not the sole problem. That they are left alone throughout the mile to go faster, on the other hand, is the core issue that has stymied growth and in fact led players to find greener pastures for their money.

It’s a sad commodity of today’s racing product that money generated from slot machines is the sole driving force and with it has come an incredible disdain for the horseplayer and in turn their disdain for us.

It would seem to me that if those receiving slot-infused purses really cared about the horseplayer or the dispiriting fact that the tables are so turned in the favor of speed that there are fewer and fewer options for those trying to succeed with an alternate opinion, the powers that be would do something to correct the issue.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it was that alternate opinion that I found the most challenging part of betting horses. That other people employed certain angles and that I was able to develop different ones was critical to finding longshots.

In today’s marketplace we have squashed out the alternative opinions and in doing so have found ourselves with more and more front-end winners and even more extremely low odds-on favorites. For some reason that escapes me, horsemen are not the least bit worried about this phenomenon, or if they are they are remaining incredibly quiet about it.

The answer to nearly every problem in a capitalistic society is in fact money. People can be swayed in almost any direction that money will pull them. In our case, the advent of a large number of racing days combined with healthy purses has not led us to a better racing product. It has in fact led us to a product where horses are routinely protected and races are contested with less than half the entries remaining silent for nearly three quarters of each race.

Yes, speed is a factor, especially when races are mismatched and the best horse gets to the front end. At the same time, the idea that nothing can be done to change the direction we have descended to in the last couple of decades is pure nonsense.

All that will be required is a willingness to change.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

When my colleague Bob Pandolfo would write about bringing back wooden sulkies, he was clearly of the same mindset as I am today. He too was frustrated that the sport had tilted so heavily in one direction. Some could say there are sour grapes in asking to go backwards and I agree with that. Wooden sulkies were outdated the moment they were replaced.

But Pandy should be given credit for a clear understanding that the sport, and the number of people who wager upon it, has been on a steady decline. While there were advancements to make horses go faster and add safety to each event, all of them produced a single result and that was to change the natural bias of the winning horse. That’s where we stand today, but it is certainly not a formula for creating more horseplayers, at least of the standardbred variety.

What is objectionable to me as a horseplayer and a racing fan is the lack of activity in too many of today’s events. The predictability of horses not contesting the pace early or through the middle half with purpose, has only advanced the domination of the front end.

Would less racing or fewer racing dates be the encouragement necessary to improve the competitiveness in each race?

Horsemen will balk.

Would a larger field in each race be enough to encourage more horses to try harder?

Horsemen will balk.

Would condition systems that are used in other countries where horses are not allowed to drop in company work?

Horsemen will balk.

There has to be a way to make changes in the sport and at the same time have horsemen agree to make them.

First, a suggestion that has been repeated many times this year has to take shape and it must happen no later than 2018. We must forever close every passing lane at every track in North America. Period!

The existence of passing lanes has had the opposite impact of its original desire. The fact that we can’t collectively accept that what was thought to be a game-changer has in fact been a game spoiler and has helped lead to the demise of our gambling base.

Eliminating the passing lane alone may not be enough to regain a more healthy balance of speed horses and closers reaching the winner’s circle. That’s why I think drivers should have an added incentive to leave or for that matter take extra risk within the mile, even though those risks may not pay off with a victory. We’ve witnessed too many drivers content to sit in for a fourth-place check that pleases the connections but leaves those watching the race with boredom and ripped tickets.

I would love to see horsemen take a collective stance on improving the action within each race. Whether the speed horse wins in the end may not matter if bettors and pure racing fans can get their hearts pumping for 1:52 and change.

In short, I think 20 percent of each purse should be set aside with the remaining 80 percent paid out in the traditional 50-25-12-8-5 format. The 20 percent would be distributed to those who contest the pace for the first, second and third quarters. I would pay out to the owners, trainers and drivers extra for adding more action to each individual race. Any horses that reach the quarter, half and three-quarter pole while within a half-length of the leader, should earn money for the effort regardless of where they finish the mile. I would pay to the pacemaker and the challenger(s).

Our product has not improved and the result is that we have fewer players.

If we can give players more options and better-balanced results, we might find that betting handle can increase.

If we do nothing . . .