02/06/2012 2:59PM

Bergman: Harness racing: A new lens to look at the changing game


Jay Bergman, an award-winning writer, has resumed his weekly “Jaywalking” column about harness racing that previously appeared in Sports Eye. In addition, Bergman will write reports each week about the sport’s top stakes races and biggest horses and personalities.

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Racing is a visual game. For years, first as a handicapper and then Editor-in-Chief of Harness Eye nee Sports Eye, my attention was focused on the daily aspect of putting out a first-class racing publication. Transforming harness racing information from its primitive stages in the 60s, to a position in the late 70s and early 80s as the bible of the Standardbred sport was the passion. Every night the publication sent out a team to watch and report on each individual race from all angles. The key for us was to tell an individual story about every horse. We converted Roosevelt, Yonkers, and the Meadowlands from uncharted-territory to a depth horseplayers had not seen before. It was sort of like going from black and white to color TV.

Evolution and discovery have brought me to the next plateau, and it's as exciting and stimulating today as it was in those early days. For many old-timers, the only recollection of being online was the time spent waiting on the $3 triple line before moving to the $2 win line or even the now defunct $10 combo ($5 win-$5 place) line.

Today we meet again online at a time when information about harness racing and news coverage of the sport is in desperate need of transition. Years away from the daily trials and tribulations of putting together a publication have allowed time to reflect, ponder, and observe the racing – but more importantly the players. The days of combing the grandstand at Roosevelt, Yonkers, and the Meadowlands have passed. I'm anxious to connect again and reach a racing universe made infinitely wider by today's incredible technology.

In the old days, the fans at those racetracks would actively cheer or boo Herve Filion, the all time North American leader in driving wins. Today, Herve can be seen occasionally sitting quietly next to a friend in the back of an OTB on Long Island. The location, not a far cry from his former stomping grounds, is light years away from our former lives.

Fast forward to 2012, and we are confronted with another popular yet polarizing figure making dubious headlines. While Herve both puzzled and confounded racing fans in his prime, Lou Pena has made a questionable name for himself by of all things – winning too much.

We bring this parallel together for just one reason – gamblers. You see the same guys who routinely booed or cheered for Herve have the exact same reaction when a Pena horse wins or loses. There is either cheering, or cursing, but rarely anything in the middle.

Gamblers are passionate, or you could say they are durable. Or you could say they all suffer from selective amnesia. No matter how bad the beat was, or how one thought the horse or driver didn't try to win the race, in two-minutes time nearly all-gamblers have moved on to the next race.

From a gambling perspective, Pena proved at times as confounding as Filion. Both were generally involved with favorites of one kind or another. For a gambler who prefers betting longshots, it was near impossible to throw out a Pena-trained horse no matter what the past performances suggested. Back in the 70s when Herve was driving a horse from his own stable, it was virtually the same.

Through good or bad, the mission of our publication was to provide more information to the players; whether that meant pointing a finger at guys holding back on the racetrack, or revealing to players hidden movements that happened between calls. The mission of those who served this purpose was singular. The cause was the horseplayer. We understood his pain. We understood his frustration. In its infancy, Sports Eye was much more revolution than evolution. The harness racing canvas is quite different today.

How different?

Well, the HTA (Harness Tracks of America) daily newsletter is dominated with storylines about casino gaming. Sure, they sprinkle in a few racing tales every now and then, but mostly it’s about current, pending, or future legislation regarding casinos.

Somehow, somewhere, you have to believe things have changed when harness racing is suddenly the sidelight. Does the HTA newsletter stance correctly mirror racetrack owners’ own views of racing?

If I owned a racetrack and could substitute an endless income stream for a dripping rusty faucet, I would do it in a heartbeat.

The institution of a 50-50 marriage between horsemen and racetrack owners is dead. The couple no longer shares the same bed or bedroom. Now you can feel the resentment between the parties.

The horsemen, who actively campaign(ed) for slots, believe it's still a 50-50 partnership. The track owners, who also campaigned and spent money to construct casinos, believe they have already done enough for their spouse.

There is no Rodney King "Can't We All Get Along" moment coming down the pipeline here. If anything, there seems to be more splinters in the horsemen's group.

The headlines about Pena or a future casino have an intoxicating way of shifting eyes away from the real concerns we face. Whether we want to bring back the past or march forward, we can't get diverted by trivial issues.

Racing is still a visual game.

I'll keep watching and focus on what needs to be said.

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