08/02/2017 6:43PM

Bergman: If only every race could be like the Gerrity memorial

Melissa Simser-Iovino
Bit Of A Legend N won the Gerrity Memorial at Saratoga Casino.

As I watched the full 1:50 3/5 seconds of the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial, I couldn’t help but wonder about marketing money. You see there are many in this industry that don’t have the answer but believe it’s about getting a quality marketing team together and devising a plan to sell our product to a mass market.

It dawned on me as I watched what has to be considered the most competitive race in the last decade play out over a track half the size of what experts believe should be the norm in this industry. There in front of me was an example of what harness racing once looked like during its peak period. A race where the camera captured all eight horses without having to zoom out. A race where no one appeared interested in going to the pylons otherwise risk getting stuck in and losing all chance.

The Gerrity was a race that wasn’t a handicap on paper but drew out that way. The Gerrity was a race where all of the drivers were not just live, but alive.

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Watch Live Video and get insights for Saturday's Hambletonian Day card at The Meadowlands.]

You see the Gerrity is the product we have to sell. Unfortunately if we only produce a race like that once every 10 years it will be near impossible to get a marketing strategy in place that could take advantage of it.

It’s a sad commentary on a sport that we have become so accustomed to boredom on the racetrack. We have accepted races for big money being contested with a lack of zeal. Too often horses are pitted against one another and truly are mismatched. That wasn’t the case this past Saturday. While the field lacked the superstars of 2016, namely Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete (no half-mile tracks for champion Always B Miki), what it didn’t lack was horses in good form and not one a standout. Thus the drivers behind the gate didn’t accept their fate before the start. Instead they acted, reacted and in some cases may have overreacted. In the process what panned out was the kind of action that can stir emotion in current fans and potential new ones.

Gimmicks come and gimmicks go when it comes to added attractions to bring people out to the track. It’s what we have become over time, a sport that has accepted stagnation and boredom and tried to substitute other products to look at to give the allure that something is going on.

That we can’t sell harness racing as a sport on its own suggests that racing is the element lacking.

Yet this past Saturday all the forces converged in Saratoga, simultaneously with the championship thoroughbred meet beginning across the street. It’s the capitol of Horse Racing the next six weeks and for a brief moment harness racing was in fact the show.

Was it an anomaly?

That races such as the Gerrity aren’t routinely run begs the question that perhaps marketing people would ask us. Can you give me more races like that one so I can attract an audience?

Marketing people try to build interest in a product but they are not responsible for creating the product.

Those in the entertainment business are forced to create shows that people want to see. Ratings tell the story for the most part and when a show doesn’t get an audience it ceases to exist.

Through the advent of slot machines this industry was given a pardon from the rules. It was allowed to exist in spite of itself and has managed to survive while at the same time losing focus on what at one time made it the most popular game in town.

Races like the Gerrity remind me of the early days at The Meadowlands or the greatest days at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceway. The similarity was that horses were in constant motion and you had to pay attention from start to finish just to keep track of your horse’s position.

Hall of Famer Joe DeFrank made a decision when the Meadowlands first opened in 1976. The track’s first Director of Racing was in fact worried about bringing a mile track to the metropolitan New York area. His prime concern was that up until that stage mile races were hardly contested for the first three quarters of a mile, with drivers routinely waiting for the long stretch to get involved.

DeFrank knew that the competition over at Yonkers and Roosevelt had the advantage of a product that was easier to see and that routinely had horses four-in-four-out at the half-mile point.

With 10 horses, the last thing DeFrank wanted to see was single-file racing until the stretch.

His authority over The Meadowlands and its drivers was significant. DeFrank met with them prior to each meet and told them there would be no “sitting.” He wanted action from start to finish and that’s exactly what he got.

What DeFrank recognized was the product people wanted to see. By guaranteeing motion he in fact made a 10-horse race something not just worth watching but worth wagering on as well.

To say we can’t create a better product is to suggest we never did so in the past. But Joe DeFrank took what could have been a bad product and converted it into one people would pay to see.

Times are different and no magic wand can bring us back to 1976. At the same time, a lack of concerted effort on the part of horsemen and racing secretaries is the type of violation that judges should be looking into.

It would be great if we could raise the money to hire a first rate marketing team to rebuild a fan base. It would be even better if before we did so we showed them that we were willing to change from the status quo and put some excitement back into each race.

The Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial proved that it could be done.