08/17/2015 10:17AM

Bergman: The joy of movement

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Exciting movement during races was the norm in "the old days".

The year is 1974. I’m driving a beat up 1963 White Plymouth Belvedere heading east on the Belt Parkway. I’m passing the Cross Bay Blvd. exit on my way to Roosevelt Raceway.

The Belt at this point feels like the last turn of the racetrack. It’s the final moment before we turn into the stretch and no matter what my Driver’s Ed instructor had taught me I found the need to throw out the “Pass on the Left” chapter of the rule book and proceed to the “Far Outside” of the coming straightaway looking to pass the entire field before hitting the next overpass.

The feeling of passing on the right was so natural to anyone that watched the races with regularity during that period of time. Horses always rallied from the back and the thrill was in watching them go past an entire field. The thrill was almost equal driving a sub-powered automobile against a field of “cars” that hardly knew a race was going on.

Riding in another car returning from the Winner’s Circle on August 8, Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands, I found myself sitting next to Tim Tetrick after his victory behind Anndrovette in the Lady Liberty.

“It’s a shame but nobody can win from behind,” Tetrick said. “Despite the mile track it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Tetrick of course had just won on the front end with the great mare but he seemed to have a soft spot for drivers in the race that plainly didn’t have any chance at victory because the bias was too strong.

The subject of the racing product has been brought up on many occasions. Others wish and hope that a sport that is 100 percent free of chemicals is essential to a return to glory.

Lost in the cloud of smoke is the very essence of what racetracks are producing and what we’re attempting to force feed on a dwindling population. The reality is that what Tetrick sees on a nightly basis and is frustrated by produces a series of races that are boring to witness. In an era where people have incredible number of choices as to how to entertain themselves the idea that the quality and characteristic of a product we televise doesn’t matter is preposterous.

When people that are a part of the show are frustrated by the dynamics and change doesn’t come, that doesn’t bode well for the future.

There are those who predict racing, or should we say harness racing, won’t be around in ten years. Mind you some of those same people were making those statements 20 years ago.

There’s no genius in attempting to predict the long-term future of the sport. However, people might want to start paying a little closer attention to the quality of the product we televise on the track.

Don’t Show the Boring Stuff

While blunt there has to be more than one person in the connected audience that has seen more than his share of single-file races with no movement until past the five-eighths pole. It’s as about as exciting as following other cars in a funeral procession.

Races such as these can be seen way too often at too many racetracks on a given night due in part to the bias Tetrick suggested but also because horses can’t compete. In an era where people are plugged in to so many things every second, it’s impossible to justify our endless willingness to televise a substandard product.

We live in a society where it’s hard to get two people to agree on anything. Those who love the sport of harness racing and want to see it around for the next generation, as well as the one that follows to enjoy the game better start the process of working together.

If we’re going to get the next generation of fans to take interest we need to bring back enough of the action to make people pay attention. I, for one, became a standardbred fan primarily because I liked the thrill of seeing horses pass one another. Roosevelt Raceway offered that on a race-to-race basis.

Yes there were wooden sulkies. Yes there were much slower races. Yes there were hubrails too.

Sure it is much more difficult in today’s environment to reproduce the factors that led to our racing product being fairly biased and far more interesting to behold.

That’s why we don’t need an approach that tells us to go back to the past. We need one that focuses on the present predicament and a means of overcoming it.

My suggestion would be for racetracks (Racing secretaries, Horsemen’s Groups) to handicap the races “after” they are drawn to determine which of the races have enough contenders to make up a competitive field. Then only allow bettors to see and wager on those particular races because they are more likely to be contested and give players more variables and better pricing options. Take all of the other races and have the horses race for whatever money they are supposed to, but don’t allow wagering on them and please don’t show them publicly. (Definitely tape them and make sure gamblers can access the information). We have to open ourselves to a larger audience and increasing variables in any race can help to produce that. Forcing players to bet on 1-5 shots too often is self-defeating.

If there is ever going to be an opportunity for the sport to thrive again it’s going to need to be a collective effort. I would suggest that if all racetracks had just three or four betable races a night and could co-ordinate with each other they could put on a “Super-Card” that draws more attention from fans and bettors alike.

The difference is that changing the dynamic might actually make the sport interesting again. Putting out only a product that passes the smell test in advance could add credibility to what we produce and if promoted properly could give people a reason to watch with the understanding that it’s going to be an exciting show.

With football season rapidly approaching we should all be conscious of the fact that even the most-watched sports are constantly doing something to modify the product and make it more interesting. A few years ago the NFL incorporated a “Flex-Schedule” for its Sunday Night Football telecasts. Sure, they could put any football game on Sunday night and someone would watch, but the concept was to put a game on that would attract the greatest audience possible.

We continue to put on a show that by its very nature has become repetitive and boring. We can’t go back in time but if we work together and find ways to limit races that are likely not to be visually pleasing, we may be able to attract a new audience.

I for one am getting tired of following the same cars every night.

(Photo courtesy Roosevelt Raceway Legacy Page/Facebook)

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Bob Tyler More than 1 year ago
The "professional" catch driver and the passing lane have ruined the sport...every track the SAME 7,8, 10 drivers drive every race, drive it the same way...back in the day, most of the time the guys training drove, some were good, some were horrible....but if you knew that you could capitalize on that and it made for movement, different drivers in every race, and some of them were so bad it created 3 wide, 4 wide moves, instead of these "specialized" drivers who know when, how, and how the same guys they are driving with are going to move...watch Pocono Downs, every race run the same way, the fave floats the first 1/8, straighten out in front of the stands, here comes the 1/5 shot brushing to the lead, it's so boring and uninspiring AND you can't even INVENT a long shot...the product now is so stale it's embarassing..I went to Liberty Bell, Brandywine almost every night and eaxch night when you walked in you didn't know what to expect, with guys that were pumping gas earlier in the day driving at night, now, when I walk into a harness track I KNOW what I'm gonna see...and the passing lane, not even worth the effort of typing about that abomination...
Geoffrey Coleman More than 1 year ago
It was the Roosevelt Raceway tight turns and long stretch I was talking about, when I was talking about needing finesse rather than brute force.
Geoffrey Coleman More than 1 year ago
Yes, new purse distribution would certainly help. I don't know if it has to be that Draconian though. Though I do agree finishing 5th should get nothing. I agree those elimination races also have to go. Send 12 horses to the post if you have to. Even odds-on choices would have their work cut out for him in this type of situation. And what's wrong with that? As a matter of fact there should be 12-horse races even if it's not a stakes race. Again, why not? It would only add to the possibilities and excitement and possible upsets and so forth. The passing lane also needs to be eliminated. The original purpose of it was to give all horses a shot, but it has turned out to have the exact reverse effect. Because it just encourages more sitting in. Also the dimensions of the racetracks can be altered. I'm talking about longer straightaways and tighter turns. The smaller radius of the turns would mean that there would be less extra distance covered for a horse that is parked out., and would thus encourage drivers to come off the rail more. And the longer stretches would mean horses from the rear would have a better chance to make up ground. Thus the whole race from beginning to end would tend to have more movement. It wasn't easy for horses to handle those turns and it wasn't easy for drivers to handle the more subtle strategy either. It took a lot more than good hands and brute force to win over there. It required finesse on the part of both horse and driver. And that was a big part of the appeal for me. And I think for other bettors also. The other thing that might spice things up is giving the drivers of the post 7 and 8 horses the option of trailing behind the 1 and 2. This would tend to also add more movement to the races, because it would force the post 2, 3, and 4 guys to be more aggressive from the outset. Finally you need track officials who fine drivers for sitting in excessively. They fined guys in the old days but you don't see that anymore. FINALLY, you need to cut the take-out considerably. I mean like down to as low as 5%. In order to bring the bettors back. Because if you get enough bettors in the mix, their collective voice would be a much louder one than it is now. They would scream if races were not competitive. And, just like in the old days when there were enough of them screaming loud enough, people had to listen. Now no one cares about the bettors. Because they really no longer support the sport. This is the most fundamental thing that has to change if there is to be any reform at all. The bettors need to be the driving force behind everything. And right now bettors are pretty much an afterthought. Because their numbers have dwindled so. So you need to get them back. And the best way is to lower that take-out, so as to compete with the other forms of legalized gambling.
brooklynrichied More than 1 year ago
Simple solution, really. Change the purse distribution so that 85% goes to the winner, 10% to 2nd, 5% to 3rd and I assure you the races will be far more competitive. Paying out for 5th place encourages horses to "tour the track" or give the lead too easily to a horse making a quarter move. I'd venture to guess there's an odds on horse in 30-40% of harness races. Disgraceful. As a bettor I'm sick of it, and I too remember the days when harness racing was competitive at Roosevelt Raceway. Another suggestion: Get rid of series with eliminations over multiple weeks. They too make for non-competitive racing.
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
40 years ago I went up to Saratoga for the first time. It was so exciting...I was galloping horses for Steve DiMauro and we had the best 3-y-old, Wajima, and best 2-y-old, Dearly Precious in the barn. Saratoga was magic...I rented a bike for $1 a day and went to 27 parties during the (then) one month long meet, including two in my tuxedo on upper Broadway...often waking and not knowing where my faithful conveyance to the Oaklahoma training track was. Everywhere people were talking horses...and looking forward to seeing the new crop of regally bred 2-y-olds from the famous Greentree , Calumet and Darby Dan barns....the place was abuzz. I went back the other day and found it difficult to find a place where I could buy a form...and nobody seemed to care. It was truly sad....and you have to wonder where our dear sport is going ?
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
So we should thank Brian Sears as a driver for NOT ceding the lead to a would be loose on the lead Wiggle It Jiggle It in the Cane Pace then? Because loose on the lead quality types win like 95% of the time....and that's the last thing harness racing needs. Drivers should always force the driver on the best horse to make a decision in-race along with riding a Cadillac. I'm Just Sayin....