08/17/2015 11:17AM

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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