12/31/2012 11:14AM

Bergman: Looking for long-term solutions to harness racing's troubles


Kicking the can down the road.

We’ve all heard the expression as it relates to our political theater.  It defines a means of delaying the inevitable.

In the standardbred sport we continue to find ourselves in the same position. Lifelines are thrown and lifelines are looked for. All are a smokescreen used to camouflage our problems and worse, delay any meaningful solutions.

While some look for more expanded casino gambling as a band aid, others are moving into adding sports betting to the menu as a means of support.

No one wants to see the sport of harness racing disappear. Everyone has meaningful and good intentions when they ask for political salvation.

It’s just that with this incredible focus on expanding current aid or finding new sources of funds to prop up our sport, the image and content of harness racing continues to wane.

The situation in Ontario could and should be an eye opener, but even north of the border there seems to be more of an emphasis on finding other subsidies, rather than deep thought and action forcing everyone involved to look more closely at the product and its allure.

It’s often been said that this is a horseman’s issue rather than a racetrack’s one. Tracks that have added casino games don’t have to worry about their survival yet horsemen don’t get the same long-term guarantees.

Just as in the game of politics there needs to be a meeting of the minds in this sport. You just can’t keep the status quo and expect a miraculous turnaround.

In short, you also can’t rely on little tricks to turn things around.

Short term fixes are exactly what got this country into the trouble it is in and those looking to see the standardbred sport thrive 20 years from now need to take a closer look at providing a product that will attract the gambling dollar.

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing over the last few years. I’ve been examining the betting races to see if there is something hidden within them that may reveal the answer we’ve been looking for.

This past Friday night at the Meadowlands one such example came to light.

The seventh race was a masterpiece put together by racing secretary Peter Koch.


Because six out of the 10 horses in the field went off at odds under 8-1. The betting prospects were so widespread that up until the final flash of the odds there were actually five interests hovering at 5-1.

This interesting collection produced the highest win-place-show handle of the night as well as a significant trifecta and exacta pools.

It’s no secret that the Meadowlands has always operated under the guise that 10-horse fields produce more wagering. Yet just putting 10 behind the gate is no assurance that gamblers will follow. However, putting more than half the field behind the gate at competitive prices does attract a larger wagering audience.

Here’s the difficult part.

If we can assume that truly more competitive fields do equate to increased handle, why on earth don’t we try to produce more competitive fields?

The answer is that it is hard work and quite often requires thinking outside the box as well as knowledge that the pieces are there to be put together.

In this one instance, Koch had the incredible advantage of a large horse population with tracks such as Yonkers, Saratoga, Mohegan Sun at Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia all shut right now. That large pool, combined with classified racing, has given him the tools necessary to pull this off.

So lesson one is that in order to put together really competitive races a race secretary needs a large supply of horses.
The easiest way for all racing secretaries to have a larger horse population would be to significantly cut down racing dates and the total number of races we card annually.

The last few weeks I’ve focused on horses that raced 40 or more times in 2012. Perhaps there’s an element of pride when we try to compare our horses that can race so often with those more fragile thoroughbreds that average a fraction of that number annually. But while racing 40 or more times works financially for owners, trainers and drivers, it all too often is the reason why these same horses go off at odds of 40-1.

It’s somewhat ironic that those capitalists who complain with regularity about socialism are the same culprits who would willingly accept the “spread the wealth” mentality currently in place at “slot-infused” tracks.

The reality about betting on harness racing is that less racing should provide more quality as well as increase the percentage of competitive races. Yet horsemen throughout are widely opposed to any shortening of the racing season. They consistently argue that this is a potential evil thrust upon them by track management as a slow means of getting rid of them entirely. The problem with this theory is that by its very nature the horsemen are ignoring a sound means of improving the product.

Reducing the number of racing opportunities goes a long way towards creating more meaningful races every time a horse hits the racetrack. In other words, it would put standardbred racing more in line with thoroughbreds and give bettors the higher expectation that each horse needs to win, something they truly understand and deserve.

There are many differences between thoroughbred races and harness races that are beyond anyone’s power to change. However, thoroughbred race secretaries can write conditions and create more competitive races on a daily basis. Those condition books assure fans that they won’t be seeing the exact same horses or same races every week. It is essential to creating a more dynamic product.

We can kick the can down the road, or perhaps finally accept a compromise so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy this sport someday.