12/22/2015 2:18PM

Gisser: Harness Racing needs ability to mobilize


My DRF colleague Jay Bergman certainly stirred the pot with his Donald Trump column (http://www.drf.com/news/bergman-harness-racing-can-learn-something-donald-trump) last week. Agree or disagree Trump is a polarizing, but interesting figure in American politics. But whether he wins the Presidency or becomes a footnote, the Trump discussion – indeed the entire Presidential discussion – will be very important to those of us involved in racing, whether as horse owners, handicappers and gamblers, or just as fans of the sport.

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With the withdrawal of Lincoln Chafee, who had no shot of winning anyhow, we really have NO candidate who supports racing rights strongly. But it really does not matter. The old adage that “all politics is local” fits here. Realistically, the person in the White House will not affect racing policy positively or negatively. But our local representatives—councilmen, state senators, congressmen or U.S. senators—might. So we need to make a point to let them know we support racing when legislation is pending. This can be done face-to-face, through letter-writing and perhaps most importantly, via social media. While we have not needed an all-out mobilization in our sport, it is an area where we are ill-prepared. Outreach to leadership, media, and the public at large is critical when the naysayers come for us.

As many of you know, I no longer make my living exclusively in the harness racing business, but split my business between racing and reptiles. While the United States Trotting Association (USTA) has about 17,000 paid members, its Facebook page has about 13,000 likes. The closest analogy in the reptile business, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) has about 2,000 members but has over 70,000 likes to its Facebook page. Thus, when a political issue impacts the reptile keeper or reptile business, USARK can immediately activate a huge group of people to take action. The simple fact is that as we head into 2016, social media, not websites, are the key online information source for most people. Both organizations I run websites for get far more hits on their Facebook pages than their sites.

This is not to question the USTA’s online presence or its priorities. Their social media presence is improving, and with young staffers like Allison Conte on the beat they should continue to improve. We cannot bemoan a slowness to embrace this phenomenon. The USTA is there now. But if it becomes necessary, can our sport mobilize quickly? I think the answer is no.

When a local politician gets thousands (or sometimes just dozens) of e-mails on a subject, he takes notice. Even the White House has an online petition process (petitions.whitehouse.gov). And while we have been fortunate that there have not been any life-shattering National issues in our sport lately, we have seen moves at the state level (plundering slot-enriched purses for other purposes being an obvious one) that called out for mobilization. Yet we failed to even activate, let alone succeed.

When the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved to expand its listing (under the Lacey Act) of several additional species of large snakes as injurious wildlife a couple years back, they were inundated with tens of thousands of comments, spurred by the reptile lobby, calling itself Reptile Nation, taking action. And, as a result, USFWS chose not to list the Boa Constrictor, one of the most popular pet constricting snakes, as injurious. Can Harness Nation mobilize that effectively and quickly when we face a threat?

We need an action network in place. And when anti-racing legislation, or even anti-equine welfare laws, are proposed, we need to trigger that network and let the politicians know that we will not stand for it. Having testified several times before the Ohio Legislature and various rule-making committees regarding reptile legislation, I can vouch for this. Sometimes we get rules changed.  At the very least, politicians make a few calls before offering overly restrictive amendments or laws. Think it doesn’t work? Ask the National Rifle Association.

Some of you may say reptiles are to horses as apples are to oranges. But we both face the same common threat and it will be the biggest threat to both reptile ownership and horse racing that we will ever see. It will come from animal rights activists (for the record, there is a huge difference between animal rights and animal welfare, which would take too long to explain here) funded by wealthy groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Humane Society of the United States. These organizations want to end all human ownership of animals. I could rant for a long time about both, but suffice to say the salary of Wayne Pacelle, the head of HSUS,  is more than triple that of the USTA’s Executive Vice President Mike Tanner and USARK’s leader Phil Goss, combined. And Mike Tanner has probably saved more animal’s lives than Wayne Pacelle.

So, whoever ends up being our next President, do your research. Get to know your city councilman, your mayor, your State Rep and your Congressman. Like the USTA’s Facebook page. Make yourself available to help the sport we love. Let’s hope you are never needed, but if you are, be available. Our future may depend on it. Merry Christmas. Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. Now go cash. See you next month.

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