05/01/2014 10:12AM

Gisser: Harness Racing on TV can't hurt


I was sitting at the bar of the Outback Steakhouse in Lumberton, North Carolina, waiting for a table. I was sipping a grossly overpriced Knob Creek on the rocks. $9? Crikey, I paid less than that at the Hyatt Bar in Boston. Oh well. The group to my left was already a few sheets to the wind and the couple to my right seemed to be debating what to drink next when the guy said, “So you’re a tennis player?”

“No, not really,” I replied. “Why?”

“Your shirt. It says USTA. United States Tennis Association,” he said.

Now, the fact that the there was a stylized horse and sulky above the USTA logo should have tipped him off that this was not a tennis shirt, but the natural mellowing agents in the bourbon had begun to take effect, so I simply said, “No, it’s the United States Trotting Association. Harness racing.”

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He thought for a moment and said, “Oh, we saw them once. They pull the carts right? We were on a weekend in Ocean City, Maryland and there was a little track that we went to. It was a lot of fun. I wish they had something like that here.”

I began to pontificate on the great pacer Tar Heel and his North Carolina roots, and on the Pinehurst matinee, when the woman on the other side of my stool blurted out a comment that floored me.

“I know you,” she said. I got a bit nervous, having no idea what she was talking about. “Earlier this month in Pinehurst; at that racing tailgate thing (the matinee). You told us about your summer horse camps (through the Harness Horse Youth Foundation). We have a friend who lives there who had us come up (Pinehurst is a bit more than an hour away). That was a blast.”

What were the odds? A bar in a small North Carolina town and the three people sitting nearest to me had positive harness racing experiences. I share this as the sport considers the concept of televising our races nationally. The reporting on this has been all over the place and I am still not exactly sure what is happening despite reading all the Internet reports.

I DO know that there has been much ado over the USTA Executive Committee voting 13-1 not to help fund the Little Brown Jug’s proposal. When I heard that, I even went as far as to suggest the 13 should all resign. But the facts appear to be that the initial proposal (proposals?) had some holes and once those were filled in with more details, the USTA (rightfully) agreed to help fund at least the Little Brown Jug broadcast, while (apparently) hanging the Meadowlands Pace out to dry.

Long-time gamblers know they can watch races on their computers or on their mobile devices. Newcomers don’t. And while reaching out to those newcomers through broadcast or cable TV may not pay immediate dividends, it will eventually create more fans of the sport.  I have written previously of the several thousand who attend the Pinehurst matinee, in a state with no pari-mutuel wagering. This year, Hawkinsville, Georgia held the Hawkinsville Harness Festival on the same weekend. In another state with no pari-mutuel wagering (yet! But we may be getting close), a few thousand more folks turned out to enjoy fireworks, food and music followed by a harness racing matinee the next day.

Many alleged harness racing fans say it is a waste of time and resources to put these big races, or a series of races on television. I could not disagree more. The vast majority of people in our country don’t even know what harness racing is, let alone having experienced the sport. And therefore, the USTA’s comments about Social Media (rather than going the TV route) as the way to go, bothers me a bit. There are 318,000,000 people in the United States and I wound venture that 300,000,000 of them have never seen a harness race.

I am not sure if the New Meadowlands can accommodate the 25,000 plus that show up on Hambletonan Day and its associated pageantry, but regardless of the exact number, the scene of a packed grandstand and apron, with look-ins at the other Hambo Day festivities, always provide energy to the yearly broadcasts that I believe have (slowly perhaps) engaged the casual observer. And that should work similarly with the Little Brown Jug, as long as they don’t call it the Fazoli’s Little Brown Jug. The Little Brown Jug presented by Fazoli’s sounds pretty good. Imagine the TV viewer seeing tens of thousands (maybe not 50,000, but thousands) of fans at a county fair, watching the best three-year-olds in the sport.

A quick note about Fazoli’s, whose boss man Carl Howard has become a fan and harness horse owner, and who has stepped up to support this television initiative. The first time I ate at one of these places, on the Indiana Toll Road, it was awful; so bad I did not go back for several years. And when I did, they had redone the menu and created a much better dining experience. It coincided with Howard taking over. And Fazoli’s has continued to change with the times, both altering its physical presence and appearance and its menu. It seems Carl Howard has the right idea for his restaurants. And now, he is trying to carry that philosophy over to harness racing.

Consider the 300,000,000 people who have never seen a harness race live. If this TV initiative, whatever form it eventually takes, can reach 1% of those people, and 1% of those people become players, we have added 30,000 new horseplayers to the business. And that’s not counting the three we could probably pull out of the Outback Steakhouse bar in Lumberton, North Carolina. Now go cash.