06/25/2014 1:43PM

Gisser: Youth must be served to survive

Ken Weingartner
Keith Gisser feels that the best way to get young people involved is to get them on the track.

I watched a bit of the US Ladies’ Open Golf Championship from Pinehurst #2 last week.  I watched partially because it was Pinehurst and I had written an article about the bucolic town earlier this spring, but mostly to see if the amazing 11-year-old, Lucy Li, could play with the big girls. Turns out she wasn’t quite ready yet. Michelle Wie was ready. She won her first major title at age 24. But she first played in the tournament at 13 and made the cut!

Also in the news last week, Spanish soccer superpower Real Madrid signed 9-year-old Japanese phenom Takuhiro Nakai to a youth contract, something usually reserved for 15- and 16-year-olds. Every day we read about colleges recruiting 8th graders, 7th graders even 6th graders. So where will harness racing get its next generation of fans and participants?

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If you are looking to the next generation of backstretch participants, we will as has been tradition, probably look to the breeding shed. Many of the top names in our sport span generations. Billy Haughton begat Tom and Peter; in the Midwest, Don Irvine Sr. begat Bill, Don Jr. and Janet, who begat Brad and Wyatt. You also have fine harness racing families like the Wrenns, the Waples, the Filions, and on and on. But, just as in the equine breeding shed our sport may become too inbred to survive if all of our talent comes when one trainer’s daughter marries a driver’s son, or vice versa. So what is being done? You are probably thinking not much. If so, you would be wrong.

Primary premise: We need to get kids interested in the sport, not necessarily as participants, but first as fans. From there, we hope that some build enough interest to participate. First goal, get them to the track.

The USTA offers many youth-oriented incentives, including free membership to children under the age of 18, but only a couple hundred kids have taken advantage of this perk.  On their youth home page, http://members.ustrotting.com/youth.cfm#youthmembership, they also remind our youth that at 12 years old, a child is eligible for a matinee driving license, and at age 16 for a qualifying-fair (QF) license.  They also put out the quarterly Youth Beats magazine, which is included in Hoof Beats, but is also available as a stand-alone publication. EVERY race track in the country should have these magazines at their information tables or program stands. The USTA does a good job of providing the information, but everyone in the sport needs to do a better job of letting kids know it is out there.

The racetracks must take a major role in recruiting youth. It is in their own best interest. They need to lure the kids who show up at the races with mom and dad, whether for camel and ostrich races (The Cameltonian was recently raced at The Meadowlands); concerts; family dinners; supervised play areas; or even reptile shows. It is incomprehensible to me that many slot-tracks have become less child-friendly than they were before getting the huge cash infusion that allows them to provide special events to attract the next generation. Many tracks get it right. Scioto Downs is a different place since getting slots, with lots of family-friendly events. The Gural trifecta of tracks runs numerous special events. The partnership between the Meadows and the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association (MSOA) provides numerous opportunities for family entertainment intertwined with the racing experience. Once we get them to the track, we hope the kids watch a few races and then get more and more involved.

For kids who want to participate, there are several high school equine programs available. Lexington Catholic High School offers an Equine Academy, and while it is more pointed to Thoroughbreds, there are Standardbred studies, many in conjunction with the Harness Horse Youth Foundation.  In Delaware, Ohio, there is a Standardbred-specific program run by the Delaware Area Career Center. Headquartered at the home of the Little Brown Jug, this program allows high-schoolers to work hands-on with Standardbreds in a number of aspects. Go to https://www.delawareareacc.org/equine-science for more info. Other programs are also available in New York and Illinois.

Winbak FarmsJeff Fout, Winbak Farm's head trainer, addresses students from the Harness Horse Youth Foundation.

But the best way to get kids interested in a harness racing career is to sit them behind a horse and let them drive. And no organization does that better than the Harness Horse Youth Foundation (full disclosure—I do media and web work for HHYF). That organization’s week-long harness camps (just $150-200 all-inclusive thanks to the foundation’s sponsors) allow youth 12-14 to jog horses every day, as well as learning every aspect of horse care from mucking stalls to harnessing to veterinary care. The camps culminate in a driving exhibition in full colors, starting from behind a mobile starting gate. (Youth are accompanied by licensed drivers and trainers in two-seat jog carts). Details are available at www.hhyf.org.Yet, some HHYF camp spots go unfilled. Part of that may be my fault. But part of it is the sport’s responsibility.

We have shared a number of very good resources to assure the next generation of racing fans and participants will be prepared to take over from those of us who are not quite as young as we used to be. Yet many of these resources are not as well-known as they should be. It is incumbent on all of us – drivers, trainers, handicappers and even pundits to help spread the word. We’ve given you the info. Help get it out. Our sport’s future depends on it. Now go cash.