11/10/2015 12:02PM

Giwner: A new harness racing message

Derick Giwner

Back in July when the USTA conducted a summit dealing with the declining foal crops and attracting new owners, an idea popped into my head. With the stakes season in full flight and my mind perhaps elsewhere leading up to the Meadowlands Pace, I made a note to write something in the future.

There is no denying that harness racing has a perception issue. The public either views the sport as full of unsavory characters or just doesn’t know it exists, and changing people’s minds or becoming relevant is far from easy.

While I’m far from the No. 1 cheerleader for the Harness Racing Fan Zone, much of what they have done is along the lines of creating awareness and a positive image, and that is a good thing. But perhaps we need to push harder and shove the message right in the face of those that don’t believe or aren’t aware of the wonderful sport of standardbred racing.

[DRF HARNESS LIVE: Real-time insights every Saturday night. Meadowlands returns this weekend! Coverage starts at 6:50 p.m.]

We hear time and time again how highlighting our major events on television (cable or broadcast) is of paramount importance. I can agree as far as the Hambletonian since it has some “name” appeal, but does showing major races really sway people that harness racing is worth trying or change their minds if they had a negative view of the sport?

Instead, let’s produce the message we want people to see rather than the visual reality. I love the horses, but if we are going to sell the sport it is going to be through a personal connection, almost a plea to the audience that our sport is worth their time and attention.

Let’s get the drivers, trainers, owners and their families into the winner’s circle at a track to shoot a commercial. Let’s get the Yannick Gingras family, Jason Bartlett family, David Miller Family, John Campbell family, Ron Burke Family, Brian Brown Family, Joe Bellino family, etc.

And here is what they say:

Trainer: “We spend our days and nights at the track participating in the sport we love.”

Driver: “We are the people you see at the local store. Our kids go to school with your kids.”

Owner: “Whether as an owner or fan, there has never been a better time to experience harness racing.”

Driver: “We invite you to visit your local standardbred track to experience the thrill of harness racing.”

Everyone together: “It’s a great ride!”

I think we can get the above done in a 15-second spot, though I’m certainly not opposed to expanding it to 30 seconds. Obviously there would have to be a destination webpage created by the USTA so people can easily find their local track.

I recall something written by USTA President Phil Langley in 2014 that said the cost to produce a one hour show for a major racing event was $115,000. I just don’t see how that $115k is well spent on a one hour cable show that is likely to produce a small audience. I’m looking for quality of message over quantity.

Give me 15-30 seconds on a major primetime show where I’m reaching the people we need to transform into new fans. According to a quick Google search, it would cost $344,827 to place a 30-second spot on the most expensive show on network TV—“The Big Bang Theory”.  That is a lot of money, no doubt. But it seems like a small number when compared to the $382,494,725 (as of Nov. 8) paid out in purse money this year. Certainly we could run 10 commercials a year and everyone would survive with $379,046,455 in purse money. And I’m not saying that track ownership, breeding farms and others couldn’t lend a hand to eat some of the costs.

From my perspective, it is time to stop promoting only the obvious (racing) and start crafting a message that people can relate to on a personal level.


EdwardPDeRosa More than 1 year ago
This idea is definitely on the right track for sure. The more potential fans know about the dedicated people in the game the more chance we have to convert them to fans that would attend our Harness Races. We should really thank Yonkers Raceway for spreading the word to places like France. Harness Racing has so many stars that would provide great marketing opportunities. Go HARNESS
Jack More than 1 year ago
Thanks to simulcasting and online wagering, I can view and bet on harness racing in places like here in Texas where for decades I was hundreds of miles away from standardbred racing. That said, today's 18 percent takeout and the proliferation of odds-on favorites makes it impossible, at least for me, to grind out a profit like I did in the 1960s.I love the sport and nothing is better than a day during Grand Circuit racing at Delaware or Lexington. But I cannot support the mutuels under present conditions.
Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
Agree. the 25% take-outs are criminal.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
I've been a horse player for 30 years. I've been playing harness racing solidly for the last 15. The appeal to me lies in two areas. 1. You don't need to be a socialite to be a top dog in harness racing. 2. More importantly, the best standardbreds race a heck of a lot more frequently than the best thoroughbreds. And since the best horses perform truer to form than cheap horses, that makes my money easier to bet. It is a marketing problem. Buy the time on TV and promote the stars. That's what bring people out to any stadium in every sport.
Alan Gatto More than 1 year ago
Blaine: I work at Monmouth Park every summer. Monmouth draws very big crowds without the jockey colony in NY. It does so by allowing people to bring in beer, soda and food into the picnic area. However, NJ has been slow to allow slots into the tracks which has hurt both harness and flat racing. Yonkers offers spectacular purses with big named drivers and their handle is horrible. There was an interesting article recently how you lose money playing Sears and Bartlett when you play their 2/5 shots. The Meadowlands handle is much higher than Yonkers even though the caliber of horses is quite a bit less. No one wants to play 1/5 favorites in a race. The tracks like Pocono Downs are doing very well due to slots, as is NY tracks.
Alan Gatto More than 1 year ago
If you look at Harness Racing Updates you will notice purses and handle are up nicely due to widespread simulcasting and slots action. New Jersey racing has floundered because of foolish decisions by politicians for many years. The belief that people could be forced to travel to Atlantic City is delusional.
Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
Interesting column Derick as always but Let me tell you about my personal experience; i have been betting Yonkers & Meadowlands for almost 40 years. I started out as a $50 a race win bettor & gradually drifted over to the exotics. Lately, I rarely bet more than $10 a race, especially at Yonkers, because of the arbitrary moves by trainers & drivers. By this I mean horses who look good on paper & yet can't run a step when the real racing begins; or drivers who refuse to leave the rail and have no desire to put in a decent effort. Think about it. $10 today is probably worth about about $1 40 years ago so I've basically gone from a $50 bettor to a $1 bettor and it's strictly due to the day to day product. I'm not going to dwell on the negative as I usually do but I just want to say that after 40 years of being a loyal harness bettor, I have given it up. It's been about a month since I've made a harness bet; I've drifted over to the flats. Breeder's Cup day at Keenland was like nothing harness racing can produce. I'm not saying I will never come back, but if the "sport" is losing folks like me, then there are real problems. Perception? Reality? I don't know? I think it's both. Without the casinos harness racing would be DOA.
Derick More than 1 year ago
Joel - The point you are making is that the product is not up to par and that is a completely different discussion. There are plenty of things that are frustrating about harness racing, but I can say that about many industries. I feel like a broken record, but the industry needs to work together as a whole to make any meaningful change.
Joel Weiner More than 1 year ago
Derick: first let me say that the actual pure sport of harness racing is a beautiful thing. With that said and to rattle off a few cliches, you cant put lipstick on a pig & the fish rots from the head down. Stressing the positive and marketing these wonderful horses is not sufficient. You can't cover up the corrupt element in this game by having drivers and 25% win trainers smiling in the winners circle holding hands singing Cumbia. There are too many problems here and they should be addressed and not put in the background. As for Phil Langley, he has been there for a dozen years and what the heck has he done? There wouldn't be any professionals in harness racing if it weren't for the casinos. Phil Langley represents the status-quo which in this instant is completely unacceptable. The structure of this game should be completely gutted and new rules & regulations should be put in place. The most important thing is to have legitimate honest discussions involving people in the know like yourself as to how to correct the obvious deficiencies in this game and then to do something about it. I am not the pro here and I can only give you the opinion of a 40 year loyal player who has watched harness racing being run into the ground. I don't have to tell you about Roosevelt Raceway drawing 40,000 people on a Saturday night. Google "breeders cup" and you won't see anything re: harness racing. It's all flats. All I'm saying is that there needs to be a radical change and promotion is not the answer.