05/29/2013 9:57AM

Keith Gisser: Grand Circuit not so grand any more

USTA photo
Driver John Campbell is president of the Grand Circuit.

The date was September 20, 1977. Two days later, the great Governor Skipper would win the Little Brown Jug.

On that particular Tuesday, several Grand Circuit races were contested at the Delaware, Ohio, fairgrounds. It was Grand Circuit week at the fair. But that is not why the date is important.

On Sept. 20, 1977, a phrase was created that became imbedded in conversation. On that date, on an episode of the TV show Happy Days, a water-skiing Henry Winkler, aka Arthur Fonzarelli, literally jumped over a shark in the third-part of an outlandish story line that sent Richie (Ron Howard), The Fonz and the rest of the gang to Hollywood.

The phrase “jumping the shark,” came to be used to describe a TV show, or a product, that had outlived its usefulness and lost its edge. And now, unfortunately, 36 years later, the Grand Circuit has donned its water skis and jumped the shark.

I love the Grand Circuit. I have followed it since 1977! I was one of the crazies who attended the Fox Stake and accompanying races at the non-wagering stop at the Indiana State Fairground. I saw the Hambletonian and, later, The World Trotting Derby in Du Quoin. I shook hands with local politicians who continued to speak to me when I told them I was from Ohio during Illinois’ other State Fair, at Springfield, while munching the largest pork tenderloin sandwich (on white bread with a pickle) that I had ever seen. I even detailed that Midwestern run in one of the first harness racing articles I ever wrote back in the early 90s.

And then there was Adios week at The Meadows. The first time I ever rented a hotel room on my own was at the Holiday Inn in Washington, Pa. We looked forward to Adios week the way some people today look forward to Dancing With the Stars - unabashed and without fear of being called odd. It was great racing and we saw the great stars of the sport: Bill Haughton, Stanley Dancer, Delvin Miller. One in particular who stood out was a youngster from Ontario named John Campbell.

Campbell is now the president of the Grand Circuit. He admits the “Roaring Grand” is not what it once was and he is to be applauded for attempting to improve it. As he told www.ustrotting.com, just after Harness Racing Congress VI, “Many of the sport’s top races had not previously been considered as Grand Circuit events. Now, with that distinction we hope to help create better awareness of our top races and provide the tracks with a more promotable product. I recently read an account of Dan Patch’s career and many of the stakes he won held the Grand Circuit designation at tracks now long gone. It added to the excitement of those races. We hope to help recreate some of the enthusiasm of those times in our modern product.”

I agree with some of that, but here is where Mr. Campbell and I must agree to disagree. The Grand Circuit is about history and tradition, as well as being about great racing. The fact that slots-enriched tracks can throw money at a race and have it deemed a grand circuit event is just plain silly. If anything, the Grand Circuit should be cut back to fewer races, giving those races even more prestige. With the expanded stakes schedule, we seldom see the top trainers – they send a second trainer to prep the horse, because they are racing at five different tracks. If we really emphasized the Grand Circuit, with purses supplemented (perhaps by sponsors?) maybe some of those future hall-of-famers would make the trek.

I absolutely applaud the inclusion of top free-for-all races in the Grand Circuit. This is a change that gnaws at me a bit from a historical perspective, but one that makes sense from a marketing standpoint. It ties in with a trend in this sport to try to keep our veteran horses (as longtime Northfield GM Tom Aldrich always told me, don’t call them “aged horses”) racing and can build on their successes at two and three to create true superstars, like we had in the days when the Grand Circuit was grand because of scope, not because it offered 1,000 races.

Looking for a parallel? How about the PGA Tour? Last I checked that was a sport with major national TV coverage every week and that is far healthier than ours. Whenever there has been a push to make the Players Championship or the Tour Championship a major, it has been rejected, under the idea that it would water down the prestige of the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA and the Open Championship (known here as the British Open). Neither tourney has been around long enough, even though they have higher purses than the grand slam events.

Now here is the kicker, the grand slam events don’t even have the strongest fields. Yet, they get more media coverage outside the “normal sports channels” than other events. They have earned their places due to history and the tradition of the tracks (courses) on which they are played. And due to the support from golf fans, who sign up years in advance in the hope (in some cases) simply to get into a lottery for a ticket to a practice round.

Now, instead of emphasizing the true “majors” of our sport, the Grand Circuit becomes a set of everyman stakes. It becomes the NHL. Even NASCAR has suffered since expanding its reach. It is not a true circuit of races (and I grant you it hasn’t really been one for awhile), but rather a bunch of races that just happen to have six figures and a dollar sign in front of the race names. Many of these races will be contested at slots tracks with few people in the grandstand and even fewer at the windows.They are prestigious to the person cashing the winner’s check, but not to racing fans and certainly not to the non-industry media. But they will get the Grand Circuit designation. And with simulcasting ubiquitous and gas near $4 a gallon, the 2 1/2-hour trip to the Adios becomes a 30-minute trip to Northfield to watch a simulcast. And, with multiple stakes scheduled around the same time, the race loses prestige. So now the Little Brown Jug carries the same status, with all due respect, as the Monument Circle. The Hambletonian is no more prestigious than the Zweig. As I said, something needed to be done and the folks in charge should be credited with not standing pat. But this expansion of the Grand Circuit is a bad decision for a sport whose media profile rivals amateur wrestling and table tennis. It is a sign of desperation, a sign that we have no more fresh ideas, a sign that the Grand Circuit has not just “jumped the shark,” but may have fallen off its water skis in the process.

The good news is there is lots of Grand Circuit racing this week. Now go cash. See you next month.