01/08/2014 6:45PM

Keith Gisser: Taking the temperature of the Harness world

Scioto Downs could be a track that is moving forward in 2014.

In the series finale of Aaron Sorkin’s iconic sitcom, Sports Night, a series in which Josh Charles, as Dan Rydell, continually calls poker, rather than horse racing, the King of Sports and is constantly corrected by the entire crew, the show’s network (CSC) is on the verge of being sold to one of two companies after several others have dropped out of the intense bidding war. Everyone at CSC is on edge, working through the uncertainty of whether they will have jobs the next day, or whether there will still be a network, let alone a show. A character billed as “The Stranger” tells Dana (Felicity Huffman) that he is a phenomenally successful man but that he has failed far more often than he has succeeded and he gives her this advice: “Each time I fail, I get my people together and I ask ‘Where are we going’, and it starts to get better.” It takes awhile, but Dana finally figures it out. Watch it (it’s edited and only about 6 minutes): www.youtube.com/watch?v=quzP4d95rws. Then come back here.

So, as we look at our sport in 2014, Quo Vadimus? Where are we going? Well, some organizations are going forward, others are going backward and some are simply Status Quo.

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No single racing venue in North America is going forward more impressively than the Meadowlands. The new facility has garnered rave reviews and I look forward to getting there this year. Handle is up and the racing has been generally competitive. I am not a personal fan of ABC racing, but it is clear, based on handle numbers, that it works. We will have to wait for a good weather meet to see if the Big M can regain its lost glory, but with a young, aggressive and pro-active management team in place, my guts says it will. And, when they make the Meadowlands rebirth movie, GM Jason Settlemoir could be played by his doppelganger, Joshua Malina (who played Jeremy Goodwin on Sports Night). But that is strictly coincidental.

Another group going forward is the Free-For-All Pacing division. They had a great 2013 and 2014 shapes up even better. Yes, I admit it, I was wrong and Jeff Gural was right. The “race at four requirement” has been, and will continue to be, a boon to the sport.  There was more excitement in the Open Pacing division than we have seen in years and that excitement was generated both on the track and in social media. Foiled Again was not directly affected by this rule, although his battle with Captaintreacherous in the TVG Pace at The Meadowlands in late November garnered huge buzz.  The match-ups between Pet Rock and A Rocknroll Dance in the fall were simply fun to watch . . . and on and on. For the first time in years, there were enough quality horses around to fill the expanding number of races available to them. I am really looking forward to seeing Captaintreacherous, Vegas Vacation and other newcomers to the ranks try to stake their claim in the division—week in, week out—with the Foiled Agains of the world.

Our final mention of harness racing going forward goes to racing in the state of Ohio, except as noted below. Scioto Downs just finished its best year in a long, long time. Several visits there in 2013 confirmed that attendance was up and so was the energy created by a well-designed interface between the slots facility and the racetrack. With Scioto and the two new tracks that are scheduled to open in 2014 (one in the Youngstown area, one in the Dayton area), all racing limited dates as a circuit,  slots income should continue to send purses soaring, putting most of Ohio on a level with Pennsylvania and New York. Ohio horsemen have been hungry for a long time. I am glad to see them going forward.

I am not sure if the Ontario Racing Scene deserves a status quo or a going backward designation. Whichever it is, it is clearly not the fault of the horsemen who have been vocal and proactive, but of the politicians, many of whom seem to come from the Rob Ford School, but with less common sense, poise and charm than the mayor. Having said that, it at least seems that there is some positive movement and that at least some Ontario politicians realize they screwed up, so until they get their act together, I fear one of the great racing circuits will just be treading water in 2014. Hence, status quo.

If most of Ontario’s politicians have less couth than Rob Ford, at least they have more than most of the politicos in Illinois. It seems like there is an annual regression in the Land of Lincoln, with horse racing being barely an afterthought, despite the millions in taxes that the sport generates for the state. The state government can barely get out of its own way when it comes to racing. It’s a shame, too, because the Chicago circuit of Maywood and Balmoral Parks, alternating race days, is a boon to horsemen and to handicappers, since the circuit offers both mile-track and half-mile track racing.

Nowhere are things going backwards faster than they are in Michigan. A state that once had half-a-dozen racetracks is now down to just a couple and they may each race fewer races in 2014 than a certain fair in central Ohio. The worst part is that this situation almost seemed to jump out from nowhere, at least for a non-Michigander. Maybe I was not paying attention, but it seems that things are moving fast and that they are moving in the wrong direction. I have always supported Michigan racing and I hope there is change of direction soon.

Northfield Park, my old stomping grounds, also gets a going backwards call from me, although it may be a controversial one. Northfield will race 200+ days yet again in 2014 and will be a major player in the winter, when competition is light. But with that schedule, even if the Rocksino (I really did think the Rocksino was where Fred and Barney took Wilma and Betty to gamble) is wildly successful, there will be less slots money to subsidize purses per race, meaning when the other Ohio tracks are operating, Northfield purses may be 50-70% of what those tracks can offer. Finally, I am not quite sure how a track that trumpets its commitment to live racing can choose not to race most weekends.  The “race a lot and find a good simulcast slot” philosophy was very valid when it was a simulcast-only world, but I am not sure it is the best idea in the slots-era. I love the track and I hope I am wrong on this one.

And what about you? Whether you are a gambler, an active participant on the business side or a fan, Quo Vadimus? Now go cash.