07/15/2015 4:57PM

Marks: Final thoughts from USTA Summit

Owner/trainer Mark Ford was outspoken about cheaters in the sport.

What was supposed to be a meeting of the minds to focus on two specific areas of concern at the USTA Summit in Columbus, Ohio on Monday—they being the declining foal crop numbers and the recruitment of new owners—turned out to be diverse discussions on a variety of different topics.

The session was long, running over eight hours and including commentary from 40 different individuals representing all facets of the harness industry—breeders, owners, racetrack officials, and key USTA personnel.

While the session tended to meander from topic to topic, there was close to a unanimous agreement on two issues. One being that the existing purse structure needs to be revamped in order to increase opportunities for younger horses. The other being that more time, effort, and money needs to be allocated toward the recruitment of new owners, though there were no specific ideas on how to go about it. 

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There was discussion about the declining foal crop, but the prevailing sentiment seemed to focus on the economic realities. With the average auction price for yearlings in the vicinity of $21,000 matching the approximate $20,000 expenditure needed to get the foal from conception to the auction ring, there is scant room left for any profit. Therefore, there was talk, but no solutions.   

Owner/Racing Manager Myron Bell pinpointed the expenditures involved in the purchase, training and staking of yearlings, and how purchasers need increased opportunities to recoup some of that money. There was no dissent to his comments.

We added that it seemed absurd for cheap claimers to race for purses approximating 80% percent or more of their listed values while that $40,000 yearling purchase that is not quite stakes-caliber often races for but a fraction of what its owner now has into him. That is assuming he’s stabled in the same state in which his sire stands, as almost all overnights for young horses are written with a preference for those sired in that state.

Then trainer Mark Ford dropped a bombshell, suggesting that “honest owners were fleeing (the game) because they were tired of losing to cheaters”.  He also opined that, “people don’t want to get into the business because of what’s going on”.  He indicated he’s “spent more than $1 million buying race horses and that it’s no longer fun and I don’t want to do it anymore”.

He stressed that this is an issue in dire need of addressing.

I’ve had this discussion frequently with trainers over the years, but I believe this is the first time a prominent trainer and training center owner used a public forum to vent his frustrations.  When you think about it, Mr. Ford may have inadvertently opened a very significant door.

It has long been more than mere speculation that certain unscrupulous things do occur on backstretches and training centers, but rather than talk about it, the subject is whispered and hushed up.  This is very similar to the famed blue wall of silence in which police officers seldom if ever rat out one of their brethren regardless of what they may think is happening. After all, it seems imbedded in contemporary humanity that “ratting” is bad and nobody wants to be labeled a “rat”.

However, in this anti terrorist age, a new concept seems to be occurring given the prevailing slogan, “If you see something, say something” to those in authority.

That said, why can’t this philosophy be applied to harness racing? If one has information but says nothing, isn’t that in effect condoning whatever may be occurring? It would certainly seem so!

Your move, Mark!  Name names!

Hanover’s Murray Brown then cited the post time drag and mega race cards that prevail at many racetracks—in particular the 16-race cards often staged at The Meadows—as being counter-productive to product presentation.

No one disagreed.

In fact, there seemed to be universal objection amongst the attendees to that post time drag in which the screen flashes 0 minutes to post but the actual race may not start for five or more minutes thereafter. Racetrack mutuel managers counter that the time drag increases handle, but given the anemic handle at so many “Racino” tracks, one wonders about the overall significance to this drag.

In addition, one also has to wonder how many races simply go unwatched when bored spectators switch to channels in which a race is actually underway.

Dean Towers, columnist for Harness Racing Update, mentioned watching Pocono Downs on TVG on one of the rare nights the network actually features harness racing.  In his insightful “Pull The Pocket” blog, Dean cited the drag to be eight full tedious minutes.

A fair amount of discussion also included eliminating the sometimes exasperating elimination races for the major events. This idea fell under the rationale that they are often poor betting races in that drivers are in effect saving energy for the lucrative final.

We offered that printing disclaimers in the program advising that horses in elimination races may be seeking to qualify for next week’s final rather than go all out to win this specific race might alleviate this confusing scenario.  In other words, “bet at your own risk”.

While no one wants to be in a position of dissuading wagering, it would appear that it is preferable to money being wasted on horses seeking to qualify, not necessarily win!

Jason Settlemoir of the The Meadowlands advocated allocating some of the $5-$6 billion the industry has received from Casino supplements towards a marketing program. He said, “We’re kidding ourselves about our future unless we make a significant marketing investment necessary to save the sport”.

In all, a diversity of topics and opinions were discussed and many were dismissed as unimportant. Still, the majority consensus focused on these significant points:

1) Need to address the purse structure

2) Need to recruit new owners

3) Marketing the product is important

Despite the discussion, no brainstorms on how to implement the above were finalized.