04/23/2014 5:21PM

Marks: Harness needs a TV plan

Deuce Photo
The Hambletonian is broadcast on TV, but according to Bob Marks, it is a tough sell because casual fans don't know the horses.

Lately there has been considerable banter over the feasibility of broadcasting major races on a cable sports network.  And, should such an undertaking occur, how could it be funded and is it actually worthwhile doing so?

In that harness racing is no longer an on-track exclusive, it would seem logical to get it “out there”—wherever out there happens to be.

Given the recent announcement about expanded Breeders Cup Thoroughbred coverage via NBC, I’d imagine the crescendo of harness rebuttal chatter will be deafening, especially on social media.

Therein lies a basic differential between, say, broadcasting a Kentucky Derby versus a Hambletonian. The Thoroughbreds have always managed to get the stepping stone races to the Derby, ala the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, etc. on the air. Therefore, by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around, TV America is familiar with the leading contenders.

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Conversely, we’ll broadcast The Hambletonian and other than the industry related or simulcast patrons, few know the top contenders.

Of course harness racing has been on TV before. I can recall a Saturday night at Yonkers Raceway program during the 1960’s hosted by the legendary Marty Glickman on what I believe was WPIX Channel 11.  What the viewership was, I don’t know, but that was during the era when 35,000 on-track attendees was the norm for a Yonkers or Roosevelt Saturday night.

After New York Mayor John Lindsay’s OTB came to being, which predictably lured people away from the tracks, it was decided to bring harness racing back to the living room via the OTB Night at the Races program from Yonkers and Roosevelt hosted by Stan Bergstein and Spencer Ross.  That program aired for many years.

In the late-90s, the American Harness Championship series was aired on ESPN. That was the brainchild of thoroughbred promoter Barry Weisbord, who felt that “harness racing could become the sport of the MTV generation”.  Whether we actually gained any MTV converts is open to discussion, but that’s for another forum. Suffice it to say, when the initial program featured 2-year-old Pennsylvania Sire Stakes trotting fillies, the expected happened.  Predictably, about half of each televised racing field made breaks which did not make for compelling viewing.

And therein is a basic reality. Being on television is fine but what is being aired must be impeccable.

Some years ago, two promotional geniuses named Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon had an idea for a football program featuring extreme camera angles, half naked cheerleaders, and whatever extravagant hoopla they could think of. It was called the XFL and was featured on a major network. It did not succeed.  There’s probably a thousand reasons why it failed, but one obvious biggie was that after all the trimmings were exercised, what remained was sub-par football.         

I know it’s a pipe dream, but I’ve long felt Harness Racing needs its own channel rather than just piggybacking on predominantly Thoroughbred channels like TVG and HRTV. Whether or not there’s sufficient audience for such a thing is another matter entirely, but the way we’re doing it does leave much to be desired.

Regardless of actual race significance, the harness feed is often relegated to tape delay behind what may seem to be inconsequential Thoroughbred races. However, in terms of actual handle those t-bred races generate, it’s understandable why those networks choose not to feature our races. Unfortunately that practice doesn’t help harness all that much and one wonders how many harness races wind up missed during what can be multiple minutes before airing.

Of course we don’t help ourselves all that much either, with our agonizing screens flashing 0 minutes to post, which often encompass between five and 10 minutes until the race actually gets off.

Then of course there’s the problem with overlapping races going off simultaneously, which would be fine if viewership were confined to the on-track attendance. However, this is the simulcast era and most races are viewed off-track, either in parlors or the increasingly popular internet streaming via desktop, laptop, tablet, and even smartphone. Thus the need for some kind of synchronization seems necessary.

Of course a harness racing channel alone will not solve many of these above listed problems unless there is some degree of cooperation between the tracks. And that, too, may be a pipedream. Still in all, a channel exclusively devoted to Harness Racing, produced and hosted by acknowledged harness experts, would at least showcase the sport as it needs to be showcased.

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Imagine on Saturday night when there are major races from The Meadowlands, Woodbine, Yonkers, Pocono, etc., and being able to watch each race without switching channels. And listening to authentic commentary from harness experts, rather what is often superficial fluff from Thoroughbred guys doing double duty. In addition, there could be a voice of reason in the control room monitoring post times and perhaps even suggesting that one track go now and another hold for two minutes to avoid the overlapping.

But then I’m getting carried away with this pipedream.

TV or not TV that is the question!

A Case For Coupling

If nothing else, the failure of the people’s horse Foiled Again to perform as expected last Saturday (4/19) underscores the need for coupled entries.

Just imagine the furor that would have occurred had he alone been 1-9 while his uncoupled entry mate Easy Again lollygagged through the second quarter en-route to an easy victory. I have no idea what the odds on Easy Again might have been at post time, but it certainly would not have been five-cents on the dollar.

Regardless of any conclusions, factual or otherwise on the part of the betting public, their rights were protected by what was a common interest entry.