02/06/2018 11:29PM

Marks: Harness racing is a sport filled with conflicts


Many of those who remember what racing used to be during its golden years are probably too old and too tired to offer any more than lip service to any attempt to restore the grand old sport to its former stature.

That is, of course, if it is remotely possible.

Many of those who’ve grown up in the sport over the last quarter century are accustomed to empty grandstands and subsidization, and may even feel a sense of entitlement to that slot revenue.

Yes, the purses are excellent in many cases, which can be borne out by the yearling sales and mixed racing sales market, which in recent years has undergone a considerable renaissance.  Some people are spending money and obviously thriving in the harness racing business.

However, unless one’s head is buried in the sand, ostrich like, one knows that tracks without slot revenues would cease to exist almost immediately.

Other than The Meadowlands and the two main Ontario tracks, betting handle is almost non-existent and the grandstand seats are seldom filled. And yet we go on as if it will never end.  But then again, there really isn’t much choice here as the former fans are long gone and their descendants are generally oblivious to their forefather’s passions.

So what’s the answer?

I’m not sure there is one!

We can certainly examine the product to try and ascertain what works and what doesn’t.

Of course, the different factions that make up the product tend to be at different ends of the spectrum, with each offering a plausible rationalization for their viewpoint.

We could revive some things popular in the past, like keeping horses around longer . . . a true Triple Crown . . . a Breeders Crown that replicates the Breeders’ Cup in which the elite 3-year-olds get to truly test their elders. Things like that. How that would go over in today’s climate is anybody’s guess.

The true racing fan may enjoy what could be called championship racing in which the best of existing generations gather to compete.  Of course, the owners of those “champions” might not agree, having spent so much money to achieve superior status, knowing full well that less than stellar performances could decrease that value.

When we move on to catch-drivers, we see a similar disconnect. Drivers, while independent contractors, have multiple bosses.  Boss number one is the bettor, who feels that whoever drives the horse he bet on is working strictly for him. Thus anything less than an all-out effort to win this particular race is not only unethical but downright criminal.

The trainer may feel that this particular race is just one of a sequence of races throughout the season, thus it’s advisable for the catch-driver to return with enough horse not to interrupt that progression. That’s not sport, it’s business.

The owner may or may not even know how much “horse” he actually has but is undoubtedly cognizant of the numbers on the bill he receives each month. If he was told “we can win tonight” and puts his money down, his sympathies may lie with the bettor for that one race. If he’s told this race is a prelude to the bigger money down the road, he will then desire the driver to return with “horse” remaining. Thus depending on the situation, he can be somewhat conflicted.

And therein is the dilemma, although the current harness racing reality deems it less significant as we go on. There is but minimal betting handle. Thus by satisfying only the bettors you’re satisfying a dwindling few. Like It or not, that is a business reality.

There is a decreased independent ownership pool as existing owners have turned to partnerships in which one individual may have pieces of multiple horses with multiple trainers. This too has become business reality.

To the outside world it must look like everybody is in cahoots with everybody else. In some ways this is true and in other ways maybe not so much, depending on who is actually in charge.  But in that appearances often supersede reality, it looks like we’re all together. That is not good sport, at least to the outside world.

In that we’re now entrenched into this partnership world, I’m not sure there is an alternative. And that in essence, that is the dilemma!

Good for the sport or good for the business? Good question.