02/28/2016 12:55AM

Zoccali: Harness racing needs to act now or go home

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To separate, disengage or dissociate (something) from something else; that is the definition of decoupling.

Over the past month, decoupling has become a term that most, if not everyone in the harness racing industry has entered into their favorite search engine.  The state of Florida and what Pompano Park is facing has brought the issue to our doorstep.  The threat of racetracks losing revenue from casino and/or slot machines to fund operations and purses has become a reality.  Unfortunately, the reality of this concept has not only been a likely scenario, but an imminent one for some time.

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Objectively, the argument for racing, harness racing in particular, to justifiably lay claim to their share of casino subsidies has weakened with each passing year.  The subsidies have swelled purse structures to record levels with virtually no impact on wagering handle.  The notion that “handle will increase if a racetrack runs races for more money” has been proven false.  The sport is non-existent in the eyes of the national media, with the exception of one race, the Hambletonian, which was one of only two harness races (Little Brown Jug was the other) to be televised on a national network in 2015.  Lastly, harness racing has fewer owners, fewer members belonging to its organizations, like the United States Trotting Association, and foals are being born at a lesser rate than any of the previous 20 years.  Something doesn’t add up.  Purses are at record levels, yet we don’t have enough horses or enough owners. It makes no sense.  When business doesn’t make sense, change is necessary.

While there are many good people and important jobs connected to the industry, and while open space in many states is directly connected to the harness racing industry, that argument just doesn’t stack up in states where teachers, police officers and firefighters are being laid off, or paid less than they should.  (For full disclosure, I work in racing and my wife is a teacher, so I see both sides).  Billions of dollars in casino revenue have poured into the harness racing industry and the sport is no better off than it was a decade ago.  It was only a matter of time before someone stood up and declared, “instead of pouring this money into a stagnant, if not declining business, why can’t we do something better with it?”  It’s hard for the harness racing industry to repeatedly ask for this help, when it has not been helping itself.

For 10 years, harness racing has had opportunity upon opportunity to improve itself as an industry and it hasn’t.  Marketing has been virtually non-existent.  A national television presence has been dismissed as unnecessary.  If the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, what does that make the harness racing industry over the past decade?

It has come as no surprise to me that this reality is now at the doorstep of an industry that quite frankly is reeling.  It has been a reality that I have feared for some time now.  The most troubling aspect is, once Florida is successful in decoupling, it will create a precedent.  That is all the other states will need to follow suit.  Over the next few years, money will be siphoned away from the purse accounts of harness tracks all over the country and put towards issues that will be considered more important, like education, security, investing in the state’s future, its own economy, etc.

If the industry does nothing, the future is inevitable and it is a bleak future at that.  The time has come (if not passed) to try bold and innovative ideas to try and help the industry support itself.  For starters, I would suggest reading my first column regarding takeout rates.  From there, money from casino revenue has to be put aside now, for the future, for marketing, and yes, for future purses.  The cost of what this industry will look like in five years will be far greater than an Open Trot racing for $37,000 instead of $40,000 next week.  How it is possible, that from the billions of dollars that have flowed through harness racing from casino subsidies, there is not a nest egg for the years to come, is inexplicable.  It’s a company without a 10-year or even a five-year plan, it’s a person without a retirement plan . . . it’s game over.

At this point you may be saying that hindsight is 20/20.  Of course it is, but when racing began receiving revenue from other forms of gaming, did they think that was a blank check for life?  Where is the future investment?  Harness racing was holding a Powerball ticket.  Instead of investing a percentage of it, guaranteeing interest for the future, they cashed the ticket and spent the money like it was burning holes in the pockets of the industry.  If you took a poll of 1,000 people in the harness racing industry today and asked them now if they think it would have been a good idea for every racetrack to put aside five percent of the casino revenue they received each year for a rainy day, how many of the 1,000 do you think would say yes?  Would it really have taken that much foresight to implement such a plan?  Is this not what every day Americans do with their own careers, invest in their future?  Where is harness racing’s 401k, Roth-Ira or even its savings account?  They don’t exist. All harness racing has is a zero-interest checking account.

If harness racing continues with the status quo, it is nothing short of a white flag of surrender.  The potential is still there, because the most basic of ideas that will be effective have never been implemented.  “This is how we’ve always done it,” has long been a losing proposition in this industry.  It’s time to realize this and accept it as fact.

The good news is that handle on harness racing has remained relatively stagnant.  Potential still exists and potential is everything in business.  If you coach a little league baseball team and you have two players who each run to first base in the same exact time, but one player has perfect form while the other has terrible form, which would you pick?  The answer is you pick the player with terrible form, because the one with perfect form won’t get any faster, while the other still has potential.  Harness racing has had terrible form for some time, but it’s been getting to first base in the same amount of time the last 10 years.  It is time to act upon and realize it’s potential.  Or, we can all just go home.