06/27/2016 8:39PM

Zoccali: Harness Racing still has potential

Most Happy Fella leads the field home in front of a huge crowd back in the "heyday" of racing.

“Too bad, you missed the heyday of racing.” 

If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that in the last 10 years or so.  I can never tell if the person expressing that sentiment is genuine in what they are saying or if they are boasting that they did experience some of the best years of racing, and I didn’t, according to them.

But like anything else, “the best years of racing,” is a relative concept.  For certain, the massive crowds that used to be seen at tracks like Roosevelt Raceway or the early years of The Meadowlands are now just a distant memory.  But, if you think about it, aside from the fact that we aren’t seeing nearly as many people at the racetracks as we used to, what else about the modern racing product is so much worse-off than that of 50, 60 or 70 years ago?

[POCONO: Watch the Ben Franklin Showdown + entire Sun Stakes card from Pocono--Live on DRF Saturday!]

For the first several generations of racing fans, if you wanted to bet on a horse race, you had to go to the racetrack.  Many people will argue, this is when racing was at its finest as a spectator sport.  If you view racing as a spectator sport, then you cannot argue with this notion.  After all, in the early days of The Meadowlands, the Meadowlands Pace was contested during the week, the first edition was held on a Tuesday night and the next two editions on Thursday night.  The thinking was that the crowd on a Saturday night already fills the grandstand to the rafters, so why not increase attendance and handle on a night that normally wouldn’t see that type of crowd.  In fact, many people forget that the Meadowlands Pace was not contested on a Saturday night until 1993.  But I contend that racing is not a spectator sport, it is a sport centered on gambling, since it is the gambling dollars that drive the direction of the industry.

If you believe in my thinking, that horse racing is a gambling sport first and a spectator sport second, then you can argue that the best years of racing were not generations ago.  If you are an avid horseplayer, only for the past 25-30 years or so could a person bet on a horse racing at a racetrack other than the one you were sitting in.  Only for the past 15 years or so could a person wager on a horse race from the comfort of their own home.  In the past five years, the decrepit facilities known as New York City OTB (who took more than five-percent of every winning ticket you had), have been shuttered and now many Off-Track Wagering facilities are first-class establishments with high-quality food and deluxe accommodations.

Sure, it was nice to see 50,000 packed into The Meadowlands or Roosevelt Raceway on a Wednesday night, but sports evolve and have to adapt to modern times.  Now, I will be the first person to state that racing does not operate in the best interest of the horseplayer.  The simulcast system is backwards and takeout rates are too high, but the foundation for potential exists.

I can now download the past performances (albeit at a cost) for any racetrack on any day in which entries have been drawn.  I’m not limited to betting Pocono Downs if I am at Pocono Downs, unlike 50 years ago.  I can peruse as many racetracks as I want and select whichever races I want to bet based on my opinion of which horses I like the most.  This is an astute horseplayers dream.  Furthermore, I can wager on my PC, Laptop, iPad, Tablet, iPhone, etc. on any race I want.  If it’s pouring rain outside, I don’t have to go anywhere to bet the amazing Grand Circuit card at The Red Mile, where it is 80 degrees and sunny.

So, when a person who has been in this industry says to me, “it’s a shame you missed the good days of racing,” I want to slam my head against the wall.  When someone asks me “why did you pick a dying industry for a career?” I ask, dying according to whom and based on what premise?  Racing is an industry full of potential, much like fantasy football was 20 years ago.  I raise that example, because there a lot of people in racing who view fantasy football as a “gold standard” in terms of a template for an industry revolved around gambling dollars (whether you believe it is a skill or not, it is still gambling).

Twenty years ago, if you played fantasy football like I did, you had to conduct a live draft at a venue (sound familiar, having to be at a venue), after purchasing a magazine filled with statistics (getting information came at a cost, like racing still does), with nothing to keep track of the draft picks but paper and pen.  From there, every week, you had to phone in your starting lineup to your commissioner and then wait until the next day’s box scores to transfer statistics into points and see how you fared.  Forget the process of trying to pick up free-agent players, that was a whole other headache.  Then the internet came about, and in its infancy while you still had to have a live draft, at least you could e-mail your starting lineup to the commissioner and you could get statistics right after a game was over. 

Fast forward to today . . . If you are in a league, you can draft your team from anywhere in the world and the other people in your league can do the same, thanks to the internet and wireless capabilities.  Starting lineups are set on websites by each team owner; the same for free agent additions.  On game-day, you can track not only statistics, but your team’s updated score in real time.  You can do all of this without ever seeing any of the people in your league.

Even more advanced now is daily fantasy football.  You can have an entirely different team week to week.  You can play as much or as little as you want.  Here is where fantasy football has a massive leg-up, takeout rates on these games are in the single digits and the information is all free! A fantasy player can pull up a wide receiver’s stats for his entire career, box scores for any game, how a quarterback fares on the road in cold weather in December, and it’s all free!  Does anyone believe fantasy football would be as popular as it is if you had to pay for every player’s statistics and were charged a 20-percent fee on each game you played?  Of course not, and those involved in running fantasy football sites understood that and adjusted, providing free content and low fees on their games.  That is called reaching your potential and nobody questions whether or not these are the “good days” for fantasy football and fantasy sports in general.

All racing has to do is maximize its potential and if they do, the best days of racing still lie ahead.