Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why do we race horses? The cart before the horse

The issues in racing these days are very complex. I am not so naive that I don't understand that horse racing these days is a business first. Approximately 65,000 people are employed in Ontario alone and it is a billion dollar industry that ripples into many different aspects of the economy. I get all that.
But, I think in many ways it has gone too far. It is too much business and not enough sport and entertainment. And I mean strictly the racing aspect.  I understand that a lot of tracks have tried to make the experience at the track more entertaining with music and other fun events. 
Industry day 2008 at Grand River. Drivers riding for the cause.

But on the race track, with the actual racing of races,  I think they have failed. And for a very long time. The "Wow" factor, the reason to keep them coming back,  is simply not there. That is just my opinion. All of this is an argument based on opinion. But the facts would back them up if I wanted to make this a fact based blog. I don't, so I wont. Anyone who wants to look up the facts will find that the attendance at the racetracks to view the races and the betting handle are shockingly low.  If not for the slots almost every track but WEG would be closed by now. Even the Meadowlands was in jeopardy up until Jeff Gural rode in on his white horse to hopefully save the day. 
Who of us ever thought that The Meadowlands, the mecca of harness racing, would ever be closed? Then again,  who thought back in the 1950's that Roosevelt would be by the late 1980's.
This is not a new development. Long before the issues of low attendance, dwindling betting handle, aging population and tracks closing we have had this problem. Since the mid 70s, and long before that in some cases, horses were being raced and carded so that owners, trainers and drivers could make a living.
There is nothing wrong with that, on its face. Of course if people are going to put on a show, they have to have the expectation that they can earn a living to support themselves and their families. Or simply get some kind of return on the investment they put in as owners. That is reasonable. However, that cannot be the primary reason that we race horses. That is the motivation of the participants, not the customers who show up and patronize the event. Industries exist and continue to thrive because that industry serves a need that customers want. Once that need dissolves, that industry will die and new ones will spring up.  That is basically why the slots have taken away the gambling share of the market from live horse racing.
So lets step back and go way back to the roots of how racing horses for money and to entice betting began.
As we all know, in the old days (pre WW1 and WW2 days) horses were primarily raced so that those who thought they had the best horse could prove so. Others would bet on those races because they believed that one of the parties was correct, and one was not. Many great horses were bought for large sums by wealthy people who knew that they would never recoup their investment. Nor did they really care. Their goal was to have the best horse and race him to prove that they were the best. The best against the best.
 Anyone who has seen the movie Seabiscuit understands that although much of the movie was not entirely accurate, the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was basically a race to see who had the better horse. In that way,  it created interest because there was a wide difference of opinion on who that horse was. In harness racing, the Cam Fella vs. Its Fritz battle had the same idea.

Back in those days (pre 1960), horse racing was primarily not a business. Most trainers were hobby farmers and raced the horse they kept around or bred. The point of racing was to see who was the best horse in the race. Most owners and trainers did not make much money or profit. The greatest horses of the day, Adios ($33,000) and Billy Direct ($12, 000) barely earned much in their whole careers. Even a very decent horse didn't make much more than $10,000 in their entire careers, which usually spanned 6 or 7 years. Most horsemen, even the very successful ones, had day jobs to support their participation in the racing. There wasn't much racing at all in the winter, so even the very successful could not earn much of an income from racing alone. There were exceptions, but they were very rare.

Roosevelt Raceway, in its heyday. The grandstand was packed.

But the crowds were large and the betting was fierce. The attendees had a vested interest in the horses that raced and bet accordingly. Meets were much shorter and the quality of the racing was better. The overall quality of the horses as compared to today was not, but the ideal under which they raced was. And the patrons came back week after week. The racing was an event, entertainment and viable in terms of attracting real interest in the actual product.
So, why do we race horses these days? I think it all starts there.  Before we can sort out the other issues,  we have to wonder why the customer, the betting public,  the guy and his family who will have to get in their cars and drive to the track will want to show up. Is it to watch a 4500 claimer race 3 times a week in January just to fill a card so that the trainer and owners can make money? Certainly not.
I am aware that this also happened back  in the day,  but not to the extent it does now. Racing has become, for the most part,  mundane and repetitive on a daily basis. This did occur back in the heydays as well, but it has become the norm, not the exception these days.
A lot of us don't want to hear this, but a reduction in racing dates is the right answer. Less overall racing,  but better quality is something that needs to be looked at. The fan, the bettor,  the spectator needs a reason to want to come to the track.  Just filling race cards so that horsemen and owners can make a living is not a good reason. 
It is great to draw the fan in with promotions like free live music and fun events for kids, but the main focus has to be a great live racing product. That is what will keep them coming back for a lifetime. I can go find great live music in tons of places.  I don't need to go to the track for that. It might get them there once, but it wont keep them coming back.
Yes, that would mean a reduction and consolidation in the industry as a whole. No tracks need to be shut down,  and in fact they can flourish. Instead of 20 mediocre dates, they can present 12 great ones. Some people will be out of work. That is true. I don't deny that. In all industries today,  that is happening,  and will continue to happen.
One only has to look at when the crowds still come back in large numbers.
Why do you think the grandstand is packed on North America Cup night and Queens Plate day? 
Simply put, the quality of the racing is better. Racing horses for an audience is a show. The better the show, the better the turnout. 
Old home week is another example. That is excitement. While there is a lot to do there, it is all about the racing.  Little Brown Jug week is the same. The examples are there. It is not rocket science. People will still come out in droves if you give them a great racing product.
While I understand that everyday can't be a huge stakes race..or match can still be exciting..and not repetitive.

So why do people come out for the big days, and big races, and then not come back more often.
My opinion is that the fan is looking for the Rocky moment. Seabiscuit facing off against War Admiral is a Rocky moment. The underdog slaying the giant.

That was a Rocky moment. we need Rocky moments in racing. In daily life we are all bogged down by the drudgery and boredom of every day life. We want the "Wow" factor at the track. we want a favorite horse. We want to see competition,  triumph and drama. That is what sells any entertainment to the paying customer.
A Seabiscuit or a  Somebeachsomewhere to cheer for. I remember many horses that were much lesser than those that accomplished that.
One I remember particularly was called Knightwind. He was somewhere between a 25 claimer and at his best a Saturday night horse. Another was a horse called Keystone Madden.  They weren't world beaters,  but they could compete with the best and were mostly always in the race. And both were around for 5 or 6 years at their peak,  week in , week out and raced well until about 10 or 11. Those were horses the fan could follow and identify with. Those are still  around,  but not anywhere near the amount we need them. 
I just used the boxing example with Rocky. Horse racing and boxing both have something very important in common. At around the same time, they were the number one choice for entertainment in the realm they lived in. And they both fell out of favor because they became mundane and ordinary. Stars and fights like Ali, Frazier,  Foreman, Sugar Ray and Mike Tyson became replaced by MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) that offered a better brand of competition when boxing no longer could produce stars that endured. Harness racing is no different. 
Having nobody's fight against nobody's and trying to make them out as prize fights is very similar to having ordinary horses race day after day and putting that out there as quality entertainment. In that way, harness racing has driven the fans to the slots, which in the fans eyes, is simply better entertainment. Racing, as with boxing needs to be fresh. We need to make racing fresh again. 
Over racing ordinary horses just so that owners, trainers and drivers can earn a decent living is like putting the cart before the horse. Much like the movie Field of Dreams, if you build it,  they will come.  Make a better racing product, the fans will  show up and the money will be there for those to earn that living. 

What we first need are stars and we need  them week in and week out. Build a following, make the fans want to come out and keep coming out and want to come back..and stay. They don't have to be superstars like Seabiscuit and Somebeachsomewhere, just stars the fans can identify with,  connect with.

In my next blog, I will start to make arguments as to how we do that.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Make it worth their while to stay racing.

 In Garnet Barnsdale's latest blog he discusses Jeff Gural's plans for the Hambletonian and also his "out of the box" thinking.

"The Meadowlands will also be carding The Hambletonian Maturity starting in 2014, which will offer a $400,000 purse to eligible 4-year-old trotters. A possible field of 16 horses will race 1 1/8 miles in the Maturity with all entrants earning part of the purse. It’s a novel concept to promote interest in a sport where variety has never been encouraged or embraced." 

While I agree that Gural is an out of the box thinker and a refreshing change to the status quo that has killed the industry for decades,  I would  argue that he could do way better than this. How about this concept?:

A Hambletonian Maturity,  but only for those who are kept eligible for the Hambo as 3 year olds, as in those that make the first or second payments that year.  Then,  to further make it palatable,  how about giving the winner, if he wins both the 3 year old Hambo and the Maturity a 5 Million dollar bonus. Don't you think that is a bit of an incentive to keep a legit champion trotter racing as a 4yo?
And if he wins it as a 5yo too, make it an additional 10 million.
You only have to look at the final leg of the thouroughbred triple crown to see how much interest there is when the really big bonus is on the line.