Brush And Crush

What harness racing must learn from the Kentucky Derby

May 6, 2016

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The Run for the Roses is a unique racing experience. Harness racing stakes are not unique, but could be, with some work.

Tomorrow at around 6 pm (EST), the gates will spring open at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY and the Kentucky Derby will be underway. Twenty horses and jockeys will be vying for position, and over 15 million people across the U.S. will be riding along with them. Well over $100 million will be bet legally on the race, at racetracks, via the internet, at OTBs and at thousands of Kentucky Derby parties from sea to sea. It’s a spectacular spectacle.

If you watch the Derby, the first thing that might come to mind would be, “horse racing ain’t dead”. It isn’t, but the Derby works so well because it’s not just a horse race, it’s a perfect storm.

The First Saturday in May has history and a following because it’s a slice of Americana; it’s been that before you and I were alive, and will be long after we’re gone. It has a unique pull that sporting events need to have to thrive — 20 horses will be travelling further than they’ve ever been asked to go. Most of these 20 horses are meeting for the very first time, which adds to the interest in the event.

The field comes from prep races that were closely watched; prep races in Florida and Kentucky and Arkansas and New York and California. This year, with the Tapit colt Lani, an entry comes from Japan, via a prep race in Dubai. If you were interested and followed a horse in the preps, you are surely interested to watch him or her in the big race.

In the week or two before the race, social media hums with live video of workouts, gallops, and the ever-present horse baths. Scoops are filed via Periscope on Twitter. Media, both inside and outside racing, look for clues on a horse’s health through trainer and jockey and owner interviews. Fifteen-and-a-half hours of TV coverage begins with the draw for posts on Wednesday, which trends on Twitter. On Friday, another event – the Kentucky Derby for fillies, the Oaks – is run, with big handles and big crowds.

The Derby may be a race that lasts two minutes, but the buzz, the buildup and the promotion is an almost year-long event. It’s a big reason why the Derby dwarfs other niche sporting big events, and it’s not really that close.

Each year when the Derby occurs, harness racing’s inferiority complex invariably rears its head. Harness racing participants and fans are down to earth, love their sport, and when they see the runners treated like Kings, they tend to be taken aback.

“Well, our sport is good too, y’know. We have the North America Cup, the Pace, the Jug……”

These events are good. But they are a completely different animal.

While the Derby is the aforementioned perfect storm, harness racing big events have a different set of rules, and parameters. There won’t be a 20 horse field for a North America Cup where the participants come from all over, and have never met each other in a race before. A few weeks after the Cup, these same horses will meet again, contesting the Meadowlands Pace. And so on.

Creating a thoroughbred-type stakes race buzz for every harness class seems like trying to put a round peg in a square hole.

As any good marketer will tell you, your business or sport has to be what it is, and do what it’s built for; not what you wish it was built for. When it comes to stakes racing, and big horses, harness does have an edge.

While thoroughbred fans waited for a possible California Chrome versus American Pharoah meeting in the Classic, a race between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, and countless other matchups that never materialized, harness racing stars were meeting that weekend. And they were meeting three weeks from then, and five weeks from then, and eight weeks from then. Fans can see the stars meet all year, not just once or twice.

This is an asset, but promoting that asset takes some hard work, and planning.

The problem with stakes season (say for three-year-olds) is that one race is not only one race; it’s a week to ship, an elimination race, a final, then another week to ship home and get settled. The time it takes to participate in one big race is not optimal. When you add the fact that there are a dozen or so tracks offering stakes, the sport itself doesn’t showcase itself very well. While the best should meet the best often, the schedule doesn’t allow for it.

We realize eliminations tend to be needed to increase stakes money, but can’t there be a better way?

As for the big races themselves, they tend to be nothing like the Kentucky Derby, or other thoroughbred stakes races which bring in huge handle, and big audiences. Often, elimination winners pick their posts, and in the big event there’s a huge favorite that gets an easy lead, keying a merry-go-round race and a small mutuel. Sometimes a deep 12 claimer in the first can outhandle a stakes race in the ninth.

Further, stakes races are often placed late in the card in harness racing, which to me is not maximizing eyeballs. Most horsemen I know have to be at the barn in the morning, and most bettors are tapped out by then after a full day of Saturday betting.

I firmly believe stakes season in harness racing can be much, much bigger, if done right.

Scheduling races at proper spacing, marketing them with real dollars in a systemic way, and working on phasing out eliminations, is doable. Seeded pools through a central fund can increase wagering (and eyeballs) for the races. Experimenting by placing the races in race four or five instead of nine or 12 can help handles, too, in my view.

Making sure the casual fans knows there’s a stakes race at time “X” this Saturday evening, and it’s a match up they saw two Saturday’s ago, is compelling. It’s a strong sales point because it schedules a sport and makes it easier for the public to consume. Football Sunday works for a reason.

Much of the above would have to be implemented through strong central leadership, with a few slots dollars. I fully realize this is an issue, and has been for some time. However, if you’re like me and love watching great standardbreds race and want to share them with the world, maybe it’s time to make it less of an issue, and more of a reality.

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