Understanding, combating the hopelessness of the “small guy”

Never forget, harness racing grows from the bottom up.

I spoke with a friend couple of weeks ago. Doug’s a buddy I went to high school with, who I hadn’t chatted with for some time. He’s still in my small hometown and I’m long elsewhere; a city boy, I guess you’d call it.

After Doug finished high school, he got a job at the plant, which smelted copper and zinc. He was paid a nice wage of about $17 per hour, which was pretty huge in the ‘80s. I left to go to university, 600 miles or so away, never to come back.

He’s still in my hometown, but the plant he worked at isn’t.

He asked me, “Do you think Trump can win?”

I replied, “I think he’s a longshot.”

“I hope you’re wrong,” he said. “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to politics.”

He went on to explain how things in town are dead. How the jobs have left, the regulations are too strict; the red tape far too red to start any new plants. How no one is spending any money or building anything, or investing in people. He lamented how the governments in North America have gone “global,” and have too many “eggheads” running things; you know, those smart people who have told you they know what’s best for you.

No one is there for him – the small guy who shows up and works his butt off – and he thinks if Trump wins, someone will change things for the better for the North American economy; for him and those like him. It was a poignant, visceral reaction from a completely non-political person. He believed every word he said.

After my discussion with my old pal, I got to thinking. Almost everything he alluded to and chatted with me about, I have at some point — within the last year or so — heard from the rank and file in the sport of harness racing.

Recently, with the spate of glaucine positives, a few big names were on the list. The reaction from some of the little guys and gals was swift.

“They’ll get off. They spend money at the sales and know important people. They’ll probably just pinch a small guy.”

When they flip open a program page in a stakes race – a race they spent a few dollars staking their $8,000 homebred to in March – they see four Ron Burke horses, two of Takter’s, and a couple other big name owners.

“See, that’s why I didn’t make the last payment. We have no shot to beat them. They’ll work as a team and I’ll be out an entry fee.”

Under that statement, perhaps made on a chat board, you’ll read a cacophony of posts, echoing his or her malaise.

Just this week I received an email from a regular guy, offering evidence that a leading driver from his track gets special treatment from the judges. “We have no hope.”

We see this with other organizations, as well. The USTA “don’t have a clue”. Standardbred Canada needs “new blood who understands the game”. My horsemen group “doesn’t speak for me.”

Like my friend, this is much more than sour grapes. Or, in the worst cases that we see many of these people labeled: they aren’t dumb, or uneducated, or lack nuance to understand the world. If you think that, you’re not doing only them a disservice, you’re doing yourself one. And you’re missing the point.

Foal crops are down.

Handle is down.

Purses are up, despite those two above metrics showing no correlation to purses whatsoever, where they absolutely should. And worse, purses are up for whom? Not me, some say. I’m racing for fifth every night, and my costs are through the roof.

How are these folks supposed to feel?

Can you blame them?

When I spoke to my friend, I thought about bringing up comparative advantage in trade, and how it works pretty well; about how the economy has changed. But it didn’t matter.

Similarly, to some I speak with in harness racing, I like to chat about how the USTA and Standardbred Canada (and many other alphabets) have good people in them; people who care, who try, and who understand the game. I like to talk about how people who spend money in the game with big stables are an asset, not a liability, and how sometimes positives are mistakes. But that doesn’t matter either.

To the good people in positions of power (some of whom I consider friends), I ask one thing:

The folks who are hammering you don’t have confidence in you, and have little hope. I submit it’s important to find a way to address some of the issues that these people have; listen to them, offer them solutions, try your best. Treat their problems as real problems, until proven otherwise.

This is important because harness racing is a grassroots sport. It’s not an elite sport, and never has been. When you don’t address the grassroots – the moms and pops, the small trainer and owner, the folks the sport was built on – you are cracking the sport’s foundation. A sport without a foundation simply cannot grow.

With my friend I shared what I think is a truth – the plant is not coming back no matter who is in charge. For harness racing I feel different. There is a way forward to help the little owner, trainer, or participant, and if it’s done correctly, I believe investment at the grassroots level can flourish. At that point, I think harness racing will begin to grow in the way it always has grown — from the bottom up.