Driver competitions: ill-conceived events where the rich get richer

by Bill Finley

Honestly, I have nothing against drivers. Most are perfectly nice people and the best of them are skilled athletes. What I don’t like is that they make a disproportionate amount of money compared to others in this industry and few do much of anything to give back to the sport.

And that’s why I am no fan of driver competitions. They should either be done away with or undergo a dramatic overhaul. Why give even more money to the segment of the sport that is already making more than its fair share? That’s all these competitions do. When it comes to the good of the game, they accomplish nothing.

Many tracks have driver competitions, and they’re lazy, tired ideas from marketing departments who aren’t bold enough to try something different.

The latest to do so is Harrah’s Philadelphia. On Sunday, eight drivers will compete over eight races as part of the $100,000 “Summer Sizzle Drivers Challenge Championship.” The competitors are Simon Allard, Pat Berry, Corey Callahan, Matt Kakaley, Andrew McCarthy, Marcus Miller, Tony Morgan and George Napolitano Jr. While upper echelon drivers Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick, Dave Miller and Brian Sears, won’t be taking part, these are not struggling drivers. I doubt any are shopping at the Dollar Store or scouring the aisles of Walmart for sales items. These are all people who make a very good living.

There is a point system attached to the eight races based on official order of finish. The winner will make $40,000, the runner-up $15,000 and the least any driver can make is $4,000.

Besides giving away a lot of money, what will Harrah’s and co-sponsor Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association possibly gain from the “Summer Sizzle Drivers Challenge Championship?”

With the possible exception of the family and friends of some of the drivers, no one, who wouldn’t have been going otherwise, is going to show at Harrah’s Philly to watch Georgie Nap do battle Callahan, Kakaley and the others. Not a single new harness racing fan will be created. The handle will be just what it always is, embarrassingly small.

People like to bet on their favorite drivers and will pound Gingras and Tetrick at the windows when they’re driving good horses. But beyond that, drivers have no star power. No one comes to the racetrack just to see Gingras and Tetrick drive, let alone the Allards, Kakaleys and McCarthys of the harness world.

Unfortunately, harness racing doesn’t have much of anything when it comes to star power, but if anything is an attraction it is the horses themselves. On the night before the drivers challenge at Harrah’s, Mohawk will feature a card as good as anything outside the Breeders Crown. There are five rich stakes races, including the Canadian Trotting Classic, a showdown pitting Southwind Frank, Bar Hopping and Marion Marauder. But the best race on the card is the Maple Leaf Trot. It includes a superstar mare in Hannelore Hanover, the best male trotter in the U.S. in Resolve and an Elitlopp winner in Nahar. That’s the type of program and type of race that would get me and others to come to the track and builds interest in the sport. Driver competitions do nothing of the kind.

Should Hannelore Hanover win the Maple Leaf Trot for her 10th straight victory she and her owners and trainer Ron Burke will have earned their 50 per cent share of the $632,000 purse. Not so for whatever driver wins the competition Sunday at Chester.

Outside of the top 40 or so drivers, a group that includes all of the participants Sunday at Chester and a handful of trainers and owners, people are struggling mightily in this sport. Far too many people can’t make a decent living. A $40,000 prize is not going to change Corey Callahan’s life, but what could it do for the many in the sport who are living from meager paycheck to meager paycheck?

So don’t get rid of driver competitions, but give the prize money to people or groups that truly need it. The drivers should get only their normal fees. They can drive for the charity of their choice, as long as it is equine related. Imagine the good the Standardbred Retirement Foundation could do with $40,000. Or how about creating scholarships funds where the money is given to the children of grooms who want to go to college? Here’s another idea: horseplayers in Pennsylvania are paying some of the highest takeout rates in the sport. How about giving them a break. Pick eight fans at random and let a driver represent each one. Imagine how great it would be for John Q. Horseplayer to make $40,000?

Instead, Sunday, eight drivers will vie for big money. Will it be Callahan, Kakaley, Napolitano, or Allard? I couldn’t care less.