Sending a harness executive to the track

by Dean Towners

In recent years, we’ve been bombarded with something called “Big Data”. Super computers and software have made the use of data easier, and in the aggregate it’s simpler to see what’s going on.

Big Data is certainly here to stay, but in a new book – Small Data, Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends – the author concentrates on something called “Subtext Research”. This research examines what’s happening at the micro-level, analyzes small data to see if it correlates to an industry or company trend, and acts upon it. It’s working from the bottom up, not the top down.

One excerpt in the book struck me.

The author was called to consult at a Colombian bank that was not doing well at the retail customer level. He surveyed customers and learned that this bank was known for poor customer service; long lines, bulky operations, etc. Rather than reporting this data to the bank executive (as had been done in the past, with no improvements) he tried a different tactic. He asked the officials to pretend they were customers for a period of time – go into the bank, withdraw money, cash a check; do what average customers do.

It turned out this was “an exercise in frustration, and even anger”. Some of the executives waited an hour or more in line. They were bounced from one teller window to another for something as simple as a signature.

When the consultant presented these findings he found his management team audience completely on his side. They lived through what he was presenting, and living through it made things real. His recommendations were put into practice, and within a year customers ranked the bank number one in the country for customer service.

That got me thinking. Can we conduct a similar experiment in harness racing?

Let’s send a harness power broker to customer school. They’ll take $1,000 and open an ADW account; Internet betting is the future, of course, so we’ll send them to virtual racetracks. From there they will — for six months — bet harness racing five times a week like regular customers do. We will even send along a regular customer – we will call him “Bill” — to help her out.

First, our harness executive will have to set up her account. But she needs to understand residency requirements, because she might not even be able to bet all tracks. This can be a minefield.

“This seems more difficult than it should be. Who wrote all these strange regulations?” asks the executive.

“People like you did,” replies Bill.

Now she’s ready to wager, but she needs a program.

“You have to sign up for another account to buy programs with your credit card,” says Bill.

“In the Internet age I have to buy a pdf program so I can wager money?” asks our incredulous executive. “This is like DirectTV charging me extra to use the channel guide button.”

At last she’s ready to begin wagering and she chooses the six horse in the first race at 2-1. She gets her money down at one minute to post, but one minute in harness racing customer time is not one minute in regular people time.

“When are they going to race? What’s the problem here?” she asks.

“It’s a new technique created by track executives to get more handle called a post drag. They should race in six or seven minutes, so get something from the fridge, read a book, or balance your checkbook. That’s what I do to pass the time,” says Bill.

“This is crazy,” replies the executive.

Finally the race goes off (she misses the start because she was in the garage rotating her tires) and the colt she bet takes the lead in the middle of the stretch after a long first over grind, and looks like a winner. But hold it, the driver of the leader pulls the right line and drifts three paths off the rail. This lets the pocket horse out, and her bet gets nipped at the wire by the horse who benefitted from this parting of the Red Sea.

“Argh! Well, at least that driver will get a fine and not do it again. Letting a horse up the inside is illegal right?” she asks.

“Some places it’s called, I think, and some places it isn’t. I don’t really know,” says Bill.
“You’ve been playing this sport for 40 years and you don’t know?”

“No, the rules confuse me. Trond got fined for letting a stablemate up the inside a while ago, and I’ve seen it called in some places, so I guess it’s not allowed, but I don’t know. I still don’t have a clue how many pylons are allowed to be hit either. I think it’s different on a turn than the straight, and I think it’s different at Mohawk than Monticello. Pylon infractions just happen sometimes and you guys ask us to not complain because it means we’re whiners. It’s the same with passing up the inside. I’ve stopped trying to figure out the rules,” says Bill.

Moving on to the pick 4 they start to handicap the sequence and notice there’s an entry in the 4th who is a good horse, but he’s off a bad line and has a long stale date.

“I’ve read all the handicapping books and horses off stale dates are bad bets, right?” asks our fearless executive.

“Yes, they’re a terrible return on investment. But I spoke with Petey and Petey says he heard the horse schooled in 1:53 to get ready, so he could be a 6-5 shot,” offers Bill.

“Who is Petey? That line is not in the program. And hold it, didn’t the trainer of that horse get caught with a milkshake last week in Canada and he’s been suspended?” asks the executive.

“Petey’s a guy who knows things, and yes, there was a high TCO2 called on that trainer last week, but he can race,” replies Bill.

“Why can he race? Do we know he was using a milkshake on this horse so his lines are better than they should be? Will his horses race poorly now with this suspension — that apparently is not really a suspension — over his head? What in the hell is going on? How am I supposed to make my pick 4 wagers with any confidence?” asks the executive.

“Don’t get frustrated. It’s just the way it is,” replies Bill. “You should probably do what I do in these situations. Keep your money in your pocket. And remember – no complaining!”

After the first few races, Bill leaves our executive to be a customer on her own. Six months later he meets up with her and asks how she made out.

“It did not go very well. I started betting favorites because favorites win at 48 per cent at my track, but with takeout at 17 per cent I kept hitting winners and losing money. I had to reload my bankroll three times and my husband was getting upset at me. I changed strategy and started betting these ‘jackpot bets’ to try and catch up, but I kept losing money, even though I hit tickets. I think only 25 per cent is paid back to customers on these bets which I later learned is worse payout than Powerball,” she fumes.

“Losing money was frustrating, but I expected to lose at least some of it, and I love the game, so I looked at it as an entertainment expense. But, after a while I was not being entertained; what I experienced just made me mad. Horses were nowhere near the gate at the start of some races, and I didn’t get a refund. Some horses would take back as a favorite, get boxed in, and no one would explain to customers like me why the driver did what he did. They’d even interview the driver a race or two later and not ask him about it. Horses that were late scratches in my pick 5’s were not refunded, and I got the favorite who I didn’t even like. There were driver changes announced after they took my money, which should never happen. It seems none of the races went off at scheduled times, and even with the drags some races were still going off on top of each other,” she says.

“Would you say being a regular customer was an exercise in frustration, or even anger?” asks Bill.

“Yes, I’d say that. I don’t have the foggiest who created these policies,” answers our executive.

The above was clearly fictional (with a little bit of hyperbole mixed in) but the point remains. Walking a mile in a customer’s shoes can make a great deal of difference in your perspective. And it’s important.

Most customers I encounter are not asking for Utopia like so many inside this business think. This sport, and betting it, will never be Utopia. What customers ask for is what some economists call Protopia – a world where things get incrementally better. This isn’t some theory. An example of Protopia occurred just this week, with the Meadowlands’ response to the Pick 5 customer issue on January 7th.

No, customers don’t demand you be perfect. They just want you to be better.