Time to make electronic past performances free

by Brett Sturman

Rhetoric on how to grow harness racing has increased of late as the United States Trotting Association (USTA) gets set to elect a new president on Monday (Feb. 27). But for all of the visions and ideas put forth by the various candidates, the most obvious issue that holds back the sport, as far as I’m concerned, was elusive.

At the most fundamental level, harness racing is a sport whose success should be related to the amount of race handle its member tracks are able to generate. In order to bet however, horse past performances are a necessity and in the U.S. this information comes at a price.

Due to agreements set in place by the USTA, tracks are unable to disseminate their own past performances electronically with consumers, unless they have a separate agreement with Trackmaster, which holds the rights to the past performance data. Under the deal, tracks may print and distribute free past performances to patrons. But even banning electronic dissemination of past performance lines does place restrictions on accessing data needed to bet.

The industry model is flawed, reflects backward thinking and is a clear detriment to the growth of the sport. It’s undeniable that the free flow of data — strictly referring to only past performance program data in this case — will lead to greater customer engagement.

At the heart of these agreements is the one in particular formed with Trackmaster in 1997. Sold to the thoroughbred company Equibase in 2000, Trackmaster has been given exclusive rights by the USTA to be the only provider of electronic past performances, although in 2012 the Daily Racing Form was able to enter into the arrangement, as well. Over the course of this time, all harness tracks in the U.S. have been barred from disseminating past performance data electronically directly to its customers, even though the data originates from the tracks themselves.

The question for the USTA becomes, why not simply make past performance data available for free electronically? Impossible, you say?

In Canada, the equivalent of the USTA is Standardbred Canada (SC) and guess what? They make their data available for all Canadian tracks and past performances are provided by each track to customers totally free of charge. You can go to any track’s website — whether it be a large one such as Woodbine or a smaller one such as Western Fair — and right there are free program links for complete race cards.

The free flow of program data could be one of many factors that has led to higher handle in Canada. Though, the gap in the exchange rate on the U.S. and Canadian dollars is certainly another factor. Comparing 2016 over 2015, total harness handle in Canada increased from $460 million to $469.7 million, that’s up 1.97 per cent. Over the same time period, total harness handle in the U.S. dropped by 4.66 per cent. At the same time, handle per race in Canada actually beat handle in the U.S. ($38,066 to $37,325). The difference in past performance availability isn’t, of course, the sole reason for the differing handle trends between the two countries, but it would be foolish to not think it’s not part of the equation. Anecdotally speaking, I find myself playing Canadian harness tracks more than ever before due to the free access of data.

For the foreseeable future, it’s highly unlikely to see the USTA allow tracks to distribute past performance content to customers in the same manner that SC does. The reason being that the USTA would prefer not to lose the revenue stream it derives from Trackmaster.

Don’t misunderstand. My issue isn’t that the USTA (a non-profit organization) is leveraging its relationship with Trackmaster to be profitable, but rather they are doing it at the expense of what is in the best interest of the sport. This is a case of the USTA’s interests not lining up with the interest of the -overall health and well-being of the sport.

Despite the agreement, certain tracks have still tried to issue their own programs for free knowing that it will help grow their own product but have been shut down by Trackmaster. At one point in January of 2011, Pompano Park briefly put out free past performances electronically which contained only the data it sends to the USTA in the first place, (essentially the same data content you see in Canadian programs) but still had to cease those actions because it was still found to be in violation of the exclusive Trackmaster agreement. The absurdity of it is astounding.

What is so unique or proprietary about past performances that it shouldn’t be made publicly available for free to begin with? Data contained in racing result charts is no different than what you would see in a box score for any major sport.

I don’t agree with it at all, but I could more easily see if the USTA wanted to hold onto that raw data itself so that people wouldn’t have the opportunity to ultimately develop their own sets of ratings which would be a competitive threat to Trackmaster. But I’m not even asking that much. All I’m saying is that consumers should be given free access to past performances that tracks already wish to issue in a format where they can’t practically be used for anything other than handicapping, and if at that point a person wants a more detailed program that contains speed and class ratings such as the Trackmaster ones do, then they can pursue that as their own preference.

Both the USTA and SC already produce revenue from data they keep to themselves in the form of online services Pathway and TrackIT, respectively, although an argument can be made that this information also should be made publicly available. But even though some of the data that these services charge for is available for free in thoroughbred racing, charging money for this information isn’t dissuading new interest in the sport the way that lack of free electronic program accessibility does.

First and foremost, exclusive rights over program content needs to end one way or the other. For all of the talk about taking a small percentage of slot money and using it towards marketing of the sport, perhaps it can be used to help offset revenue that would be lost if the USTA chose to make programs available in the same manner that SC already does.

I don’t know how feasible of an idea it is, but it’s nonetheless the kind of forward thinking mindset that the next USTA president should have and be willing take on.

Last Week’s Bankroll: $855
Total Wagers: $134
Total Return: $194
This Week’s Bankroll: $915

Meadowlands – Saturday, Feb. 25

Race 3: B FAST EDDIE moved too early from the pocket last week and it probably cost him at least a second place finish. He now goes first time lasix and speed is bound to be coming again; his best would be more than good enough. EVER AGAIN paced some fast mile here last fall for Noel Daley and flew home in that recent qualifier; I’d let his odds determine which we to go in his first start back; 3-1 or higher seems fair. GRIFFON HANOVER had every chance last out from the pocket but was never going to catch the winner; makes fourth start back for Fanning. GRAVE DANCER moves inside and should find himself within striking distance.

$10 Win/Place 7

$3 Exacta Box 3-6-7

Race 5: RUFO drops another notch for Burke after a tough first over trip last out. The top two finishers from that race last Saturday would crush these and this will be his race to win or lose; 9-2 morning line seems like wishful thinking to me. ASHLEY’S HUSBAND makes his second start at the reduced level but is compromised by post 10; also isn’t the same horse we have seen here over the last year so he’s not an easy call now. IDEAL ROCKY stumbled briefly in deep stretch last week and it cost him; I’m not 100 per cent sure he was going to hang on regardless and is another tough call at a short price. CHECK’S COMMODORE chased a classy foe in his recent qualifier.

$25 Win 7

Race 6: PARNU HANOVER has gone a number of fast miles of late and now switches from Marcus Miller to Andy Miller; has plenty of speed to burn and will be the one to run down. ROCKEYED OPTIMIST makes his second start back and picks up Campbell; wasn’t overly inspiring last out and still might need one more to race back into shape. DYNAMIC YOUTH will be going forward early and this field isn’t as tough as what he was up against last week. K-LEES SHAKENBAKE didn’t seem to have his usual kick in his last pair although both those races were won by sharp foes; EASTEND EDDIE qualified well in his return for Burke.

$15 Win 6

$4 Exacta Box 6/1-2