Harness racing should never be afraid to experiment

Moving finish lines and uniform rules committees may not seem like much, but they are. Let’s hope they’re just the beginning.

by Dean Towers

A year or so ago, an entrepreneur friend gave me a call to talk about the state of his business. Sales were stagnating and he was planning a costly new campaign – something I had experience with. We both agreed his plan was a longshot to work, but he felt he needed to try. He is someone who tries to experiment as much as possible because he believes that even if it fails, he often learns something that can help him down the road.

After we talked about how he would structure this new strategy (to ensure he was measuring things correctly, and that his pipelines were all cost effective), he got to work and gave it a shot.

Around a year later, the results were in, and I’d love to tell you his original plan was a barnburner with product flying off the shelves; that he was jetting to his own island on his Gulfstream, paid for by this great plan. But it wasn’t. It was indeed a flop.

Interestingly enough, though, what he thought may happen did happen — he learned a great deal from his plan, and what he uncovered about his product line and customer base helped him build a second iteration of his original strategy. This one wasn’t a flop. Last month, his sales were up close to 30 per cent year over year and his gross margin was up 8 per cent.

“I learn more from failure than I do from success,” he quipped.

I had a discussion recently with someone who has been involved in racing policy for a long time. When I asked him why the business seems so reticent to experiment, or make bold moves to really shake things up, he met me with a blank stare.

“If you try and fail, you may find yourself out of a job,” he said, bluntly. “It’s easier to leave the bold to others.”

He’s not the only person I have heard this from. It’s one of the reasons I never hold middle managers, or the USTA or many other alphabets to blame for the lack of change. It’s very hard to rock the boat when we all can be replaced, and change seems so daunting a task.

I’ve always believed that for harness racing to change, the leaders – those who can’t or won’t be let go for a failure, much like my entrepreneurial friend – have to be the ones experimenting and forging change.

Over the past two weeks I think we’ve seen a couple of nice examples of that.

First, we all saw the early results from moving the finish line at Yonkers:

“From Jan. 1 to June 15, horses starting from post seven won at just 5.6 per cent and finished in the top three at a 19.9 per cent clip from 1,133 starts. From June 16 to July 10, horses starting from post seven won at a 9.1 per cent clip and hit the board 22.2 per cent of the time from 176 starts. In addition to the positive post position trends, Yonkers’ percentage of winning favorites decreased after the introduction of the new finish line. Favorites connected at a 42 per cent clip before June 15 and a 38 percent from June 16 on, a decrease of 8 per cent.”

Those numbers — any way we slice them — are good for Yonkers and good for harness racing.

Next, I saw a snip titled, “Campbell to Chair Uniform Rules Committee” at UStrotting.com this week:

“We should have universal rules throughout harness racing, throughout North America,” says John Campbell, the new president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society. “That is something I’ve felt quite strongly about for a long time. I don’t believe some of our rules are worded as well as they could be. That can make it difficult for the judges to rule consistently. If the wording were made more concise and definitive, it would be easier for judges.

“I think there is more of an impetus for the Commissions to go by USTA rules right now than there has been in the past. The beneficiaries are twofold — this will benefit the gamblers betting on our game across North America as well as participants and judges. It will be better for all involved to get this accomplished.”

That’s another slam dunk that many of us may have not expected.

Although on the surface changing a finish line and exploring universal rules does not seem particularly big or bold, I think it is exactly that. Yonkers has dealt with strong winning favorites and a post bias for a long time. Participants and gamblers can’t understand how the rules of harness racing are so capricious, and change when you cross a border, like we’re all making a run for the state line in a 1940’s bootleg movie.

I’d argue that for a sport that relies on tiny change, the Yonkers experiment – an experiment that if successful could be used by half mile ovals everywhere and increase the handle for the industry — is big change. John Campbell’s work could be felt from sea to sea, as well. It’s not small. It’s not tinkering.

Harness racing will change from within, and it will change when bold ideas are embraced. I believe these ideas will be spearheaded by leaders who have job security, a stake in the game and whose place in it is beyond reproach. John Campbell and the SOA of New York are two such entities.
Whether these initiatives succeed or fail, I believe we should all be behind them. Working on these long-standing troublesome issues is very important for a sport that doesn’t work on them nearly enough. The worst case scenario is that we learn something. That’s never a bad thing.