The Hambletonian is a welcoming port in a storm

There’s growth potential for harness racing’s strongest brand and we may be only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

by Dean Towers

I’m a bit of a business and statistics geek, and I have been for as long as I remember. From time to time, I get lost looking at trends and facts and figures in this new age – the growth of new sports like e-sports, what people are watching and how they’re consuming sports and media in various parts of the world, how companies such as Amazon are growing rapidly and incrementally changing our lives.

When I study such facts and figures for harness racing however, I tend to get a little depressed. It’s not big news that the tarmac isn’t as full; it’s not news that handle has been down. What is bothersome to me is that no matter how much I dig, I rarely see any metric that gets me excited.

As Fig I (below) clearly shows, harness racing’s general popularity has been waning. The past year, nationwide interest via Google (a surprisingly good gauge) in the sport is about 55 per cent what it was a dozen years ago.

Fig I – Google searches for “harness racing” and related terms since 2004

Something different happened last week, though, after I spent a couple of hours looking deeper into the numbers regarding next week’s Hambletonian.

As Figure II illustrates, general interest in the Hambletonian in the U.S. is not on the slide. The trend is solid, and it can be argued (especially when examined against the underlying sport’s curve) interest in the event is as high as ever. With handle near even, and attendance at times wavering, this might surprise some, but it is reality.

Fig II – U.S. searches for “Hambletonian” and related terms since 2006

Where are the public searches for the event occurring? I’d submit from areas the sport wants them to be originating from. Maybe the race has lost a little bit of steam in the west coast states, but New York, Maine, Ohio and pockets in other east coast states are seeing more interest than six or seven years ago.

Figure III – Areas of Hambletonian interest, dark blue higher, lighter lower

When we break it down further – by city – it gets very eye-opening.

Figure IV – Interest by City

It’s nice to see a large metro area like New York be attracted to a historically rural event, but what really jumps out is the Albany, NY area. This locale’s interest in the event continues to grow. Could it be because this geographical area includes Saratoga Springs, where thoroughbred fans are gathered for the Spa meet? It’s probably so, proving that our friends in that sport like big equine events, whether the horse is being ridden or steered.

Despite what we may read in the press with globalization and free trade, it’s a simple fact that the world is getting smaller as we grow more and more connected. This gives events like the Hambletonian a wider market to sell to. Are there countries worldwide that know of the Hambletonian, and show that they want to learn more?

Yes, Sweden is certainly one, as Figure V illustrates.

Figure V – Hambletonian and related searches in Sweden

Since 2010, in terms of Google interest, the event is not only holding its own, it’s been growing.

Other European countries that show increased general interest in the Hambletonian include France and Finland.

What does this all mean? I think a strong case can be made that when it comes to the Hambletonian, the glass is half full, not half empty.

If Saratoga fans are interested in the event, it probably means they can be marketed to. With digital media, along with a past performance link, it’s not overly costly in this day and age.

If Sweden’s fans are showing more and more willingness to engage with the event, it’s a market that has only been scratched at the surface. The fact that John Campbell is heading up the Hambletonian Society and is well known in Europe certainly can’t hurt. Maybe European handle for the event has not peaked, but is barely nascent.

The underlying local interest in New Jersey and area is still hanging tough, too. This means that local marketing does have an audience, and continuing to sell the event that way is probably not wasted dollars.

Harness racing’s big events are important. With so many politicians holding the purse strings, the sport uses these events as a conduit to stay on their radar. And with a fickle general public, along with scarce marketing dollars, it’s tougher than ever to stay relevant. Although the general trends are not our friend, the Hambletonian is not failing, and does have a roadmap forward.

Next Saturday when you enter your horse, drive to the track; when you’re sitting down to handicap, hopping into the sulky or going on your second warm up trip, remember you’re a part of something that the world is increasingly interested in; that you’re part of a show with a real and willing audience.

The Hambletonian has upside and its importance to the sport of harness racing should never be underestimated.