Uniform rules will someday be a reality…

October 6, 2017

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… thanks to an important person’s willingness to lead

by Dean Towers

During the evenings this week I spent my time watching Mohawk and Red Mile, but due to the horrible event in Las Vegas on Sunday night, I also kept the news channels on my screen.

I, like many of you I imagine, watched stories of both horror and heroism, often times going through the range of emotions about the good in people, contrasted with the bad.

What I also saw watching the news — almost each hour — was panel after panel talking about guns. After seeing four or five (of what seemed like four or five hundred) of these segments, something very odd struck me. At times, when the yelling subsided, I noticed there was quite a bit of common ground on several issues. The panel would vociferously agree, for example, that existing rules were not enforced as well as they could be, and there was not proper accountability in the current laws. They’d all nod, and then they’d resume yelling at each other.

I thought it was pretty weird – sad really – that people could actually agree on something regarding this polarizing topic, and it never seems to get worked on; it’s just a short respite before starting up another argument.

Not to equate harness racing with such an important societal topic, but in our sport I get the same type of feeling when it comes to uniform rules. In fact, I think it’s even more perplexing.

A driver driving for the first time at The Meadows has to invariably ask another driver what the rules are; say for whipping, or pylons. That driver will hopefully get the correct answer, but it might not be the right answer, because these rules are so different. He’ll probably find out the rule for certain, only if he does something wrong.

And, strangely enough, sometimes the answer given might not have anything to do with a rule at all.

“Yes, the rules say you can’t do that, but they never call it, so you can do it.”

Then this odd tribal dance occurs the next week at Monticello, or Mohawk, or the Meadowlands.

Could you imagine what it would be like for an NFL offensive lineman where holding is called differently at 31 different stadiums? That’s not too far off what drivers go through.

Flipping over to the customer – that pesky person that pays for a lot of purse money – what he or she goes through on a regular basis is equally, if not more crazy.

On any given evening, a customer may find they’re holding a potential $2,000 superfecta ticket, but there’s a pylon inquiry. As the judges wind and rewind the tape, the bettor can’t even form an opinion if their $2,000 is real money or ticket confetti, because they have no idea what the pylon rule is at this track. They saw this exact same thing called last week at Scioto so they should cash the ticket, but you just never know, because the judges (and perhaps the rule) could be different here at Yonkers.

Can you name one single thing in this sport that 100 per cent of your customers agree on, that 100 per cent of your participants also agree on? If not, I think you’ve found one – uniform rules. Yet, time and time again, decade after decade, nothing seems to get done.

Why I think problems or issues with so much agreement fail, is because of a lack of leadership. A leader brings people together, finds common ground, and creates a system whereby something gets done through the bedrock of modern policy making — honest debate and accountability. Without it, molehills become mountains.

But for harness racing at least, I think that’s recently changed.

As you’ve probably heard, John Campbell of the Hambletonian Society (I still can’t get used to typing that) has begun rallying people behind a new uniform rules initiative. Unlike so many other policy starts that come and go, John, through his leadership position, is looking at this as a long-term solution. There’s no timeline, it’s not dictatorial; it’s bringing people together who agree on a common theme, and working towards a goal.

“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. It’s not something to be done quickly,” he said.

John’s leadership on this topic was felt almost immediately. Barely two months after the initial announcement in the U.S., Dan Gall put together a similar committee at Standardbred Canada to work hand in hand with John, to hopefully ensure that U.S. and Canada rulebooks would be uniform.

That’s what happens with leadership – the snowball is given a push at the top of the hill, and it grows bigger and bigger.

Whether John succeeds or fails over the next few years is debateable – harness racing certainly is not structurally built for change. And I certainly don’t want to put undue pressure on him and him alone. But I’m confident this time it has a chance.

Why? Because virtually every driver, groom, trainer and owner; every bettor, handicapper or fan, wants this to happen. And they have a respected leader at the helm to rally around. That’s much more than half the battle.

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