Kudos to Cotolo’s Alternative Actions column
I enjoyed the article about how tracks should treat their patrons as partners (full article here) I always thought tracks need to promote the fact that you are playing against other players and not the track. I play both horse races — all breeds — and casino slots. I always find it interesting that most casinos and racinos pay more attention to my slot play than my horse race play. Of course, as the author pointed out, they need me to come often and lose to make money for them to profit on slot play. Where I feel they miss the boat is in doing the same for horse players. Yes, unless we are big bettors on horse racing, they make more money on slot play than their cut of the pari-mutuel handle. However, they have to realize a long-term horse race player may be of more value. Since the race game is not designed to make you lose, if you become a reasonably good handicapper and a good money manager, you can win more often than playing slots or other casino games. Other than skilled poker players I don’t think most casino customers win more often than they lose. Also, horse racing, as the author pointed out, is a unique performance for each race and program. So you can be entertained just watching a race even if you chose not to bet that particular race. You can’t do that with casino gambling. One last note, I have introduced my nephew who just graduated college to both harness racing and slot play at Pocono Downs. While he enjoys doing both games he has done better playing the races than the slots and is becoming a rather good harness race handicapper. He is one of the customers that harness racing wants to get coming more often. However, he has yet to go to the track on his own and I don’t know if he will become a lifelong fan like I have been. Racetracks, it is up to you to make fans like him feel welcome and want to come back on a regular basis. Thanks for the article.
— John Chambers, Lansdowne, PA
Thank you, Jeff Gural
Dear Mr. Gural, even though I’m not a horseman and just a bettor, I’d like to thank you for keeping the Meadowlands open. You have every right to want to run your business with honesty and integrity. It’s pathetic how people will criticize you, but will race at your track and take your money at the drop of a hat. We’re all familiar with the saying, ‘If you don’t like it here, go elsewhere.’ And that’s what some horsemen should do. But if people don’t like you, but want to race at your track… they should shut the f&%$ up! I believe if we lose the Meadowlands, harness racing would be in trouble! I’m like you, I’m tired of seeing people disrespecting you in print. And most of the guys who talk smack are as dirty as a pig in slop! So keep doing what you’re doing, I believe your business will get better.
— David Marshall / Chicago, IL
Little fan here
I have always been a fan of Dave Little. He has always been a big supporter of harness racing in many aspects. He worked for the Daily News in NYC. And given it was his position every day to handicap a race and give his opinion, he went way above that. You could call Dave at his office and talk about harness racing and opinions, even if you didn’t know him. Who gives you that option today? He has a passion for the game. I’m glad to see him back at the Big M.
That was a great article on the Yonkers passing lane(full article here).
I can’t sway either way on the projected outcome of the handle because of it. But I certainly look forward to it. I guess the betting public prefers the mile track with deep fields. You take the best over night horses on the YR half and nobody’s bets on it.
— Al Pappalardi / New York
In defence of the passing lane
You can guess my age if I tell you I spent my youth working with Vinal Kirby and betting at Harrington racetrack without a passing lane. Take my word for it, it is a frustrating experience to see your horse with plenty of pace blocked on the rail for 100 yards behind a dead horse. A horse that went to the top from the six and now is tired.
This ancient idea died an honest death and the racing product was improved. Cries of fixed races abound when good horses with pace either on purpose (it happened) of by chance could not get loose. The prize of an inside post is even more valuable. If people don’t understand history they are doomed to repeat it.
— David Goldsmith
This is what happens when you change the cheese
Yonkers Raceway’s newly appointed director of racing, Cammie Haughton, has announced that Yonkers may (pending state approval) eliminate the passing lane. I like the idea and think it’s a step in the right direction. The passing lane seemed to hurt the outside flow because drivers would sit in and wait for the stretch to make their move.
But, I think we have to be aware of the fact that baby steps aren’t the answer to our problems. When you watch races at Yonkers, and, most harness tracks, they simply don’t look anything like the races that made the sport so successful in the first place. All half-mile tracks, and most five-eighths mile tracks, have an extreme inside speed and post bias. On half-mile tracks, posts 6, 7, and 8 win half as often as they used to in the days of the wooden sulky.
Consequently, the product is severely damaged. On many nights, almost every race is won by either the pacesetter or pocket horse. The payoffs are short because the bettors don’t bet the outside posts so all of the money goes on one or two horses from the inside. There’s much less movement in the races than there should be.
In it’s heyday, a lot of the horses that won at Yonkers made dramatic three-wide backstretch brushes approaching the three quarters. They made those early moves because the stretch was only 440 feet long and it made sense to launch a move earlier. It was exciting to watch, but now, you can go months without seeing a single horse make that type of move. The third quarters are too fast now. When they try to brush, they get stuck wide and go nowhere.
The bottom line is, the steel sulkies and more efficient wheels have made the races much faster and that’s resulted in an extreme bias that benefits inside post leavers. The only way to correct the situation and improve the racing is to make bold changes. If you want to continue to race at the one mile distance, then you have to go back to the wooden sulkies. Some people say to me, “Yes, the racing was much better in the wood bikes, but you can’t go back because the bikes helped the horse’s performance.”
Well, I coached Little League baseball one year and I can tell you unequivocally that aluminum bats greatly improve performance. They use aluminum bats in schools, Little League, etc. But Major League Baseball stuck to the old, out-dated, wooden bats. Why? Because they know that having every hitter bat :360 and hit 75 home runs would destroy their product, just as the steel sulkies have destroyed our product. You need balance.
SLOWER BIKES OR LONGER RACES
There are only a few things that we can do if we really want to put out our best harness racing product. One would be to go back to the wooden bikes. All a track would have to do is buy some wood bikes, which aren’t expensive.
If we keep the steel bikes, then the only other realistic options are longer races and trailers. When the races are longer, the drivers can’t just step on the gas right from the start and play catch me if you can. They have to try to slow the pace, and that allows the outside flow to get into position. Ideally, you’d want a distance where the outside posts have a straightaway so they can leave. The best distance might be a mile and five sixteenths, which on a half-mile track would mean starting the race all the way to the right down the backstretch. This would produce exciting races and better payoffs because the outside posts would be able to leave, and it would be almost impossible to “bottom out” the field on the front end. Closers would win more often, outside posts would win more often, and payoffs would be much better.
And while you’re going the extra distance, make each race 9 or 10 horses and put those horses in the second tier, similar to the way Yonkers runs their trotting races that are simulcast to Europe. By having horses in the second tier, it makes the races more exciting because the field is not single-file to the five eighths: there’s action right from the get go. Another thing you could do is tell the drivers that they can’t lean far back unless they’re in the stretch. With the drivers leaning so far back, the horses in the back of the pack have too much ground to make up. You have to get closers back in the game. When I first started going to Roosevelt and Yonkers, a lot of horses won from second and third over.
Either way you go, back to the wood bikes, or longer races with trailers, these are the only options. Making baby step changes like removing the passing lane isn’t going to be enough. If we keep racing one mile with the steel bikes, we’ll continue to see the handle fall and harness racing will go out of business. This isn’t that complicated. Every business has to put out its best product if it wants to be successful.
When I was a teenager, I took a part time job in a pizzeria. I was friendly with the owner, who had just bought the place from a man who was retiring. He had run a successful pizzeria for decades. When my boss bought the place, the old man that sold it to him clenched a handful of Mozzarella cheese in his hand and said, “Whatever you do, don’t change the cheese! This is the best tasting Mozzarella you can get. You can buy cheaper cheese, but if you do that, you’re customers will go somewhere else. You’ll go out of business.”
Back in 1977, harness racing made a big change, from a wood sulky to a steel sulky. The faster the races went, the lower the payoffs went, the lower the handle went. Our customers went somewhere else: many started betting the thoroughbreds.
We made a big mistake. We changed the cheese.
— Bob Pandolfo / Northampton, PA