The system doesn’t own harness racing, harness racing owns the system.
by Dean Towers
In 1783, a French scientist named Alexandre Charles attempted his first major flight with a newly invented vehicle – the hot air balloon. An estimated 400,000 people showed up in Paris (about half the population of the city) to see this strange object lift to the skies and disappear in the distance.
Around the world, politicians and scientists wondered what this flying machine could mean for the future. Ben Franklin came from America to examine the invention, the English began their own balloon program; most afraid of their enemies using the machine as a tool of war.
Charles’ machine, as described in the award-winning book, “The Age of Wonder”, had some unique characteristics. It had a wicker basket; a canopy made of silk and rubber; a gas-valve for venting; and most important, a ballast system of bags filled with sand. A lot of you are probably very familiar with that design – 240 years later it’s almost exactly the same as the hot air balloons we see today.
In the end, it turns out his machine did not change the world; it didn’t win wars, or transport people across oceans. It was simply a balloon; a novelty.
When reading that passage I could not help to think of wagering on the fine sport of harness racing.
In 1908, pari-mutuel betting was invented. This system has been the source of funding for the sport, by taking a share of betting dollars through takeout. In 1908, five per cent of wagering was taken for purses, rising over the years to about the 22 per cent rates of today.
Innovation itself in the pari-mutuel system has been relegated to jackpot bets, or this year’s new salvo – survivor bets. Further innovation, if we can call it that, involves selling the signal to overseas clients, like Yonkers does with the PMU some Sunday’s. That’s really about it.
More than a century later, wagering is about exactly the same as it was then.
On the surface it’s troubling we’re being guided by a system that was created when the infant mortality rate was one in 10, and if the 60-hour work week didn’t get you, the 3,000 per cent higher workplace death rate would. But it’s more than just troubling.
Pari-mutuel wagering has incentivized (because the sport prices by margins, not by a share of profits) the “bigger piece of a shrinking pie” economics that has burdened the sport. It has spawned the one per cent signal fee, where small harness tracks get a pittance of betting dollars from advanced deposit wagering. It’s the creator of the shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic management style we’ve noticed for generations. It has not allowed for reinvestment into the presentation and modernization of sport itself.
The pari-mutuel system and resulting structure has created a set of boundaries and hindrances that no other modern gambling game – i.e. the sports’ competitors – has to deal with.
My question is: do we have to live in it?
If something is limiting how you innovate, grow and experiment in such a detrimental way, why not change it?
Why does an ADW take 90 per cent of the takeout dollars from small harness tracks, and why does the sport continually let that happen? How about looking at selling harness signals worldwide as a package via a central harness racing exchange, and distribute the resulting dollars from the exchange in an equitable fashion?
This could result in more money to the business, more flexibility, a bigger stick, and may end up spawning uniform takeout rates (as well as a good reward system for harness racing’s customers).
Harness racing pari-mutuel win pools are, for the most part, a bad joke. A horse at Freehold last week opened at 1-5, stayed there, then miraculously closed at 7-1. I bet a horse two weeks ago at a smaller track that went down from 3-1 to 3-5 when the half-mile pole went by, and it wasn’t my $20 that did it.
Why not look at technologies that can eliminate this pattern? Betfair is a tech company as much as it’s a gambling company. Why not work with them to see if an innovative way to link exchange and win pools could be uncovered? Could harness racing – through a 1908 pari-mutuel pipeline – modify it in such a way that brings it into the 21st century?
Hot air balloons look exactly the same today as when they were invented for one simple reason – a hot air balloon couldn’t do a heck of a lot more than be a hot air balloon.
As much as we’ve been lead to believe, harness racing is not in the same basket.
This sport can be much more than it is today, because it’s a viable gambling and entertainment option, in a world craving such avenues. What’s holding it back is the framework it believes it is slave to. In my view, if the sport unlocks the handcuffs and realizes it owns the system and the system does not own it, a whole new world of wonder is possible.