This old house

Harness racing needs to adapt like baseball did.

by Trey Nosrac

Against all odds, our sport remains standing. Yearling sales prices and purses remain adequate, but our house of cards has a few troubling signs.

The loss of Florida harness racing was a blow and Illinois racing cannot seem to get off the floor. Some of us cannot shake the fear that our old gambling foundation will crumble. New neighbors, large, greedy and ruthless, are moving into our gambling neighborhood. Major renovation or reconstruction is needed before events get out of hand.

You have read and listened to hundreds of reports, quotes, rants, articles and essays recommending changes in our little sport. Our sport moves slowly. The rapid changes in our little world result from technology, which seems to change by the minute.

Always upfront is this question: Who could make any significant change? You, me, a racetrack, a state, the USTA, a benevolent wealthy despot, the tooth fairy, gamblers, trainers, state governments, our board of directors, an experienced czar from a successful sports league, who? Our sport feels like a mixed herd of cats without big dogs with teeth. The administration of harness racing has always been a crazy quilt, but we must try something before it unravels.

I do not profess to know much about the tangled webs behind the scenes or even know many people in this sport, but the individuals who have impressed me are the owners of breeding farms, the people who create the horses we love to race.

By necessity, breeders plan longer-term and they understand economics and market forces. Breeders and breeding programs are competitors, but on the surface, they interact without bloodshed. Our breeding ranks seem to have a healthy dose of younger guns, some breeding farms have roots in state politics, and breeders worry about the future of our little sport as much as we all do. Give me a superpower and I will hand the reins of our sport to a consortium of breeding farms to create a rescue plan, or a complete restructuring, for harness racing.

Would the breeders want this burden?

No. Does anyone like to be handed the wheel of a leaky ship with giant icebergs ahead? But breeders do not want to face the fate of Florida racing, Illinois harness racing, or Roller Derby.

Our current handle numbers may be a bit of a mirage. I am roaming fact-free, but our handle could drop double digits each year when the sports gambling money magnets ramp us. Somebody needs to do something in the face of disappearing pari-mutuel gambling dollars. My drumbeat is a turn inward to an all-stakes racing environment, a well-reasoned swing at evolving harness racing into a much more ownership sport than a gambling sport. A shift of this sort could be in the wheelhouse of our breeding sector.

I know you are shaking your head and mumbling that it will never happen. Cold gnarled hands will never let go of the wheel. Certainly not in the past, but if you haven’t noticed, we are not in the past any longer. Technology has created a never-before gambling world. State borders, wire acts, legislation, competition, litigation, contracts, regulations and a thousand threads that held the old world together become less relevant by the hour. We are in “Game of Thrones” times when only the clever and the adaptive will carve out a niche.

Let’s look over the wall at a neighboring castle to demonstrate that change is possible.

Major League Baseball is an old sport that, for a century, seemed impervious to change. Baseball purists do not crave change. Recently, the MLB does not seem to care about hurting feelings, they are a business and when MLB was sure that sports gambling was coming, they acted accordingly.

In a few weeks, the grand old game will be significantly different; not just a tweak, but a quartet of radical new rules will be in play. Additional radical changes are scheduled every season until 2026. When the master plan is complete, the baseball season will be played noticeably faster with more action, athleticism and speed. The automated strike zone will be in use. The bases will be a few inches larger and new baseball rules will be in place. There will be convenient gambling, more streaming and new cities are all part of the master plan.

The sport of baseball is not making these significant changes on a whim. As soon as the numbers were crunched and digested, baseball made a complete about-face from being an opponent of sports gambling legislation into an ardent proponent. They are reorganizing for business reasons and each new step involves money.

Harness racing is an old sport that, for a century, seemed impervious to change. Many harness gamblers are purists who do not crave change. Few seem enthused about upsetting the harness-racing applecart. Our old purists may get their wish and play the same game until the pearly gate replaces the starting gate.

Hopefully, possibly, enough in the harness racing universe will read the tea leaves. However, two significant differences apply to baseball and harness racing.

While baseball is racing towards gambling money, our sport is trying to avoid extinction because the gambling money will eventually run away. The other big difference is that baseball has appointed individuals with the mandate and the power to make the alterations. Harness racing has not and probably will not.

We long for the good old days, but those days are gone. Our best bet is to change course, change radically. Our sport will likely become smaller, seasonal, insular and social. We may have a few more fleeting years. We should use these years to keep our assets, allocate them wisely and race to a new version of our sport.