Racing revolutionaries at Rooster’s Roadhouse

Could an NCAA bracket-inspired series of short match races help harness racing?

by Trey Nosrac

“I got another idea, you know, for harness horse racing.”

My pal Duke groaned, “Not another one,” and grabbed a handful of popcorn from a red plastic basket on the bar at Rooster’s Roadhouse.”

“Seriously, I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot.”

Duke slowly swiveled his bushy head towards me and said, “The more you think about something, the worse it usually gets for the rest of us, especially those who like the sport just the way it is.”

Ignoring him, I asked, “Do you remember years ago, in the winter Olympics, there was that kid named Apolo Ohno, a short track speedskater? I’m not sure why they even called it speedskating because the racers just cruised around the oval track, taking turns leading the race, deking, feinting and then, wham, a wild rush to the finish line.”

Duke nodded. “I do remember those races. I also remember bicycle races where the riders did the same sort of thing in the summer Olympics. Bicycle riders would slow down and try to get the other guy ahead. Then they would race fast for a short distance, then slow again, then move high on the banked track, then down, always waiting for the perfect moment to race full out. The races were like chess matches and almost always ended in close finishes.”

“Exactly. Now think about March Madness basketball brackets or any bracket for a contest of finding a winner out of eight contestants.”

He took a slug of his beer, gave a small burp and said, “Like the quarterfinals of a tennis tournament.”

I gave him a playful punch on the shoulder. “Precisely.” I unfolded a piece of paper from my flannel shirt pocket showing an empty grid of the Elite Eight basketball brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament.

“After the first four games, half the contestants go home, half go forward. Two more contestants get eliminated in the next round and then you have the Championship finals. The winner needs to win three games.”

“Sure, I got it.”

I spread the paper on the bar surface and continued. “Now imagine that in each of the first eight slots was a racehorse of similar ability.”

He stroked his beard and asked two quick questions, “Do the horses have numbers, like from one to eight and do they only race in pairs?”

I smiled and gave him another punch on his tattooed shoulder. “You learn quickly, Jedi. Yes and yes. Horses have numbers and they race one lap around a 5/8-mile track. They race strategically, not necessarily all out. The races are much more mind games between the drivers than merely the raw ability and speed of the horses. Remember, in a match race situation, if you bust out with your horse and try to go wire to wire, you automatically give the other horse a perfect pocket trip.”

Duke nodded and said, “There would be plenty of photo finishes.” Then he asked, “So, be specific. What happens after the first round in this horse tournament?”

“The losing horse goes home with $1,000. All horse owners go home with some money. The winning horse goes to the paddock for a quick rest. Although he will not be tired because he only raced a lap, probably not at maximum speed.”

Duke took a slug of his Bud Light and looked at the paper with the brackets. I could tell by his lack of snide comments that I had his attention. He asked, “What about the start? Do they use a car?”

“No, not necessary. Both must be within a neck at the start of the race.”

He stroked his beard, “Hmm, so you are saying these are short-distance, strategic, match races.”

“Yep, the match races follow each other quickly. The first round will probably take less than 15 minutes. Then it is on to round two. Two races, two winners go forward, two losers earn $2,000 and go home.”

He asked, “Could people wager on the individual matches or just the winner of the final?”

I took a sip and thought for a minute, “I don’t see why people couldn’t wager on both.”

“What’s the purse?”

“I don’t know, Duke, this is hypothetical. We are engineering in a new frontier, pioneering a new paradigm, going where no man has gone before, and saving the sport of harness racing.”

He chuckled and said, “We are slinging manure after three beers, but you know Trey, you have had worse ideas. You have had hundreds of worse ideas, you have a bad idea every day, but there are a lot of pluses with this one.”

He ticked them off on his fingers as he said, “The action would be fast. The horses would not race down to their knees and human beings are much more important in races like these. There would be plenty of wagering angles, new and casual gamblers would not need to know much and photo finishes almost every race. No dreadful post positions, no starting car, safer…”

I interrupted him. “Whoa, whoa, Duke, I haven’t seen you this excited since the Judge denied alimony to your second wife.”

We clinked beer bottles.

We thought briefly, then Duke asked, “Ever see this kind of race happening?”

“Probably not. Traditionalists would get the vapors. Match racing harness horses would be too much of a shock to existing systems. Maybe, conceivably, there is a slight chance that an enterprising racetrack could run a match race contest like we are talking about before or after a regular race program on an experimental basis, sort of a prototype.”

“I’ll tell you what, my man. Old Duke would watch them races and bet a few dollars. I can’t believe you finally came up with an idea with legs.”

We clinked again.