Memo to Horsemen and Standardbred Tracks: Get behind Racing Under Saddle (RUS) or as known outside of North America, Monté racing. You may not realize it, but RUS may be what saves the standardbred industry.
The inaugural season for RUS is coming to a conclusion this Saturday, October 6 at Indiana Downs. By all accounts, this initial season has exceeded all expectations thank to the generosity of donors who have funded exhibition races this season. Yes, some races have been blow outs but others have been pretty competitive with races coming down to the wire. However, when you consider the limited training and racing opportunities for both riders and horses, it was to be expected; this was a learning year. After this season, the problems will be noted and steps taken to fix these deficiencies.
Why should the standardbred industry get behind RUS? It is an opportunity to attract horseplayers who have an aversion to our harness racing product; they can understand jockeys (riders), the sulky is something many can't abide. As we saw at The Red Mile, the limitations to the number of starters in a race is not the same as with a sulky, more horses can line up behind the gate. More wagering interests means larger pools and better payoffs. Gamblers who typically see perhaps eight betting interests in a race conceivably could be seeing up to fourteen if not more starters in a race. With the potential of horses racing traditionally and under saddle, it a little less predictability should be expected which should contribute to larger payoffs. In addition, racing under saddle has the potential of lengthening careers of standardbreds, keeping them in racing instead of being retired to an uncertain future.
With the vast majority of riders being female, RUS provides racing another entry point to get more women interested in racing, the same way the prescence of female jockeys does for thoroughbred racing. Monté racing also provides the sport another angle to get the attention of the regular media, though that will likely be a short term benefit. The different style of racing will help break up the tedium of the same old same old style of racing.
So what can horsemen and racetracks do to promote racing under saddle? Several things. For one, RUS cannot depend solely on donations to fund races. Horsemen need to dedicate a certain amount of their purse account towards RUS events. If not ready for pari-mutuel racing next year, it doesn't need to be a lot of funds, but enough so horsemen recognize there is money to be made racing under saddle, to make training for it worthwhile. When it comes to negotiating contracts, allow RUS events to substitue for traditional races on a racing program and count towards the racetrack's obligation to card a certain number of races scheduled daily.
Horsemen interested in RUS need to treat it more seriously, meaning horses are trained under saddle sufficiently, not just at the last minute to get a into a race; RUS needs to be considered a viable part of the horse's racing potential. Give riders sufficient time to work with the horses so they may be competitive the first time they are in a race. If you have RUS riders working for you in your stable, encourage them and provide time for them to hone their craft.
Racetracks need to step up to the plate to by scheduling RUS events, even if wagering is not yet available. The more races there are available, the more horses will get involved as owners see RUS as another opportunity to make money. The more there are RUS races, the more familiar and comfortable horseplayers will be when it comes to wagering.
Make no mistake, RUS alone will not solve racing's ills. Racing needs to deal with the takeout issue and fine a way to make the cost of wagering less thus encouraging larger pools. However, couple making racing more appealable to the gambler and the introduction of a different style of racing and racing may find itself with a better product all around.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of HANA Harness or the Horseplayers Association of North America (HANA).