Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why Don’t Thoroughbred Fans Embrace Harness Racing & Can Anything Be Done About It? Part I



 The following article was originally printed in Harness Racing Update.  It is being reprinted with their permission.

There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to marketing your product. One, try and find people who are prequalified to be your customer, and go get them. Two, try and land new customers by being different; the Seth Godin “Purple Cow”. 

The people targeted using the former, (when it comes to harness racing) might be Thoroughbred bettors. Harness racing is racing, just like Thoroughbred racing is; it has times, and form cycles, and layoffs. 

And the obvious: Standardbreds are horses.

What’s even better is that any horse racing customer of any breed already knows how to bet. Harness racing occurs at night, too, where weekend warriors might be enticed to move over to the pacers and trotters after a day at the races, or on a Thursday evening, when Gulfstream or Santa Anita are long over. It makes some sense.

In that vein, I decided to ask some very dedicated Thoroughbred customers a simple question: Why don’t you play and watch the harness races?
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The first person I chatted with was Jeff Platt. Jeff is a long time bettor who is the creator of Jcapper, a software program that helps his customers sniff out some winners. He is also President of the Horseplayers Association of North America.

Jeff and I began talking about Derby weekend, where we were both amazed at the contentiousness of the cards, and the Derby itself. At one point I proclaimed “what a freakishly interesting game we play”.  That started him off:

“The ‘freakishly amazing’ is what makes me a Thoroughbred player. I once considered harness racing before I entered the Thoroughbred realm. I looked at the data points and the factors that go into winning and losing race in both sports and I could see much more chaos and variance in Thoroughbred racing. Harness was sameness – same distance, same horses, and very few ship-ins. I could not get the data I needed like I could at a place like Brisnet, as well. I expected there would be more overlays in thoroughbred racing because of it and that ended up being correct. In addition, the takeouts were higher in harness compared to thoroughbreds so that made my decision a no-brainer. But, really, the biggest thing for me was the ability to look at tons of data – and datamine it – in thoroughbred racing. Harness was just not up to snuff.”


Ed DeRosa, now doing the marketing heavy lifting with the aforementioned Brisnet, is a huge fan and everyday bettor, and he said a few things that I thought were interesting, when we relate them stakes season, and the ‘immersion’ that does occur more with the Thoroughbreds.
“Growing up in Cleveland, I was as interested in harness as Thoroughbred racing. The first major racing event I covered as a journalist was the Jug, and I miss going each year.”
“I worked at Thistledown summer of 2000 and joined Thoroughbred Times in May 2003, and in that period through early 2004 I'd say I was still betting harness regularly to the point that I was the subject of some good-natured ribbing by my Thoroughbred-only colleagues. I remember one August afternoon at the Big T betting the Adios from the Meadows while live racing was going on outside. In Lexington, trips to The Red Mile after work were not uncommon in my single days.”
 “As I got more immersed in my job at Thoroughbred Times, immersion in the culture came with it. No longer was I a weekend warrior picking my spots for a full day (or night of gambling). I was handicapping races 2-3 times a week now, and it was always Thoroughbred racing. I still look at the Hambletonian and Jug week and visit Northfield when I'm in Cleveland, but for me as a [larger] bettor, there's just no time to do harness racing on a serious level when I'm balancing Thoroughbred handicapping from the standpoint of both a horseplayer and industry professional.”
Norm, who runs the Knight Sky Blog, like Ed, did follow both harness racing and Thoroughbred racing, but the runners won out.

 “As one who was weaned into horse racing at The Meadowlands harness, there are several reasons why I do not participate as much on the standardbred side.

“The learning curve is so steep for new fan that I decided on one major course of study while I was in college: Thoroughbreds. There is much more handicapping and historical literature on the thoroughbred side. From legends like Ainslie and Beyer texts, I had to class down to Nick Cammarano and Barry Meadow on the Harness side.”

Handicappers say standardbred form is more stable. That may be true but that is often negated by questionable driving strategy. Some leave, some go first over, other drivers sit chilly when they shouldn't. With the thoroughbreds I think I can handicap and know exactly where my horse should be placed on the track (at least in the opening stages) and that's why I often comment on riding skills or the lack of. That's not always done consistently with harness drivers. Drivers control the game. That along with racing luck, getting shuffled back or trotters breaking stride and causing interference is not the kind of chance I want to take.”

“Pool sizes are a major reason, too. I grew up as a $2 player. Having graduated to the size where Plainridge or Monticello pools easily would reduce the payouts on a $10 or $20 combo. Those tracks are not worth the time to follow in-depth when there are better products available.”


Melissa Nolan is a Kentucky resident who lives, eats and breathes Thoroughbred racing. For her, it’s a matter of accessibility and information.

“I honestly don't know much about harness, though I'd like to know more.  The standardbred business in Kentucky is much smaller than it used to be and even though we have The Red Mile, community awareness of it is low.  Additionally, it runs the "Grand Circuit" the same weekend in October as Keeneland's FallStars so that makes it tough to attend.”

“In terms of simulcast betting I wouldn't know where to go for past performances of harness, and if I did I probably couldn't interpret them.  Accessibility to information to learn from is probably the single biggest obstacle to me betting harness.”


Seth Merrow runs the popular Drudge-like horse racing link site, Equidaily.com, and is also seen on Capital OTB TV in the New York region. Like Ed, Seth cut his teeth in harness racing.

 “I became a fan of horse racing by going to the Saratoga harness track. While I still follow harness racing to some degree - and I still make a handful of visits to the track each season -- I did float away and shift far more of my attention to thoroughbred racing as time passed.”

“I still tell people that harness racing is a great way to break into the sport - because there are fewer variables. Races are typically limited to eight horses - and virtually all of the races are one mile. That limits the intrigue - which makes the handicapping puzzle a little bit easier. In turn however - that probably also dampens the value.

“We've all been there: When you first become interested in horse racing, turning your two dollar win-bet into $5.20, or six, or seven dollars is exciting. So is a fifteen or twenty dollar daily double. But as you gain more experience - and particularly with the various type of wagers available now - you shop for more value. My sense is -- and it's only anecdotal -- that harness racing doesn't offer the same value on a daily basis that t-bred racing does.”

“Part of that I'm sure is 'sameness'. Varied surfaces and distances in t-bred racing add handicapping 'intrigue', in turn making races more challenging to handicap, and making the results less predictable. Again, at least anecdotally, offering more value.”




Seth Merrow runs the popular Drudge-like horse racing link site, Equidaily.com, and is also seen on Capital OTB TV in the New York region. Like Ed, Seth cut his teeth in harness racing.

 “I became a fan of horse racing by going to the Saratoga harness track. While I still follow harness racing to some degree - and I still make a handful of visits to the track each season -- I did float away and shift far more of my attention to thoroughbred racing as time passed.”

“I still tell people that harness racing is a great way to break into the sport - because there are fewer variables. Races are typically limited to eight horses - and virtually all of the races are one mile. That limits the intrigue - which makes the handicapping puzzle a little bit easier. In turn however - that probably also dampens the value.

“We've all been there: When you first become interested in horse racing, turning your two dollar win-bet into $5.20, or six, or seven dollars is exciting. So is a fifteen or twenty dollar daily double. But as you gain more experience - and particularly with the various type of wagers available now - you shop for more value. My sense is -- and it's only anecdotal -- that harness racing doesn't offer the same value on a daily basis that t-bred racing does.”

“Part of that I'm sure is 'sameness'. Varied surfaces and distances in t-bred racing add handicapping 'intrigue', in turn making races more challenging to handicap, and making the results less predictable. Again, at least anecdotally, offering more value.”