Monday, August 12, 2013

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

This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update and is reprinted with permission of HRU.

In Part I we interviewed some dedicated thoroughbred players, or those who only dabble in harness racing, and asked them why they don’t play harness racing, or watch it more often. If you missed it, it’s here. The answers were interesting and eye-opening. In Part II we’ll analyze those answers and look at some of their suggestions. 

I was visiting Keeneland several years ago and had dinner with Mike Maloney, the professional player interviewed in part I of this series. Mike and I got to talking about how racing might grow. He told a story about meeting several twenty-somethings at Keeneland who told him about their casino experiences in Indiana, a not-too-far drive from Lexington, where they would spend some weekend’s gambling. They enjoyed it; with free drinks, pay for play, entertainment and a rip-roaring good time.
Mike said to me something I thought was poignant: ‘Horse racing cannot out casino a casino. We should never try to be like them, because we’ll lose.’

In this vein, when speaking about turning Thoroughbred players into harness bettors, I think the same applies. Harness cannot out-racing Thoroughbred racing by simply being more like them.  Any changes need to be nuanced, and stay true to what harness racing is.

Let’s tick off several common themes of last week’s article and dig a little deeper into them.

“The Big Event”

Dan Needham from Thorotrends and Ed DeRosa from Brisnet talked about big events, “being immersed in the culture”, and how much of a draw it is. I tend to agree.
Harness racing has big events, too, but they seem to have nowhere near the pull of the big Thoroughbred events, and are few (e.g. The Jug, Hambo or Gold Cup and Saucer). 
Harness stakes “season” is not really a season at all. Races are not graded, so casual fans do not have any idea which are most important, or where they lie in the calendar. Half the people in harness racing could not even tell you the dates, or which tracks are hosting the Pacing Triple Crown. Promotion of these events is substandard.

Conversely, America’s Best Racing, a marketing arm funded by the sport’s de-facto commissioner’s office, pushes each Thoroughbred Grade I event like it’s the place to be; a place to tune in and an event to bet.

Big events drive eyeballs. They introduce fans – new and old – to the horses who they may be watching down the line, perhaps at their local venue. Harness racing, probably through some sort of funded league office, needs to do better in this regard. It’s an important part of the sales funnel.

“Handicapping Literature, Data & Software”

Newer players like Mike Dorr, and seasoned veterans like Norm from the Knight Sky Racing Blog both mentioned the lack of availability of harness racing handicapping literature.  Jerod Dinkin specifically wrote:

I don't recall coming across a single harness racing book of note. It's very possible they are out there (although I suspect not in great numbers), but I only read the Quinn, Quirin, Davidowitz, Beyer, Ainslie, Sartin, and Brohamer types and they weren't talking harness. As such, I don't know the first thing about handicapping harness.”

Charlie Davis and Jeff Platt mentioned the lack of availability of data and racing software that can be used to gain an edge.

From Charlie Davis:
“The main reason I don't play harness to a large extent is because I can't get past data into a database in a reasonably priced manner.  I would pay a few thousand bucks to have a database of the past few years, but I can't even find that.  If I want to do that for Thoroughbreds, I have many choices of software that does more than just provide a database.  I'm not going to bet if I don't have a positive expectation, and I can't find out if I have a positive expectation without a database of historic information.”

I don’t think you or I know one serious bettor who has not read, or does not read what they can get their hands on when it comes to handicapping literature. When we do read of a new angle, or handicapping method we immediately want to try it and doggedly want to make it work, tweak it, or modify it. Sometimes the easiest way to do that is with a database of back data.

In harness racing these avenues are simply not there. Currently the narrative regarding that is ‘we cannot create these products because there are not enough people wanting them’. But is it the chicken or the egg?

Perhaps some supply side economics is needed: Create these products and then sell them. Give potential players who want to learn the sport the tools needed to learn it, and let’s see if they stick with it.

It’s not like other businesses don’t do this. Blackberry pays developers hundreds of thousands of dollars to build native apps for their platform, so they can sell their phones. Harness racing needs to invest, so it can sell the sport. It takes funding and a requisite leap of faith.

“Value and Sameness”

Seth Merrow and Jeff Platt spoke eloquently about the intricacies of handicapping Thoroughbreds with surface changes, breeding, stretch-outs, turnbacks and breeding. It’s a big kettle of fish.

Standardbred racing, as we all know, is “standard” at a mile. This makes the handicapping puzzle less complex, and for searchers of value on the tote board, much more difficult.

Like Mike Maloney noted in our conversation, racing is not going to out casino a casino, and standardbred racing is not going to out Thoroughbred Thoroughbred racing either. Sameness is what it is, and you can’t run away from it.

But that doesn’t mean one cannot add value to a tote board, or embrace the sameness angle as an advantage, not a detriment.

Value can be added to a field by increasing its contentiousness, like the Meadowlands is doing with their ABC classification system. For end of series events, like the Levy at Yonkers, trying new things like handicapping the start can be a means to an end to up tote board value and eliminate a post bias. 

Like Seth and I spoke about this week on his very good Capital OTB Television show, bets can be created that add value, like a V75. Seeded pools also create value.

In addition, where in Thoroughbred racing one might physical handicap by visiting a paddock and looking for a horse walking short, then following him to the post parade and watching him there, harness provides an inescapable interesting avenue that these players would love: Warm ups and score downs. The off-past performance betting advantage of those two elements makes going to the track not an experience where we need face painting for the kids to draw a crowd, but one where we as players can make money through a tremendous gambling edge.

Harness is a different game filled with ‘sameness’ yes, and it is a part of the core of this sport. It should not change, but it can be modified by embracing the elements of added value.

“Pool Size”

Norm, Alan Mann and a couple other respondents mentioned the tote, and pool size. Their points were bang-on. A ten to one shot at three minutes to post who ends up at 5-2 is not compelling. Betting a $20 exacta and knocking the payoff down to $18 from $30 is not either. Harness racing needs to worry about pool size and it needs to take it seriously.

The USTA, through the fine work of two players, Chris Schick of Cal-Expo and Seth Rosenfeld (a sharp gambler and breeder), have pushed the Strategic Wagering Initiative, where pools are guaranteed for various wagers. I would estimate this one change has helped harness racing handles the past two years more than any other. Harness needs to do more of it, they need to fund it and it needs to be promoted with verve.

“Respect for Gamblers Hard-Earned Money”

Norm from the Knight Sky Blog spoke about the control that trainers and drivers have in a race outcome.

Norm wrote:
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.”

Thoroughbred racing outcomes are dependent on race shape and running styles. A sprint with four “early or ‘E’” horses with 6 or 7 or 8 Quirin speed points allows one to handicap to it, and the result will be formful. “E” horses have to go hard, and rarely does the jockey have a choice on where he or she will be at the quarter pole.

In harness racing a driver can strangle a 3-2 shot to last, and not try a lick. He or she can sit in with a four to five shot to “school the horse to race off a helmet”. These things are infuriating to customers and we can count on a thousand fingers how many people have left betting the sport of harness racing because of them.

As a trainer or driver of a favorite or well bet horse, it is incumbent upon you to try; to give that person slugging away at a $14 an hour job who takes time out of his or her day to bet $20 on you a fair shot.

Harness racing will never ‘fix’ being boxed, or breaking trotters, because much of that is a part of the sport and beyond anyone’s control. But there are things that can be fixed that are in control. Being more respectful to customers’ hard-earned money is one of them.

“The Hodge Podge”

A few of the players said something obvious and it is something we all face in 2013 life: A lack of time to do what we need to do. On a Saturday afternoon there may be thirty thoroughbred tracks going off along with some harness tracks, too. It’s very difficult for harness to get its product in front of willing bettors. Better scheduling of the events and timing of off times should be explored.

Seth Merrow quizzically asked “why do harness saddlecloths differ from Thoroughbred’s and why can’t they be the same?” Funnily enough I wrote this exact same thing in an article years ago. I could never understand why a sport which is attracting near the same clientele would be so different. I received an email from Moira Fanning not long after the article telling me that “harness was first, and the Thoroughbreds were the ones who changed.” I did not know that.

It does beg the question: Why not change as Seth asked? Harness racing probably should. It makes the simulcast experience easier for customers who are not looking at harness racing. If you are trying to land a new market, the easiest way to turn them off is to confuse them.


Harness racing is harness racing. It is not Thoroughbred racing and never will be, nor should it be. However, trying to attract new bettors from a $12B betting game who are already pre-qualified to be interested in you, or who have bet and watched the sport before, is an important market. Trying to gain some of that market share should certainly be a priority.

As well, many of the Thoroughbred patrons comments, concerns, and criticisms echo the ones from former harness players who’ve long left the sport for other games or vocations. Fixing a few of the above issues not only attacks a Thoroughbred market, it helps bring people back to harness racing.
I enjoyed talking with my friends in Thoroughbred racing and I thank them for taking time out of their day to help. We all share a common bond: A love for the horse, a love for the majesty of the sport, and a love for the unique, sometimes infuriating, but never boring game of handicapping.  I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading their answers as much as I did.

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