On Andrew Cohen's fine blog at Harnessracing.com there is a good debate brewing about growing the game. Some think that if we improve the racing product we will see handle gains. Other say that the product itself is a good proposition, but we have wasted away with high takeouts and poor delivery.
Of course you know how we feel here about that. Over the last twenty years harness racing has faltered despite the product getting better, and better and better. We have improved the breed, improved speed, have better drivers and trainers. There is no, and has been no evidence that improving times of horses, and increasing the number of races by spreading around slot money has grown the handle in our game one cent. Despite this, over and over again we see our sport ask for more money for breeding, or more racedates. If harness racing was a patient and went to a doctor complaining of stomach pain we would tape its ankle and send it home, expecting it to be fixed. We have done absolutely nothing in a concerted way with slots money to grow handles.
Dave Hoffman's comment is bang on, and it makes so much sense that I assume many will just gloss over it. Dave must have been at the Hambo conference (or maybe not) because the story of Beat the Dealer was relayed by professional bettor James Erickson to exemplify how if a game can be beat, it generates excitement and interest.
The fact that at many tracks we have 2/5 favorites in many races is not necessarily due to the fact that there is poor quality racing -- what did Dewey go off at? what did SBSW go off at? What does Mister Big go off at? Individual tracks may have trouble fielding cards with competitve races due to either an incompetent racing secretary or short fields or something. (Incidentally, why are short fields thought of as too few horses rather than too many races?)
Rather, the problem with 2/5 favorites in lots of races is largely due to small handles -- the bigger the handle the more likely the odds will be more balanced. These are often the result of an owner putting $200 or even $100 to win on his own horse at a track with low handles. Now, it may not be rational to do so, maybe the horse ought to be the favorite, but not at 2/5. But for an owner who has already invested thousands of dollars, the psychological reward of cashing a ticket may compensate for the fact that the odds are too short for a rational bettor. Furthermore, for the owner, the cost of the bet is simply rolled into the cost of owning a horse, and becomes a small part of the total cost.
The quality of racing is not the reason that gambling on horses races has declined. The racing is better than ever. The horses are better (anyone won in 2:12 lately?). The tracks are better (does anyone want to eliminate the passing lane? Eliminate the staggered gate? Have lower banks in the turns?). The equipment is better (seen anyone using an old sulky lately?) Catch drivers are the rule rather than the exception, and they're racing a lot more often than they used to -- which would seem to indicate that the quality of driving is up.
Unfortunately, what's also up is the takeout. What horse racing needs is the perception that you can actually win. Look at the history of blackjack -- it was a minor casino game until Beat the Dealer came out, then it soared to become the most popular table. game. Another lesson to be learned is that it is actually not that people could beat the game, it is that they believed it was possible. Casinos implemented countermeasures to eliminate the advantages from card counting, but quickly reversed themselves because most people cannot play any system reliably enough to get the small advantages you get by card counting. Poker too --- much of its popularity is due to the fact that at least some people for some period of time can support themselves with their winnings at the poker table. You simply cannot do that at horse racing -- the takeout is too big. As long as the takeout is so big, horse racing will resemble lotteries or the slot machines -- which don't take so much work to understand. Where horse racing ought to go is the demographic of poker or stock trading, which are more closely allied, skill wise, with horse racing. But, why would you do horse racing when these other activities don't impose the huge transaction costs that racing does.
For those who believe that the best use of the slots money is for increased purses -- please let me know what metric to look at. Give me a benchmark that will let me know that this strategy is working five years from now. Mr. Langley says "wait" -- Wait until what? The product must be improved, he says -- until what point? Until the 3K claimers at Monticello are winning in 1:52? Until the lowest classes at Batavia have purses of 10K?
We need to listen to people like Dave. We have to get the fingers out of the pie to grow the pie. He is correct, harness racing will not grow if Yonkers races 15 races a day 7 days a week. We won't grow if we race for 20k purses instead of 15k purses. We won't grow if a 3 claimer starts going 53. We won't grow jamming a high cost product down the throats of bettors. We will grow for only one reason, and only one way: If we put money into growing handle. That way when we wake up and slots money is suddenly taken away, we'll still have a game.