Western Fair CEO Hugh Mitchell, at a recent round table, possessed one of my favorite quotes (I have mentioned it before):
"Making changes in racing is like turning around a 747 on a tennis court".
This, in reference to the lack of central authority in racing, power groups fighting over their slice who are unwilling to give an inch etc, is met with a nod from virtually everyone in our sport.
Our little blog here is read by both insiders and bettors, and it has always amazed me that on many items we discuss, there is a virtual church chorus of agreement: Yes we need change, and much of it is common sensical. The problem has always been getting there.
However, I think we are starting to.
Recently we have seen some changes that have been spoken about at conferences and in back rooms for years: Things like lowering the takeout, concentrating on race dates that card good bettable races and don't just dole out slots money like food stamps, and so on. In addition, the dam is being broken with some solid marketing on both sides of the border on guaranteed pools, free past performances and many other customer-centric benefits. The Hambo has been exporting their signal for some time now, to growing interest outside North American confines.
On the sporting side of the equation, which as a catalyst should trickle down into customer interest, we are seeing even more.
Recently the World Driving Championships took place at four separate racetracks. Say what we want about these championships (yes the horse wins races, not the person sitting behind the horse), this one was done better than any others I have seen. I watched the last leg at Yonkers and found it well done, interesting, and something to build upon.
Adding to that, and trying to generate even more excitement and marketing possibilities, (using something we have begged the industry to use to promote itself for years - slot cash), the fine folks at Tioga Downs are going one step further, offering cash incentives and prizes for the Annual Driving Championship in the US. The top seven reinsman in earnings will be competing, in what I think is a first.
Further we have Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural. He wants to force this industry to meet something head on that we have spoken about and others have spoken about as being a pox on our sport for a generation: Our stars retiring at three to go to stud. We all know what the NBA would be if Shaq or Kobe, or Dr. J or Larry Bird retired after one or two seasons. Horse racing has lived with this throughout its history, with simultaneous cries of "why don't people look at us like a sport?"
There will be cries to stop this initiative (he plans to not allow foals from sires who are under 4 years of age to race in his events) from the usual 'status-quo protecting' suspects, but I say phooey on them. A few malcontents should not rise above the voices of many.
Just think about what we as a sport can do with this new policy. Our breed will be strengthened because the horses who are able to succeed at two, three and four will command top dollar. Money may be diverted from the two year old stakes to the four year old stakes, adding to handles. Most importantly, we might be able to really roll the Breeders Crown, by finally creating a Breeders Crown Classic, where fans can see the best and fastest three year old and four year old horses in the World compete against each other for a fan friendly TV made event, for a monster purse.
We are making some progress and continue to. Usually the next sentence involves prose asking "if it's too late", but that's completely counter-productive.
I still agree with Hugh - changing things is like turning around a jet on a tennis court - and we have a long, long way to go. But rest assured: That jet is slowly turning.