Monday, July 2, 2012

Does Harness Racing Need a New Triple Crown?


In literally hundreds of racing articles, both standardbred and thoroughbred, we’ve heard that racing is one of the few sports that don’t have a season. There seems to be no beginning or end, and those who say that seem to have a strong point.

However, I was doing some office work a few weeks ago and took a look at some internet traffic stats on the bellwether Daily Racing Form website (DRF.com), via Quantcast.


What we notice is a large spike in traffic and interest starting in late April, and it lasts to about late June. This coincides almost perfectly with Triple Crown. If we go back and look at years past, it’s exactly the same.  There is a season in thoroughbred racing; the fans are telling you when it begins and ends. 

If we pull up the same graphs for harness racing, whether it is website statistics, search terms, or news mentions, we do not see such a spike throughout our calendar.  Even storied races like the Little Brown Jug, Hambletonian, or other big money events like the North America Cup barely seem to register in any tangible way.

It can be argued the Triple Crown series in thoroughbred racing keeps that sport on the nation’s radar, and has for many years. Handles for the three races (and race cards) can make a track’s entire year, and it’s one of the few times that the television networks pay racing to show the races, not the other way around. 

Is harness racing missing out?

I asked some fans on Twitter if they could name the three races that comprise the Pacing Triple Crown, and only a couple of them even knew what I was talking about.  I’ve followed the sport since I was 11 years old, and I can’t honestly tell you with 100 percent accuracy where the Cane Pace will be held this year, or when exactly the Messenger will be scheduled.

“The Pacing Triple Crown is obsolete and has been for decades,” said Perretti Farms’ Bob Marks. “No one can decide what to do, if anything, and they’ve talked about it.”

In the 21st century in racing, I believe we don’t really need board meetings and votes to decide what races should be in or out of a Triple Crown, we should simply let the market decide.

The market says the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup should be the first leg of the Triple Crown. Not only has the race been endorsed by horsemen and horse owners as the first big tilt for sophomores, it has been endorsed by fans. Over $3 million is bet annually on the card, and Woodbine Entertainment Group promotes it well. On-track attendance, since moving the event from cavernous Woodbine Racetrack to cozy Mohawk Racetrack, has swelled. Last year, just like the previous few years, I had to dodge fans on the tarmac, ensuring I didn’t spill any of my drink, which we all know is rare for our harness events.  Canada’s Score Television Network, which is available in millions of homes, televises it each year, too.

The Preakness Stakes tends to keep the buzz going for the thoroughbred Triple Crown because it is held only two weeks after the Derby. The $1 million Meadowlands Pace fits that to a “t,” and it should be our second leg.  Jeff Gural has been trying to grow the Meadowlands and perhaps the public, the media and government will take us more seriously if the Meadowlands Pace is more than a stand-alone event.  It has a big purse, it has cache, and it has a good history. In addition, punters love the Meadowlands, and earlier this decade it was not uncommon to see over $5 million bet on this race card. This is an easy choice for leg two, even if the purse has to come down over the next few years.

My final leg will be the Little Brown Jug. If you ask people outside racing to name a harness race, chances are this race will be mentioned.  The event plays well on television with heats and a final, and the huge crowd is a massive bonus for us. This enables us to leverage crowdsource and buzz; two items vital for a strong event nowadays. It’s on a half-mile track as well, which adds to the flavor. It is a unique event.

There are pluses and minuses in choosing the above three races, but when we group them together, I believe they work.

Marketer and 21st century marketing consultant Seth Godin in All Marketers are Liars researches the reasons we buy a $200 pair of sneakers that feel similar to a $50 pair, or pay $3.50 for a coffee when we can drink the same brand from a coffee pod at work for 40 cents.

Godin wrote, “Successful marketers don’t talk about features or even benefits. Instead they tell a story. A story we want to believe.”

The three races that make up our new Pacing Triple Crown tell a wonderful story; one that fits the image of harness racing and harness horses like a glove.

“Three races, three size tracks, culminating in a final leg where an iron tough harness horse struts his stuff in front of 40,000 fans in Ohio, having to win two races on the same day to be crowned champion.”

Try and top that story.

It’s been a long time since racing was a monopoly. In the old days a gym bag giveaway at Greenwood Raceway in downtown Toronto would ensure an overflow crowd. In 2012, it’s not that way at all. We need events and a story.  A new Pacing Triple Crown might help us usher in a new era, give us something to promote to the masses, and bring more fans to our wonderful sport. It’s a story that I think needs to be written.

 This article originally appeared in Harness Racing Update. To subscribe for free, please click here.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The three races are all good choices, but there's too much time between the Meadowlands Pace and the Jug to keep people interested in a Triple Crown.

The third leg needs to be no later than early August. The question, what race would fit? Only the Adios in PA comes to mind.

The sad part of this discussion is the questionable future of Canadian racing puts the N. A. Cup in doubt and The Meadowlands is still iffy. Only Delaware, Ohio appears to be a sure thing for now. Think Ohio could move the fair dates?

Pacingguy said...

I can't argue with your choices. Of course, that assumes there will be a Pepsi North America Cup to include:-(

Alpha Link said...

Not bad at all... (for a consultant or whatever!)
IMO the Jug has to be the anchor - purses be damned. This game is flailing around looking for a draw for the public (we'll forget about rake for the moment) It's imperative that we build on tradition, the heart-stirring calls from Jugs past etc. If we boil it all down to it's filthiest essence, Pepsi Cups, etc. we're pandering to sponsors that couldn't give a rat's ass whether the sport lives or dies. this whole sponsorship thing stinks - if the sport can't survive without it, then die with dignity.
No argument to the three different track configurations, but it should culminate in a battle of guts over a half in heats... that will weed out the shrinking violets.
Cheers, AL