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The Disconnect Between the Rank and File and the Alphabets

I, like many of you, have been following the Jug telecast brouhaha the past month. And I, like you do, find it fascinating. For those who might not be overly familiar with the story, the USTA was approached by Jeff Gural’s team about televising the Little Brown Jug this year. Jeff and his team were after some funding to bridge the gap. After a 13-1 vote at the USTA, it was decided the issue would be tabled until next year.

That decision did not sit well with the rank and file.

And they got to work. Jack Darling, with a simple blog at Standardbred Canada asked you, me and the fencepost, if some money might not be raised to fund – internally – this venture. Within a week there were thousands of dollars pledged.

Just this Monday Jack updated folks on his blog again regarding this outpouring of support. Murray Brown and Myron Bell, Yannick and Tim, White Birch Farm, Sugar Valley Farm, John Campbell, Linda Toscano and Bob McIntosh. All of those racing participants gave $500 or more to the project. Some like the Wishing Stone Syndicate ($2000), SBSW Syndicate/Hanover Shoe Farm ($5000), Bill Weaver ($5000), Diamond Creek Farm ($5000) and others gave even more. (If I listed all who gave, I would have to submit a column 3 times longer than I usually submit. Please go here to see for yourself who contributed).

“Kickstarter.com” is a website that funds hard to fund projects. The ballet community raised hundreds of thousands to produce a documentary showcasing their art, fans of the TV show Veronica Mars raised a million dollars in a number of hours to get a feature film produced; there are thousands of other examples. Jack created a kickstarter for harness racing, and it worked. Over $100,000 was raised. The big question is, “Why did he have to?”

Jack wrote: “I think the people in harness racing have made a statement. We are passionate about our sport, proud of it and we want to promote it to a wider audience to attract new fans. Hopefully this will inspire our industry leaders to continue with a fund like this where the money can be used to promote harness racing. A small percentage from each race would build up quickly into a substantial war chest that could be used for meaningful promotions.”

That’s where the disconnect between the rank and file and the alphabets in this sport rears its head. In large numbers, the people who buy the trucks and hay and feed, breed the horses, race night in and night out, pay the fees and supply purses through betting want one thing. But when it’s sent upstairs for approval to the people who represent them, things tend to die on a vine. This is not about the USTA (in fact, they had another meeting and agreed to fund some of Jeff’s venture), this is about the culture of the sport. It’s the way it works.

 In Ontario what Jack wrote above was proposed in 2009. Almost 3,000 people signed a petition to take a little bit out of purse money, to get a list of previously studied and agreed upon initiatives done, to hopefully grow the sport of harness racing. When it went “upstairs”, it died.

Back in 2008 I was presenting at the Standardbred Wagering Conference in Montreal. In one session everyone discussed uncashed ticket money. That’s the money from customers which is lost, or not cashed over a one year period. That money – totalling millions of dollars in North America – is never returned to its rightful owners, the people who lost it. Seeking an innovative way to do something for the customers, and to grow the bet and gain some goodwill, it was proposed that this uncashed ticket money be used to seed pools and market those days in which they are offered. We all see what carryover pools do in attracting money, and we all know this sport needs marketing money spent, so let’s fill the seats and get the pools up in a sport that is in dire need of it. I thought it was a great idea.

I wasn’t the only one. It was pretty much unanimous: “Let’s get this done,” everyone said. Trainers, owners, bettors, grooms, whomever was at this industry meeting were all in agreement. Even the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency said “bring it to us and we’ll get it done.” When I called about two months later to see how this initiative was going, and when we might see seeded pools and some marketing money spent, I was told that a group disagreed (they were getting a piece of the revenue from the uncashed ticket money) so it died.

Probably 95 out of 100 people in this sport want to see the Triple Crown reworked. It goes upstairs and dies. Probably an equal 95 out of 100 want to see some sort of stakes grading system created to promote the sport to the masses more. It goes upstairs to die.

When the rank and file at such a huge percentage want something done and it does not get done it breeds resentment, distrust and the worst characteristic of all: It makes everyone feel disenfranchised. When people feel that way they simply stop caring.

 I am not naive and neither are you. We are businessmen and women and we didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. We know things are difficult to get done. We know that the system of taking money from purses to try and grow wagering and fan demand is not easy. We know that Jeff Gural’s work and idea regarding funding the Jug telecast might’ve needed some tweaking. We know we can’t flip a switch and have a new Triple Crown or graded stakes racing. But what angers everyone most is when these things are proposed there is no counter. There’s very little, “this in principle is a good idea and in overwhelming numbers you want it. Give us two weeks to look at it and form a plan to get something done.” There’s almost no alternative offered. It’s just “no”, or “maybe we’ll look at it next year.”

 I think that’s the culture that needs to change in harness racing. It does not make sense to anyone that 90% or more of the people in shedrows, supplying feed, mucking stalls, shipping horses, breeding horses, betting horses and paying the bills can all want one thing, to have it sent upstairs and be voted down by 13 of 14 people. There’s just no way that’s a system anyone can think is working. The gap between the people who pay the bills each day and those who represent them needs to be bridged in the sport of harness racing. If that happens, perhaps ideas can flourish instead of being sent upstairs to die.

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