Horse Racing Innovation, a Task None too Small

I read an interesting article by the Atlantic's Derek Thompson on Thomas Edison yesterday. The article, summarizing a book on the amazing man's life, touched on something we've been hearing about for some time - the incubation of innovation, or lack of it of late.

Back in the 1870's, Edison created a full blown lab for invention in Menlo Park. Working with others, invention (and innovation) was fostered through these unique interactions. The established business community, at times slower to move than its smaller counterparts, were critical of such a collaborative lab. The head of AT&T at the time said -

"It has never, is not now, and never will pay to keep an establishment of professional inventors."

Fortunately, that company acquiesced on that position, creating Bell Labs, which gave us the laser, transistor, and through others, rubber, nylon, the computer and the building blocks for the internet.

Lately, the corporate goals through innovation and invention have changed. Researchers at Duke University submitted a study that concludes these incubation labs have left most big businesses. Invention is left to others, like universities (or smaller companies), with businesses focusing on the end product.

I might be talking out of my hat, but that makes some sense qualitatively doesn't it? New, cutting edge ideas, like for example wunderkind Boyan Slat's Ocean Clean Up tech that is projected to solve the world's plastics problem by 2040 have popped up. This non-profit has been funded by Silicon Valley and individuals; a GE would not even touch it with a ten foot pole. There are countless other examples almost every day in the news.

When looking at horse racing, does anyone know what's put directly into research and development? I don't but I surmise it's very small. The innovation and invention is left to others, like back in 2002, with UK based Betfair. This disruption, however, was pretty short lived, frankly. When Betfair was bought out by super-large Paddy Power its appeared the innovation almost ceased - just as the researchers from Duke predicted it would.

When larger companies do not innovate, it's left to the Boyan Slats of the world. But in horse racing, that can't happen. We (and others like Superterrific and Crunk to name two) have talked about this for a long time. Have an idea about data? Equibase owns it. Have a great idea about wagering? It's constrained by the tote system and places like CDI and TSG control signals. How about something new, fun and vibrant with video? There's a place called Roberts that will shoot you down quicker than Dick Cheney on a hunting trip.

The obvious solution is to (oh god, don't go here PTP) take a slice of slot revenue, and create a Bell Labs for horse racing. But that too is handcuffed by the same shedrow shackles.

Perhaps the naysayers are correct - horse racing is here to harvest the revenue it has, until there is none left. But it sure would be nice if somehow, someway, the morass can be navigated to make something happen. This game, with thousands of bettable events, with millions of data points, in a world where a 16 year old kid can come with an idea to clean up oceans, can and should do better.

Have a nice Tuesday everyone.

The Business of Horse Racing's Zero Expectation

I saw a tweet last evening -
We've seen - since last spring - many tweets or articles or columns echoing much of the same from disparate areas of the public. It's certainly been rough.

Western society is generally pretty fair (if you don't use social media or political fringes as your yardstick). It tolerates quite a bit, quite frankly. We tolerate things that are bad for us because not being free to do them is considered worse. We tolerate automobile deaths, deaths by alcohol, guns, airplanes and many other things.

When it reaches a certain level it becomes more of a concern. But with all of those things that level is never zero.

Horse racing, in my view, is not in that same place.

Since the spring, to many, the "equine body count" is supposed to be zero. Even horse racing has talked about it - when Del Mar had no on track breakdowns during its last meet, it was trumpeted. That, I think, is shortsighted. Horse racing's zero expectation can never be met.

If this was deemed more of a problem several years ago and there was a plan to get it to an "acceptable" level, things would be better; the zero expectation would not exist. But, for whatever reason, it wasn't tackled with near the urgency it should have been.

I believe horse racing needs to do its best to flip the argument. The public and politicians realize horse racing is an athletic game with 1,000 pound animals carrying 100 pound jocks. They will accept a certain level of danger (and yes, death).

It's above my pay grade to offer a solution to a problem that has been ignored and gone on for so long. Plus, I'm a dude with a blog. But, showing improvement in the numbers and conditioning the public the number will never be zero could be wise. Playing the political expectation game might be all the sport has left.

Have a nice Wednesday folks.

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