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.

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