Horse Racing's Innovation Blinkers

Innovation and horse racing. Put together, the two of them elicit feverish reaction in this sport. One one side you have the customers, along with some, like for example the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation and people who've made money outside the sport like Mike Repole. Then you have everyone else.

In the history of innovation, the everyone else is a powerful force.

In "How Innovation Works", an epic history of invention and innovation, British author Matt Ridley explains innovation in its glory, along with the forces that oppose it at every turn. It's the latter that struck me when it comes to this sport.

Ridley believes that there are three main characteristics to opposition to innovation: An appeal to safety, a self-interest among the vested, and a paranoia among the powerful.

When margarine was innovated in 1869 (as a cost saving to ever-expensive butter), the American Dairy Council denounced it; New York state banned it; "studies" were financed, one where one rat was given butter, one margarine, and within months, the margarine-fed rat died a horrible death (it was later uncovered that the study was bunk). Bogus bans on margarine were still on the books in 1940.

Cab drivers organized against the innovation of the umbrella; the Horse Association of America fought the introduction of the tractor. In 1707 a Londoner named Papin built a boat with a paddlewheel (the first innovation of the steamboat), demonstrated its efficiency one day at the shipping docks, expecting a marvelous reception. Instead, the oarsmen saw the competition and destroyed his boat.

If this rings a bell it should. This is pretty close to how racing has reacted over the years.

Remember in 2010 when California passed the law that allowed takeout to be increased? I bet you do; it was implemented in days.

Now, remember what was attached to that law? Exchange Wagering. As sports betting is passed in California and that 2-5 shot that you didn't like lost on Saturday at Santa Anita, was it fun betting against it on the exchange? No, because one doesn't exist - through safety (how it's safe to raise takeout is beyond me, but they clearly think so), vested interest and paranoia.

People complain about the lack of innovation using horse racing's data - namely, there is little to none. How can innovation happen through Equibase's vice-grip on it? They don't seem to want to break your boat as much as make it impossible to build.

Lowering the use of the whip to make racing more visually appealing in a world where the animal is considered so differently compared to our agrarian roots? You'd think we were talking about implementing margarine.

The sport - and as above this is not unique to only this sport - can't possibly leave a favorite off their pick 5 ticket, hoping to score. It's considered dangerous and unsafe to.

The innovation we do see is meaningful, but most-often its the proverbial deck chair. The Rainbow Six came from the Fortune 6 at Beulah, which came before it from a track in Puerto Rico. Now everyone has or wants one.

Post drags are fun. If they work at one track to steal money from another track it's great. The problem is that when all tracks do it, we're in some sort of Gene Roddenberry-12 Monkeys-Doctor Who hyperloop of post drag hell.

Both those "innovations", probably, in the long term, drive customers away from horse racing. I'm not an expert, but that seems sub-optimal.

Horse racing lacks the innovation bug because it's not built for it. But for those of you out there fighting the good fight, please keep fighting. This sport - and I don't think this is going out on a limb - needs an innovative sea-change.

Have a great Monday everyone.



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