Friday, May 29, 2009

USFL, WHA...... Chester

The New Jersey Generals sign Herschel Walker. The LA Express sign Steve Young. The Hartford Whalers sign Gordie Howe.

Thank goodness the NFL and NHL actually had some power structure, because when the stars are signed to alternate leagues, the broader sport suffers. They found a way to either merge, or wait for an implosion.

Unfortunately, the hodge-podge that is racing can not stop this from happening in our sport.

The Meadowlands, Churchill Downs, Keeneland are all brands. When they falter, the sport falters. With slots and entries being peeled off to lesser tracks, that do not have a brand (yes, I know we have seen and heard this before here and elsewhere), it does the sport no good.

There is no better example of this than the Meadowlands and Chester. The Meadowlands is harness racing; when someone mentions the sport, the M is the track that they think of. In contrast, a harness fan was watching the races with me the other day and a race from Chester came on. He asked "where is Chester anyway?" My answer, "Chester is a track that all the drivers now race at, and all the best horses go to race."

"OK, but where is it?"

On Wednesday night there were some god awful races at the Meadowlands. Half the drivers were names that rarely, if ever, even drive at the Meadowlands. Tonight I watched the first few races at the M and they were seven horse fields that would not be carded at that racetrack on their worst day. Flipping over on HPITV to Chester I saw all the big name trainers and drivers racing. The problem? They were racing in front of no one. Everyone was inside pulling a handle on a machine, and real fans were watching the Meadowlands.

Chester is the USFL. The Meadowlands is the big league. The problem is, there is no one in charge to stop the insanity. When we have the best horses and drivers at tracks that no one watches, and our top brand suffers, it is simply another nail in the coffin for our sport. In case you have not noticed, harness racing can not afford to operate in a sub-optimal fashion.

Chester, Pocono and Yonkers should be running short stakes meets and that is all. The Meadowlands should be this sports beacon, for promotion, and for marketing. If there was someone in charge this would have been done long ago. Sooner or later this sport is going to have to decide if slots are a welfare scheme for horseman and for drivers (many of whom make more money than a surgeon, while driving a horse in front of an empty grandstand), or there to grow the sport of racing. If they decide to do the former, just send people checks and tell them to stay home, if it is the latter, start working towards doing something about it.


Anonymous said...

Not really relevant to the conversation - but I HATE the Chester'a announcer's call of "They're on the Bridge".

Anonymous said...

Great intro pulled me right in. Better than that you are 100% correct.

Allan said...

May I also remind you that the Meadowlands is the receipient of slots revenue as well? The only difference is the slots are in Atlantic City and the casinos write a check to them. If there was not slot revenue for the Meadowlands for the last four years, they would have already become irrelevant or closed up.

Want to get the Meadowlands back to number one status? Run a shorter meet and you can pay out your 'welfare' over a shorter period of time and have bigger purses. With all the tracks we have, no one track should run more than three months a year; then all tracks would become recognizable.

As a point of reference, there are not those many fans watching the Meadowland live these days either. Half the plant is closed.

There is one problem with your USFL/NFL analogy. Football is a league. Harness racing is a product and each track is a company that produces the product. Companies that innovate get stronger, companies that do not innovate eventually get weaker and die off. This is the free market. Unfortunately, the state of New Jersey has become an unfriendly market. In other businesses, they would just relocate to another location where they can do business in a friendly environment.

Some businesses get stronger, others die off. Before the Meadowlands, Yonkers and Roosevelt were the big brands. Well, the Meadowlands may be in the process of becoming irrelevent or heading to extinction. I would suggest if the Meadowlands continues to get weaker, Chester will become the number one brand.

The idea of a league is admirable, but unfortunately, with each state regulating racing, it will never happen. I would like to suggest the following alternative:

In NY and NJ, to help stimulate commerce in the area, they formed the Port Authority of NY/NJ. I would suggest we lobby for each state to give up their regulatory power to a regional agency which will be charged with promoting racing in the region and these agencies can pay taxes to the individual states. Let's have the Horse Racing Authority of NY, NJ, PA be in charge of racing in the lower portion of NY, all of NJ and northeast PA and be in charge of creating a racing circuit between all the tracks in their area so no track would run long meets. Then there can be a racing authority in charge of racing in southeast PA, DE, MD and VA and so on. A percentage of the handle can be pooled to ensure purses at each track within the authority's area reach a minimum.

By having such a racing authority, there would be no more than one harness and one thoroughbred track running in the area at a given time. You will then have strong race meets which will be appealing to bettors.

JLB said...

As someone who attended the opening, among 40000 patrons, of the Meadowlands more than 3 decades ago, I, too, am saddened at the decline of this once great track. I was shocked, earlier this week, to see them card a 10 claimer that did not even fill. In addition to the competition from the slots-fueled tracks, I think part of the problem has been a very fast surface that takes its toll on the horses. Also, if you think the Meadowlands is racing in front of crowded stands, think again - rarely are there more than 2000 people there (admittedly more than on-track attendance at Yonkers, Pocono, Dover, and Chester).

Theodore L. Grevelis said...

Interesting analogy. As an owner involved in both Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds, these days you need to race where the money is. The economics of the game has always been tough, but never tougher than now. It's a vicious circle: we can't make ends meet if we don't race for better purses, you can't seem to get better purses these days without the slots, add slots and loose spectators, business keeps spiraling down as fan base erodes.

Pull the Pocket said...

All very good points, and thanks for that idea Allan. It makes sense to me.

It is just very tough as a fan to watch our sport get watered down to the point where you flip on the M and find you can not even bet a race if you want to. I think the game is a compelling gambling one that can be sold, but we are not going to be able to sell Yonkers or another track like Chester. The Meadowlands is what we sell, and how it is currently going, it is a tougher and tougher sell.

Anonymous said...

I basically said the same thing to a horseman I was talking to last week. He was telling me how he thought the Meadowlands racing was the best to watch. I said it's too bad that the product is getting watered down or killed by tracks like Chester, Pocono & Yonkers. The "Mecca" of harness racing can no longer compete with these tracks that have huge purses & basically NO fans.
You can't blame the trainers or drivers because they are looking after their best interests. Lots of easy spots to pick up big money without having to race as hard. Every state is just looking after its own little corner of the industry & the industry itself has no way to regulate any of it right now. It's tough enough to have competition from lotteries, poker, sports betting etc. , but they also are competing against themselves.

ITP said...

Chester will become the number 1 brand?

Obviously, once again, takeout ignorance is on display.

If Chester becomes harness racing's #1 brand, the sport is dead. You just can't promote robbing the customer with 35% takeout rates.

JLB said...

Why can't Pocono and Chester be promoted - IF the takeout is reduced. And with the Breeders Crown ending up at Pocono in the near future, why can't the tracks sit down with the politicians and effect a change (yes, I know I am dreaming). These two tracks are far better venues to watch racing than the Meadowlands.

The Meadowlands has become very sloppy in catering to its fans as it has downsized. In a previous post, I mentioned that I have attended races there steadily since opening night. Last year, a horse I owned raced for several weeks in the NJSS. When I tried to sit in my favorite grandstand section, up the stretch near the 1/8 pole, I found that trees planted outdoors effectively blocked my view of the turn coming into the stretch. The food was basically inedible at the concession stands - clam chowder so salty that I thought this was a secret test of my blood pressure, and a fish filet served on a roll that may have been baked back when Buddy Gilmour was driving there. It has truly becoming a depressing place, and frankly, unless one has a good outdoor seat at an oval like the Red Mile, mile-tracks are really not the best places for fans, especially casual ones who may not be able to follow the movement of a race, to watch.

Anonymous said...

Some power structure. NBC setting the Cup playoff schedule. Sat, Sun, Tuesday. If someone sweeps then the playoffs are over before the Belmont and Alan is wrong and then just maybe he'll remove that picture of those men in blue hugging each other.

That Blog Guy said...

Well, in another low, the Meadowland's condition sheet for June 4 shows a $7,500 claimer (albeit a SUB race). Fortunately, they did not need to use the race.

As much as I hate to see a reliance on slot machines, for a short term that is needed for all of NJ Racing.

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