Harness Ownership Compares Favorably to Thoroughbreds

About a year ago Bill Finley wrote this on US Trotting.com:

“Just about everyone in the harness industry has an acquaintance or two or three who owns Thoroughbreds. Do the game a favor: Pick up the phone, call your friends and tell them they are in the wrong business.”

Over the past several years I have worked with the Thoroughbred industry from Keeneland to Socal, with the Jockey Club to vets. Although for the most part the discussions were focused on horseplayer issues, as we all know, betting issues overlap with everything else. This is a sport, but it’s a gambling sport, and the economics of the supply side meet the demand side not as a matter of convenience, but as a matter of survival.

What I’ve learned, is that Bill’s column was right then, and it’s right now.  

Let’s look at some of the problems and characteristics facing the Thoroughbred’s of late and juxtapose them with harness racing. 

Did you know 99% of thoroughbreds are on lasix? If you didn’t, you’ve likely been living under a rock, because the diuretic is currently under the microscope, with some states and jurisdictions looking at an outright ban. There are many Thoroughbred owners who dislike the drug – so much so that some have taken it upon themselves to lead by example, by taking their horse’s off it. I’m a harness owner who is not a fan of lasix, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. Many of you in harness racing who work with horses each day do not want to use the drug unless your colt, filly, horse or mare truly needs it. A lot of times it’s used only as a last resort.

If you’re a Thoroughbred owner who dislikes lasix, do yourself a favor, buy a harness horse.

I played some Thoroughbred races this weekend, as is the norm for me in this day and age. I scanned last year’s results for many of my prospective punts. I saw 2010 summary’s like this time and time again: 5 starts, 6 starts, 4 starts, 3 starts, 7 starts. There are 365 days in a year and you got to enjoy your horse at the track 5 times? Our stable has a horse who was recently retired that we bought as a maiden at a mixed sale for $14,000. He raced 143 times, at seven or eight tracks, usually every seven days. We paid $97 a start. How’s that for entertainment as a horse owner? This is not an exception in harness racing, it’s the norm. 

If you’re a Thoroughbred owner who goes to the dentist more often than your horse races, do yourself a favor, buy a harness horse.

Have you owned or trained a horse that has broken down? I shudder the thought because it must be a horrible experience and it certainly affects the mindset of horse buyers. I know for myself I have trepidation being a thoroughbred owner because of the breakdown statistics. It’s such an issue in Thoroughbred racing that tracks – like Keeneland and Del Mar - have been ripped up to lay down a different, safer surface. Touch wood, in a harness race our charges can pace or trot on mud, on a tight track, on a scraped one; they could probably trot around on cottage cheese and we wouldn’t worry about a breakdown. 

If you are a Thoroughbred owner who is worried about breakdown rates, do yourself a favor, buy a harness horse.

Ahh, that horse racing sport is a rich man’s game. You need to shell out millions for any type of pedigree at a yearling sale. You have to have a top trainer to get your charge through a Triple Crown race at the highest level, and often times your horse’s career is compromised even if you attempt it. 

Not so fast. In harness racing a dozen or so people can purchase a nicely bred yearling at a sale for $40,000. This colt can be trained by a fellow whose day job involved selling cars. He is driven by a gentleman that is not a multi-millionaire driver. He can go 20 for 21, set a world race-record, make over $3 million, and retire as the most talked about three year old since Nihilator. 

Sure some thoroughbred classic champions have been bought for a song, but in harness it happens multiple times each year. Triple Crown winner Glidemaster $10,000, Real Desire $16,000, Rainbow Blue $10,500, A Rock n Roll Dance $15,000. I could go on for a dozen or more paragraphs, and heck, I have not even mentioned Googoo Gaagaa.

If you’re a sportsman who wants to compete at the top level in racing without owning half a Facebook IPO or a few oil wells to fund it, do yourself a favor, buy a harness horse.

I think that what I wrote above was met with nods of agreement. We all know it’s true: Buying a harness yearling is a huge opportunity with great value. Plus it’s fun too. In what other game can you jog your own horse on a Saturday morning? Try that with a Thoroughbred.

We’re competing with thoroughbred buyers, and the ego of owning a runner, against owning a pacer or a trotter, is formidable. However, if you look at virtually every complaint Thoroughbred owners have about their game, we have an answer. 

I wonder, with slots money still here in many jurisdictions, why aren’t we doing more to attract that ownership by highlighting these benefits? Why aren’t breeding farms and others socking away some seed money in a slush fund for a marketing program that extols the virtues of harness ownership? Why have I not seen ads on HRTV, HPITV or TVG talking about harness horses and the fun we can have for a modest investment, speaking directly to non-harness horse owner’s gripes? 

Maybe there is, and I just missed them. Either way, if we’re not telling everyone to buy a harness horse, we’re not only not doing our job, we’re doing our friends in Thoroughbred racing an injustice.

This originally appeared in Harness Racing Update. It's free and you can sign up here.

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