Culture Changes Are Hard, Yet Easy

There are interesting debates about changing the way we do things in Thoroughbred and harness racing. Any change that directly affects the way one has always does something to something new tends to be difficult. It's not only in racing I guess. Changing the way people drink and drive or wear seat belts or rear their kids is generational and always has been. In the US currently there is a push for a change in the culture of guns, in Canada we have our own day to day cultural issues.

But when the goal is a good one, generational change does happen, and when we look back, often enough, we see it worked.

I remember when the whipping rules in Ontario were changed. No longer would feet out of stirrups, whipping below the shaft or at or near the genitals, or raising a whip over the head with one hand be allowed. It was a change, because although some of these rules were on the books, they were finally being called with an iron fist.

Insiders hated it. Just hated it. And the demagoguery was palpable, too. Drivers would crash into other drivers, it was unsafe, drivers would not be able to follow them causing horses to be DQ's every third race, and (my favorite) handle would come crashing down. It was if the world was ending.

None of that happened, of course. Handle is actually up since that time, with Mohawk and Woodbine doing $1.8M a night versus about $1.3M in 2010. Handle per race in Canada was up last year, and is up 24% this year. I am not ridiculous enough to assert a whip change is the reason why handle has improved, it isn't, because the only thing that fell out of the sky in Ontario to hurt racing was the turning off of slot machines.

Three years hence, the people who hated the rule changes still do, what did happen was a change in culture with the new people entering the sport.

Last year a young driver, Scott Zeron, won the Jug with Michaels Power. In Ohio you can pretty much use a whip like a stick of dynamite and it is completely different than in Ontario, where Scott learned to drive, and does drive. Sam McKee, post race, asked him if he had a hard time with the lack of whip rules in Ohio, being they were different.

He said, paraphrasing, "I learned how to drive this way, so I just drove the same down here".

That is a culture change. A new generation knows no other way, so they do it the way they learn. Just like a 45 year old man would not wear a seatbelt after the rule changed in 1974, but his kids all do.

When you flip to the US, the young drivers there are completely different. They hack and slash and boot with the best of them. It's the way they learned. It's the way it happens on simo screens each day.

And it's also why we see headlines at a thoroughbred site like this this morning:

Every sport or organization has to change. The NFL had to change the rules in the 1970's because they wanted to widen their reach. No longer would clotheslines or defenseless hits over the middle be allowed. This was done because their survey's showed women and some men abhorred the violence and would not watch the sport because of it. They were looking to broaden the sport to the mainstream. Just this past year, with fewer parents wanting their kids to play football and with the bad news regarding head injuries, they've changed the way players hit once again. In the 1970's, players hated the changes, and many hate them today. But new generations learn only one way and it helps sustain a sports' future. Right now somewhere there is a Pop Warner football coach teaching a 10 year old running back how not to lead with a helmet.

The NFL has leadership - a leadership to see what the future is portending and making changes with that goal in mind. Harness racing, a sport which relies on government and viewership, has to change as well. There's nothing wrong with it, and although it might sting initially, in the long run it's good for the sport.


Anonymous said...

When tracks in NY and elsewhere weaned bettors off of alphabet racing and onto the conditioned model that prevails today there was much gnashing of teeth over it. Many said fans who had only known the ABC system wouldn't be able to make sense of the program. And as was the case with the whipping rules in Ontario, tracks went back and forth for a while and some people never accepted the change. However, although the Meadowlands has embraced a hybrid-alphabet system of classifying horses, it's safe to say conditioned racing is here to stay.

Anonymous said...

Why is positive change so difficult to accept? Because some people fear it? By not improving the overall "appearance" of our sport for the better, we're drastically shortchanging ourselves. We're preventing ourselves from growing into a sustainable, viable industry-an industry that the public perceives as serious, and an industry that gives a damn about the reals stars out there-the horses. The rules in place are there for a reason. Simple. The Hans Device was made mandatory in NASCAR because of the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., and pit lane speeding rules were implemented to ensure the safety of all participants on pit road. They don't pick and choose who gets fined down pit lane in NASCAR-whether you're 2mph over or 20mph over, you're fined. As far as the whipping rules in harness racing, this was another area that had to be addressed due to the fact that some drivers relied more whipping than on their own skills, abilities, and plain old common sense. And as far as "booting" in harness racing-It doesn't matter if you kick once or ten times, you're breaking the rule. I'm so tired of people saying it doesn't hurt the horse-well by that methodology, neither does hooking or tripping a hockey player, but it could affect the outcome of a play, a play that could determine a Stanley Cup victory. Would you be content with that as a fan of the sport? I can guarantee to you there'd be mayhem if those "non-hurting", "inconsequential" penalties were overlooked during game 7 of a Stanley Cup final.

Bottom line is simple: "Dress for the job we want....Do we really want to be the janitor of the sports world or the CEO?"



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