I don't know when it happened, or where it happened, or how it happened. But it happened.
Harness racing is a rural sport, steeped in tradition. It has always been about a basic tenet - my horse beating your horse.
It's about war horses like Dan Patch and Rambling Willie and Cam Fella taking on all comers, any time, at any venue, in any weather, from any post. It's about the Little Brown Jug, fair racing, heats; it's about the little guy shipping his $8,000 yearling to tackle the big barns in the big stakes, because he paid into them, knowing that in harness racing the little guy has a shot.
That seems to have all changed.
Now the Little Brown Jug is a race to skip, because someone in that big city barn, with a barn full of blue blooded yearlings, might (gasp!) draw a bad post.
It's now a game where four-horse, power entries want to win eliminations for $25,000 and choose the best posts so they can cakewalk to a stakes race victory.
It's a game where if Joe Blow from a smaller track actually does pony up an entry fee to race the big guys -- and has the audacity to pull on them at the quarter -- he's ostracized after the race; don't say you haven't heard it, because you have. "How dare he!? Didn't he know that was my race. I had the best horse."
It's a game where horses earn their races on paper, not on the track, because if I race my three year old for 12 starts and retire, I can get a big stud deal. Hell, it's preordained; look who owns this horse.
Harness racing has turned into this odd sport where eliminations dictate a big
money final. Where if (gasp, again) a dozen horses start in a stakes race, it's
It wasn't sacrilege to Dancer, or Haughton, or Cashman or the half dozen others who these stakes races are named for, of course. To them it was harness racing.
Somewhere, somehow, the sport lost its way.
Slot money is entitled to us. Government help is entitled to us. The big barns winning eliminations, and giving them the best posts for a string of 1-9 shot stakes finals that no one watches, is entitled to them.
Foal crops are down, and handle is down. The little guy is not even making stakes payments any more because he can't compete. This hurts everyone -- lower stakes money and a smaller breadth of ownership is an anchor on a sinking ship. But so what, I'm entitled.
In my view, this is self-inflicted. When you change the foundation of a "my horse can beat your horse" sport that survived for generations into one that concentrates power and revenue at the top, it breaks. It can't help but break.
Harness racing is not a grassroots sport like it once was, it's a club; and those connected with the club make the rules.
For fans, bettors, people like you and me that would go to Harrisburg and take a shot at a $20,000 yearling, and those who truly love the sport, it's disconcerting. That's why you see such a visceral reaction from mom and pop stables, and fans. The harness racing they grew up with has changed, and it hasn't been for the better.
What spurred this conversation was talk about the Meadowlands card this weekend. The Meadowlands has a few rules for stakes races that angers the blue bloods, but for fans and bettors, it brings good cheer. There are 11 and 12 horse fields with open draws; some of the racing is sure to be good. It's a really good handicapping puzzle, and if the drivers and trainers want to win these races, they will have to do it the old-fashioned way - by earning it.
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