Award-winning harness writer Andrew Cohen is back online and here at HarnessLink. He starts off his new weekly column, Parked Out, with a critical look at the three biggest issues facing the sport in North America.
PARKED OUT WITH ANDREW COHEN
It is both a blessing and a curse for the harness racing writer these days that there are three epic stories unfolding upon the North American racing scene at the same time. There is the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Meadowlands Racetrack, the most important harness venue in America.
There is the grotesque criminal fraud trial of David Brooks, who helps control the dominant ownership family in the sport. And there is the release of an expensive and embarrassing marketing report funded by the United States Trotting Association.
Pick a topic, any topic. Let's start with the fate of the forlorn and disheveled Meadowlands, which desperately needs slots and a facelift to compete for the region's gaming/racing patrons. After months of terrible news, we saw earlier this week perhaps the first glimmer of light and hope. A group headed by current and former casino executives reportedly has made a serious offer to take over the facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey, add hundreds of Video Lottery Terminals to it, and thus secure its future as a gaming/racing venue.
It can't be this easy, can it? The track needs private sector attention and investment. The Garden State needs the money slots at the Big M would provide. The horsemen need the grand old track to come back to life so that New Jersey's harness breeding industry stays alive and vibrant. A perfect match, no? No. Already the forces of greed and apathy and self-interest, in the form of state legislators beholden to Atlantic City's interests, are trashing the concept as a "one-shot revenue gimmick." Ironic, no, coming from people who make their living enticing people to gamble their savings away?
Speaking of people who have frittered away their good fortune, David Brooks' creepy criminal fraud trial rolls on in New York. He is one of the biggest Standardbred owners in the world-he and his family own or control hundreds and hundreds of races horses and broodmares and weanlings and yearlings. And yet day by day it's becoming clear he is unlikely to get out of custody anytime soon. His judge wants to hold Brooks in contempt for his conduct (and his attorney's conduct) during the trial. Meanwhile, Brooks' former company, Point Blank, has filed for bankruptcy.
Like coyotes circling fallen prey, racing regulators and track officials are poised to react when a verdict is reached in the Brooks case. But it's a terribly complicated affair. Many of the horses have been transferred to Brooks' brother, Jeffrey, and to other members of the family. The end of the criminal trial against David Brooks, therefore, is likely to trigger a series of civil lawsuits brought by or against Jeffrey Brooks as the harness industry finally confronts the sad truth about its largest and most successful owners. No sport wants such an ugly scene. And yet it is upon us.
What also weighs heavy upon the back of harness racing, circa 2010, is the renewed realization that the United States Trotting Association is utterly incapable of leading the reforms the sport critically needs. The USTA just spent $50,000 on a consultant's report that sharply criticized the industry for failing to implement changes the same consultant suggested be done back in 1991. I could have told the USTA's leadership the same stuff for free-it's obvious that the sports movers and shakers haven't moved or shaken enough over the past two decades-- and then had them use the money to advertise harness racing ownership in Thoroughbred venues to try to attract new money into the sport.
Harness racing doesn't need any verbal reminders of how shaky things are. The evidence is all around us for our eyes to see. The sport needs solutions. It needs men and women of action. It needs funding and insight and dedication and tenacity. And that brings me to my final point of this inaugural column. We're hoping here at Harnesslink to use this new column as a starting point, not a finishing line, in the debates that race through our industry. I want to hear from you-with story ideas, constructive criticism and your take on the issues that matter most to the world of harness racing. We still have time left to put to right all the wrongs of the past decades. But not too much time.
Andrew COHEN is a Standardbred Owner and Breeder. He has won both a Hervey and an O'Brien for his writing about harness racing.