Day At The Track


04:40 AM 06 Aug 2007 NZST
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Issue of the Week with Josh Potts

Well, another Hambletonian, as well as another Hambletonian Oaks, are in the books.

The prestigious races for sophomore trotters truly had something for everyone.

There was a large crowd, large handle, network television coverage, a much-hyped battle of the sexes, and the crowning of a dominant champion.

Yes, there was much to be excited about. But I have to admit that something was really nagging me after watching the two races on NBC.

Now I don’t want to be perceived as a down-in-the-dumps, never-pleased, sad sack who divides my hours in a day between looking for things to complain about and making the lives of those around me as miserable as humanly possible.

Quite the contrary. I like to think of myself as a fairly happy fellow. Sure, I have my good days and my bad days - just like everyone else. And overall, I really enjoyed my Hambletonian Day.

But something was really bothering me after I had watched the Hambletonian and its female counterpart, the Hambletonian Oaks.

Before I tell you what the bother was, let me share with you a quick story.

A few summers ago, I went to the harness races during the Illinois State Fair in Springfield with a bunch of my friends. For many of them, it was their first time watching harness racing. For the first few races, they were really getting into it and having a good time.

After admitting to them that I was far from the world’s greatest handicapper, I was at least happy to explain to them what all of the little numbers and abbreviations meant in the program. Armed with this information, they could then decide on which horse, or horses, they wanted to bet.

I should also mention that these friends of mine are typical American sports fans. They basically like most of the major team sports, and furthermore, they enjoyed wagering a few dollars from time to time.

In my estimation, this crew was a perfect microcosm of the kind of fans harness racing needs to attract.

I have always believed firmly in our product, the sport of harness racing itself. My view had always been that once we exposed people to our sport, they would come back for more.

After a few races, things were going pretty well. A few of us had even cashed a few winning tickets. So far, so good.

Then, the mobile starting gate began rolling for the next race. The horses were lining up, passing the grandstand, and getting ready to race around Springfield’s one-mile oval. Just as the starting gate rolled past us, the horse my friend Jim had bet on went off-stride.

At first, he didn’t understand what was going on. Why was the horse acting like that? I explained to him that sometimes the horses go off-stride.

To be clear, my friend Jim is one of the best guys I have ever known, and is not one to “take his football and go home.”

But, from that moment to this day, he is done with betting on harness races.

It was one thing for a horse to trot or pace as hard as it could, and get beat by faster competition but it was another thing altogether for the horse to take himself out of the game by acting up.

At that moment, a guy who was well on his way to being a fan of our sport, even if that meant only catching the races a few times a year, was instantly done with harness racing.

And to be fair, some of my other friends, who did not wager on the breaking horse, didn’t really understand what was going on as well.

They all collectively realized that any horse they bet on could suffer the same fate as well.

To say the least, that particular horse had sucked the air out of what was turning out to be a fun afternoon.

Now, fast forward to last Saturday’s Hambletonian and Hambletonian Oaks coverage on NBC.

I have no idea how many people were flipping through the channels, landed on the Hambletonian coverage, and decided to watch harness racing for the first time in their lives, but it had to be a fair number of viewers.

Within ten minutes, those first-timers witnessed the Hambletonian Oaks.

They saw an exciting race, with a longshot flying down the home stretch in the form of Pippiwhitestockngs.

But in deep stretch, Pippiwhitestockngs went off-stride and was out of contention.

I can only imagine what these first-time viewers were thinking. A horse, with a clear lead just moments from the finish line, going off-stride, could not have looked normal to them.

Putting the Oaks aside for now, let’s move on to the Hambletonian itself. These horses were the ten best three-year-old trotters in the world, right? Surely, they would not act so foolishly.

Assuming these first-time viewers hung around and watched the Hambo, they again were treated to another exciting race.

Everyone wanted to see Donato Hanover and Pampered Princess lock horns, and lock horns they did.

Pampered Princess stuck her head past him on the far turn, but Donato was just too much. After fending off Adrian Chip down the stretch, Donato Hanover took his rightful place as the Hambletonian champion.

But what else did the viewers see? Of the ten starters in the biggest race of the year, exactly half of them broke stride, at one point or another, during the race.

What is going on? Five breakers? In the Hambletonian? Are you kidding?

hankfully, none of the breakers were too prominent in the camera’s view, but you could still see them if you weren’t completely focused on Donato Hanover.

Now, I know this problem is not a new one. Horses have broken stride as long as there has been harness racing.

And I am certainly not blaming the trainers, drivers, or anyone else for their charges going off-stride. After all, what are they supposed to do about it?

I know this is why some trainers like to use trotting hopples on their horses. The straps are supposed to help the horses stay on-stride.

There’s one problem though. Two of the Hambo breakers, Don’t Blink Twice and Flirtin Man, wore trotting hopples.

Now, I am not going to pretend that I have the answer to this one. Sometimes, horses break stride. And maybe that’s just the way it goes.

But we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t see this as a marketing problem.

Gambling, whether anyone likes it or not, is the lifeblood of harness racing. Our sport needs to attract people who will wager money on harness races.

Whether a gambler is a $2 bettor or a whale, they want a fair run for their money. If people don’t think they can get a fair run at the harness track, they’ll go elsewhere with their sports, entertainment, and gambling dollar.

Hopefully, most of those who watched harness racing for the first time on Saturday realized what a great sport it is, and will soon frequent their local harness track. And maybe many will.

And don’t get me wrong, I hate complaining about a problem when I have no useful solution of my own. Often, this negativity is counterproductive with no benefits at all.

But horses breaking stride is a bigger problem than we sometimes like to admit. The person who comes up with the magic solution to it deserves a spot in Goshen better than most.

By Joshua Potts

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