The old saying that goes “If it is not broke, don’t fix it.”, unfortunately can’t be applied to the current state of standardbred horse racing. The Standardbred Canada website is running a banner ad showing that wagering on harness horses has declined 40% since 2002. With a bleeding problem like that the industry doesn’t need a band aid – it needs a tourniquet.
My own experience following the ponies for all these years can date back to the 1960s when our family built Windsor Raceway. My uncle William Rowe was president there during this period and I recall his concerns that the advent of lotteries and casinos in the country might spell disaster for harness racing. That period was a prosperous time for raceways in general; the only legal form of gaming being allowed by the criminal code was horse racing. Obviously the playing field for gamblers is much broader today as governments try to find much needed funds. I, for one, have lost track of how many lotteries there are across Canada. I do know I have never won one.
My uncle’s predictions didn’t happen overnight, but like anything in a large and complicated industry, the changes have been a slow but steady march in the direction he foresaw. Racing participants may be guilty of not seeing the forest for the trees, but suddenly reality is staring them in the face. In jurisdictions such as Ontario where a share of slot revenues goes back to horse purses the decline was less even obvious but no less relevant.
It is easy to blame outside factors for the decline in wagering, and no doubt the competition for gaming dollars is now at unprecedented levels both here and abroad, but it may necessary to look within to find the solutions to the problem. The marketing, hype and excitement that fills the Air Canada Center for a Leafs game is a world away from the staid avenues of an old fashioned raceway whose venues and product have changed little in decades. Those of us who know and have experienced the thrill of racing think our sport is the greatest. Finding a way to convey that to the average person is the challenge we face. In today’s world of non-stop gaming action and instant gratification, the “Sport of Kings” may need a new facelift to become attractive to ever more demanding customers.
I am encouraged to see that a first ever gaming conference will be held in Montreal on Aril29-30th of this year to study the problems of declining wagering in harness racing. Darryl Kaplan, respected industry writer, Manager and Editor of Trot Magazine, recently told me that this symposium has attracted delegates from not only North America but Russia, Norway, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and France as well. The interest and participation seems to demonstrate that the concerns felt here are shared around the world.
The conference promises to deal with some of the most crucial issues of the day. Discussion will be held on the amount of commission or track ‘take’ on a wager, technological advances in corner store betting terminals, studies of trends in harness racing and customer expectations.
In my role as Executive Director of the Standardbred Horse Owners Panel I will be attending the conference. I look forward to one aptly named seminar entitled “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee”.
I’ve known the coffee has been on the burner a long time. Now there is something going to be done about it.
Scott Rowe, Georgian Downs Newsletter