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Thursday Thoughts: Growing a Fan Base Takes More than One Weekend

by Al Cimaglia

November 2, 2017

The hoopla over Hoosier Park's first Breeders Crown has died down and there are things that should be celebrated and others that shouldn't go unnoticed.

Full disclosure Hoosier is on my list of tracks I follow and bet on a regular basis. There are opportunities to cash out if your bet size is managed. Those who promote the product before and during the races do an excellent job, not only on big stakes, but always. The addition of Dave Brower and others for last weekend, made the show even better. So, Hoosier Park management should be excited they set a handle record and although the weather wasn't great the racing was exciting.
In harness racing, big purses don't translate into giant mutual pools. If you doubt me check out the harness tracks in Pennsylvania. The total handle for last Friday and Saturday was approximately $3 million. That represents a record for Hoosier Park but is less than half the money bet on Breeders Crown weekend at the Meadowlands in 2016.
Why would the two-day total handle at Hoosier Park be so much less than at the Meadowlands last year?

The total Saturday only handle at the Meadowlands was about 10% higher than last weekend Friday-Saturday's combined total at Hoosier. It's not because there was a significant difference in the quality of horses or drivers. It's not because the track size is much different. Most bettors would not hesitate to place a wager on a 7/8's oval, even if they normally play a one-mile track. In both places the majority of money wasn't bet at the host track.

The answer is simply because it's Indiana and not the Big M or Mohawk-Woodbine and old habits die hard. It's also because the pool of available harness racing fans is not large enough.

Harness players don't normally embrace Indiana racing. The mutual pool sizes are small and that's an accurate indication of the interest. That factor makes it more difficult to show a profit for those who are not casual bettors. So larger players don't flock to bet a Hoosier Park card. They may show up and play some Breeder Crown Races, but they aren't partaking on the entire card. Last year, in non-Crown races about $2.5 million was bet, that's only 17% less than the entire Hoosier handle for both days.

The more causal harness fans aren't aware of the opportunity to follow Hoosier Park racing, and that's an unfortunate situation. The $2 player isn't going to be stung hard by betting into a small pool. But for now, they don't show up in big enough numbers either.

As was mentioned in my Thursday Thoughts blog from last week, event racing doesn't see anywhere near the boost in handle of the big thoroughbred shows. The handle at this weekend's Breeders Cup at Del Mar could be ten times that of a regular Friday-Saturday, at the same track. That doesn't happen at a harness track anywhere in North America.
Although a record was set on both nights at Hoosier Park the combined handle was about 10% less than only the Saturday night at the Meadowlands last year.  Let that one sink in for a minute. Two record breaking nights and there was that much of a difference in handle from the Big M.
Upon closer inspection the numbers don't lie and is an indication the overall fan base for harness racing needs to grow.

Until the fan base increases only a couple of tracks will garner enough attention to have a large handle on a Breeders Crown weekend. The Meadowlands and Mohawk-Woodbine are far above the rest.  Probably a Chicago Breeders Crown weekend would come much closer to the Big M handle than Hoosier. But that's more a case of the familiarity of a big-time harness racing market of the past. 

After the back slapping stops the elephant in the room is still how to grow the sport. That should be the case whether it's in East Rutherford New Jersey or Anderson Indiana. Somehow 21-40 year olds need to be exposed to the excitement of harness racing and realize it's an entertainment option. That's where the growth needs to come from, as the children of those in that demographic are more likely to become fans. Next Thursday I will have some suggestions for a Breeders Crown weekend and beyond, to help boost the harness racing fan base.

The regular betting programs at the vast majorities of harness tracks need to attract more money into mutual pools. The Late 0.50 Pick 4 pool at Hoosier Park last night was $4,078. The Early and Late Daily Double pools were less than $5,900 combined. Rather small pools even though the track was rated as sloppy and it was a Wednesday night.

The fact is there's more wood to chop to make harness racing relevant again throughout the U.S., and it takes more than one weekend a year.

You can follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia.