by Trey Nosrac
While we cannot predict the future, we will surely live it. Every action and decision we make — or don’t — ripples into the future. For the first time, we have the capability, the technology, and the knowledge to direct those ripples.
The future of gambling on harness horse racing is more than cloudy. Until recently, horses were the only legal gambling wager in many towns. Smorgasbords of gambling options are popping up on every corner, and at this point, we are barely on the new menu. Soon, other sports wagers will be a better gamble than trotters and pacers.
I offer myself as a poor example.
My harness horse gambling days are fewer. Despite a passion for the sport, there is more bang for my sporting gambling buck elsewhere. It pains me to admit this fact. Every dollar I wager on a baseball game instead of a horse race feels like a betrayal. Not gambling on harness horse races is very sad on many levels.
Nobody asked for the horse racing gambling world to change. But it did, and it will. Nobody enjoys switching a business model, but we have problems. The list includes legislation, computers, casinos, artificial intelligence, human desire for instant gratification, aging demographics, drugs, perception, and presentation. As George Costanza would say, “The gambling seas are angry, my friends.”
These problems are not breaking news. Questions are many, answers are rare, and coordination is complex. The big picture for our beloved sport is troubling but watching and waiting for the train to leave the station is not helpful. I agree with Winston Churchill, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”
Change is inevitable. Shrinking our footprint seems unavoidable. But shrink to what? change to what? Once again, my poor example may contain a hint of an answer.
For me, gambling on overnight racing and participating in overnight racing has always felt like a business, an industry, a grind where I do not belong. Businesses operate year round. Winter races filled with warhorses feel like products on a factory assembly line. My interest in the racing aspect of our sport goes dormant each December.
Sports have seasons and off seasons. Sports offer their fans and participants a pause, a period for renewal, a period of rejuvenation. When April rolls around, my attention blooms like the trees on my street. Young horses that we purchased, raised, and trained are on their way.
Stakes horses in nice weather change the game for me; I feel like returning to the high-risk, complex sport we enjoy. Stakes racing feels like a sport. Gambling on horses is more exciting.
And although my gambling interest in horse races has waned, my enthusiasm for purchasing and racing stakes horses has never been more robust. The recent yearling sales results seem to indicate others still find great joy in the stakes racing side of the business.
Perhaps downsizing the business side and emphasizing the sporting side is a survival pathway. Is pivoting and transitioning from a gambling engine to a private “ownership” game feasible? Could we go back to the future? When our sport was king, the wealthy and passionate did not have gambling revenue. Raising and racing horses was social, prideful, and intriguing. Raising racehorses was not a business to Leland Sanford or John D. Rockefeller. The wealthy pushed the sport, and others followed in their wake.
What about a hybrid model as a road forward?
Today, an either-or proposition is not necessary. Obviously, we want to keep every precious gambling dollar we can, but while we have a chance, why not lean into our game’s ownership and sporting side and lean away from nine-year-old colts racing in the sleet on a February night? Why not have fewer races that mean more? Have a racing season. Turn the winter grind off and stash that money for the summer purses.
This rambling may sound crazy to most ears, and it should. Unless you are well over a century old, you have never lived a single day of your life without pari-mutuel wagering and horses intertwined. But you have also never lived in a period where everyone can wager on anything.
Let’s not desperately race to the bitter end. Let’s reconfigure, rejuvenate, and have some sporting fun in the brave new world. A dramatic shift to a model where stakes racing is prominent and gambling income is essential, but not everything, could be exciting and our best hope for a bright future.