Editor's Note: The USTA website is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular "Outside the Box" features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink -- but the purpose behind them is serious. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.
Youth is the trustee of prosperity -- Benjamin Disraeli
Take a look at a recent race, say for example the $265,500 Delvin Miller Trot, and then calculate the average age of the drivers. The average age of the 11 drivers in the Delvin Miller Trot was 47.6. Not a single driver was in their twenties; merely three were in their thirties. For a surprisingly high number of harness races the average age of the drivers is over fifty; these are all brilliant drivers and have been for decades, but can you name another sport where the top athletes have this age demographic?
We are not comparing harness race driving to physically demanding sports like football or hockey where player’s careers have the shelf life of a cicada. We are a more sedentary sport, like car racing, bowling, poker, archery, billiards or cricket; even these sports (or games) rarely have contestants over the age of forty, let alone fifty.
Should you make the point that driving harness horses is a mental challenge that requires a long learning curve, take a look at chess; even in the most mental of games, the top five players in the world are in their twenties or early thirties.
For an apple to apple comparison, golf might be a good marker. Like harness horse driving, golf is a combination of split-second timing, experience and strategy with a dash of physicality. Veteran top pro golfers can play and compete with the best -- but the veterans do not win. The number of players who have won major championships over age fifty? the answer is zero. Very few have won over age forty. As in most sports, the prime time begins in the twenties and ends in the mid-thirties.
There is something atypical in a sporting world when owners are ecstatic when performers in their fifties select their horse to drive, or gamblers play the veteran drivers consistently. Ron Pierce is great, he can’t help it that he is one of the best or that he is 57, but the fact that we find comfort in having a person at this age in charge and in action is an aberration in the sporting and gaming world.
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Additionally, no matter what the age, seeing the same few dozen drivers in the big races, year after year, becomes somewhat tedious. At two minutes per race, each day these guys spend more time sitting next to each other than your average car pool commuters. It is hard to slam the door in the face of a fellow commuter. This understandable camaraderie makes the races more like synchronized swimming than demolition derby. Cracking into these colonies is like asking a bullfrog to win American Idol.
This proposal may aggravate our finest harness race drivers. Fortunately, our top drivers work and travel 362 days per year so they won’t have much time to search the hinterlands for my hideout. Nevertheless, with malice toward none, with charity for all, this is another suggestion built on the same four-legged platform. It is something different, where implementation is simple, costs are zero and increased revenue or interest is possible.
This suggestion is simple; make it easier for younger players, significantly younger players, to enter the stage. Here are three possible ways to do it. The ideas are sure to cause outrage, annoyance, possible confrontation, and the occasional age discrimination lawsuit. (*Note; this is why my game is freelance and why the USTA clearly runs disclaimers).
You may think of other ways to force young blood into our sport. The reliable veterans would continue to get the call for most of the upper class races or stakes races but the race secretaries could easily open the door for new faces without shattering the world.
Now why would we want to do this? What do we have against David Miller or Dave Palone or the rest of the familiar names? Nothing. Not a thing. These drivers are great. They have scrambled to their perches and are good guys. That’s the way it has always been -- good drivers get a lot of good horses.
This idea really has nothing to do with these guys -- it is for other guys (and gals), for fans, for small time owners and trainers and the sport in general.
Let us run a few reasons this could be worth considering. For fun, the unusual sounding names in the paragraphs below are real athletes; each belongs to a youngster in the Minor Leagues attempting to break into the Major Leagues.
Money: There is a possibility that the odds on races with unknowns would increase. A pacer with Brian Sears that goes off at 2–1 will go off at higher odds with a driver named William Startup. Young William and a field of his ilk might make the board a little less chalky.
Opportunity: Breaking into the driver’s ranks has always been difficult, as it should be. But the degree of difficulty has been increased to the point that some semi-mandatory infusion of new talent like Shooter Hunt would be helpful. New Shooters and revitalization are important for growth in any industry.
Interest: We all like to see what new players can do. Some are good, some are not so good, many are in between -- but an unknown quantity is intrinsically interesting. What will Gookie Dawkins bring to the harness racing table? What is Gookie’s back-story?
Youth: As Mae West said, “You are never too old to become younger.” Should harness racing have newer, younger faces in the driving ranks, we will be an easier sell for younger demographics. We will have an improved chance at a future with a barn full of young studs (or fillies) named Rowdy Hardy. Harness racing could use an infusion of younger people at every level.
Exciting Personalities: In harness racing, we do not have (or at least we do not show) photogenic, dynamic, controversial, bombastic, outrageous, egocentric, publicity seeking drivers. Our drivers are a relatively non-controversial group. New drivers like Zelous Wheeler and Beaner Weems might just arrive with excitement. Believe it or not, if Zelous and Beaner are loud, standout personalities with a modicum of ability, they can be spun into gold in the publicity and entertainment fields.
A New Wagering Angle: Handicappers can concentrate on the horses instead of the drivers. For handicappers on their toes, you might be ahead of the curve in discovering that new driver, Sharlon Schoops, who has a lot talent and use him before he gets hot.
What Does It Hurt? The big name drivers will get a few races off -- big deal. The take-out remains the same, there will be winners and losers, and if you are holding a winning ticket you will be ecstatic to watch Dusty Napoleon photographed in the winner’s circle. Harness racing is always a game of relativity. With these new drivers it is not like Dusty is up against a field of our finest drivers -- Dusty will be racing against a field of Dustys.
Pressure Off Trainers: No doubt trainers would like to give some twenty-something drivers a few chances, but owners would suffer cardio infarctions should their trainer name Sequoyah Stonecipher over Tim Tetrick. A few races configured for youthful drivers would give a little breathing room to trainers and give Linda Toscano and Ron Burke a chance to meet and interact with guys like Sequoyah.
Ask Yourself Test: Take the best player in any sport, let’s say LeBron James in basketball. We enjoy watching the best do their thing. But do you want to watch LeBron play every single minute of every single game, every single endless season? Or would you, once in a while, like to take a peek at the new guy on the end of the bench named Stolmy Pimental?
Multiplier Effect: Each time we bring a new person into the sport of harness racing, this person may bring friends and relatives to our dance. This multiplier effect will be enhanced as the computer allows us to lose our geographical limitations. A veteran driver, at the top of his game for decades, has short new tentacles. But a brand new, young star like Boomer Potts offers growth possibilities. Boomer might just network the heck out of the universe of folks that do not know harness racing from quiddich.
Hope: Should 18-year old Callix Crabbe, without ties to the harness game, get the itch to become a driver, the climb would not look quite as daunting. Callix would see a glimmer of hope in these few races open to the non-elite drivers. If he could get a couple of drives where he could cover his gas and mingle with the stars, he would make the drive from the low tier track in Michigan where he is learning.
The Next Big Thing: Stars are important. Young stars shine bright. Perhaps you are saying, we have young stars with drivers like Tim Tetrick and Yannick Gingras; photogenic, articulate, nice guys with back stories. But they are not young in the sporting universe; Tim is 31, Yannick is 34. Only in harness racing do we consider these guys up and comers, young guns.
The sport, the press and the fans need new blood. They need to find the next big thing. A few races with fields of fresh faced drivers named, Callix, Boomer, Stolmy, Sequoyah, Gookie, Shooter, Rowdy, Beamer and Zelous would be a great starting point. Youth must be served.
Time to head for my hideout in the hills before the regular drivers put up a wanted poster.