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The Hopeful Trot
Monday, January 20, 2014 - by Bob Carson

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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.

“The life of the creative man is led, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” -- Saul Steinberg

Bob Carson

Bubba Watson arrived at Pelican Hill Golf Club last month without his golf bag. When the Masters champion strolled to the first tee, he was carrying a single 20-degree hybrid club and three golf balls in his pocket. When asked what he was doing, Bubba said, “Sometimes I get bored using 14 clubs, and occasionally I challenge my shot making skills by playing with only one club.”

Impressively, Bubba shot 81 on the Tom Fazio-designed, par-72 championship golf course. This little nugget drew considerable coverage in the golfing, social media and sporting worlds.

Most of us have played in casual golf outings; alleged sporting events where the beer is in the cooler and the contestants wear plaid Bermuda shorts with striped t-shirts and backward hats. Heckling is encouraged. These are competitions where flubbed shots and missed short putts lead to laughter. There are prizes for “shortest drive,” “most whiffs” and “ugliest swing.” The cookout after the flailing is filled with tall tales and warm feelings.

Autumn Ryan graphic

Contrast those feelings to a struggling pro trying to make the cut in a professional tournament, or a round of golf played for a wager of a thousand dollars per hole when you don’t really have much of a bankroll. High stakes lead to a dour, tension-filled event. Smiles are forced. Feelings are hurt. There is relief for the victor and angst for the vanquished.

Money and pressure can take the oxygen out of sporting events. Home run derbies in baseball, three point shot exhibitions in basketball, mixed doubles in tennis and numerous semi-serious competitions are part of most professional sports.

For gamblers, owners and trainers, horse racing is far too often a grim business. Perhaps we could use a pinch of the Oscar Wilde philosophy, “It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”

Tedium can set into any sport. A complete season with a professional baseball team revealed that it is a grind. Players and coaches face endless eight hour days at the ballpark interrupted by travel (like harness racers). The ball players have countless ways of breaking up the boredom; in batting practice, left-handers hit right-handed, fastball pitchers throw knuckleballs, everyone takes a turn at another position, they play games of pepper, or boccie-like games, compete in bat tosses, sunflower-seed spitting contests and countless diversions to push back the ennui.

This pitch is for a small dash of fun at the harness racetrack; a tiny smidgen of silliness that could spice up the entire harness racing stew. This mini-madness would require a race secretary with free rein and creativity, a guy or gal writing a race or two who does not care about being scoffed at. For many, a race secretary who occasionally went off the well worn track would be a breath of fresh air.

Please take note. This is not to suggest that we turn the sport of harness racing into a farce. The idea is that maybe one race per condition sheet, maybe one race per month, maybe in the tedious months of overnight racing in the winter, there be a race carded that is a hoot, an off-the-wall romp that is a radical departure from traditional classifications.

A race secretary who made the condition sheet a bit of an adventure would take some of the predictability out of the sport. May I humbly suggest that the world would not spin off its axis should we card a smattering of harness races that are primarily for fun. It is very possible, in fact very probable, that handicappers would find unique races a pleasant respite from the treadmill of traditional classifications.

To get the oddball races rolling, race secretaries could create some of their own new classes. Later, they could solicit ideas from trainers, owners, or fans who could drop a few suggestions. Unusual races would give a clever race secretary a chance to spread the wealth to struggling horses and offer promotional opportunities.

These unusual races should probably be either the first or the last race on the program because without serious races interfering, the drivers, owners, handicappers and trainers would have time for good-natured pre- and post-race bragging, boasting and belittling. Since these races would be more fun than fiscal, the purses might be scaled back, but the regular rules for entries and payoffs would apply.

Here is a quick menu. Approach them with an open mind. Wouldn’t you love to see, or partake, or wager on these races?

• The Hopeful Trot - this race is open to trotters that have broken stride in three (or more) of the past ten starts. AE: have broken in four of past 13.

• The First Letter Frolic - open to horses with a registered name beginning with the letters F, L, S or P that have raced no faster than 1:57 in the last six starts.

• Hobble Free Handicap - for pacers willing to get behind the starting gate without hobbles, because a free legged pacer is a beautiful thing.

• Roger Huston Challenge ¬- for horses with names consisting of 12 or more letters, preference given to nonsensical tongue twisters.

• Family Feud - open the race to four competitive horses from a particular sire, for example Cantab Hall. Then find four from another family, say SJ's Caviar. Assign points according to how each horse finishes and reward a small bonus to the winning family.

• Winners of Zilch (Pacing Division) - eligible horses must not have earned one cent in the past seven starts. AE: winners of $100 (or less) in last ten.

• The Conga Line Trot - Even regular old conditioned races could be tweaked by a race secretary. In this one, instead of a starting car the horses line up single file by reverse order of the morning line odds.

• Mixed Madness – eight horses with times between 1:58 and 1:59 in last four starts -- one from each category -- trotting filly, trotting colt, pacing filly, pacing colt, trotting mare, trotting horse, pacing mare, pacing horse.

Here’s betting that you could come up with similar races. Here’s betting that harness folks have a sense of humor. Here’s betting that most of us have plaid shorts in the closet. And here’s betting that Oscar Wilde has a point and stepping off the endless racing treadmill could be tonic for boredom and fun for our fans.

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