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An Early Planting
Monday, February 17, 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.

“My feeling is, you plant some seeds. If they grow, great; if they don't, you don't take it personally. Not my problem. I just keep planting, just like a farmer.” -- Hank Haney, golf coach

“There are no wrong notes…if you are singing.” -- Pete Seger

Bob Carson

For many of us involved in harness racing, winters are to be endured rather than embraced. We have the lost-boy syndrome in our souls; we do not want summer to end or leaves to fall. But all too soon, the stakes racing season ends, the hammer falls on the last yearling sale and the winter casts a long shadow.

We wait impatiently for the rhythm of a new season to begin. The show goes on in the wind and the snow, but the thrill is muted for those of us in the stakes racing game.

Today, the thermostat reads 12 degrees below zero. The snow is 14 inches deep and the wind is a knife that cuts to the bone; a perfect time to plant a seed. Hopefully, and all planters are hopeful, this seed will take root and bear fruit over the next several years.

In 2010, I did an experiment where I walked new owners through two seasons of ownership. The project was titled, Running Down A Dream. The series was basically a chance to slowly walk new folks through the world of harness horse ownership via e-mail correspondence and digital media. It was fun and we had some success on several levels at introducing harness racing to new people.

In the snow and cold, seeds are being planted for a sequel.

Using the two mares from the original series, I plan on walking another group of participants through the breeding side of harness racing. This core group of new travelers will be recruited from the business world.

Time and treasure must be spent before a yearling walks into the sales ring. Breeders invest years of effort that is subject to nature, fate and market forces. Their work culminates with the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer. The yearling, so carefully nurtured, can bring hundreds of thousands -- or nothing at all.

Writers also invest years of work, research, interviews, plotting, and planning for an unsure fate and a quick judgment. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris took David McCullough his typical four years of gathering material and writing before it was polished up and sent to market as a best seller. Other writers spend years on a book they cannot sell. The fickle market is the arbiter.

All one can do is study the market, do the research and take the first step. A writer types the first word. A breeder matches a stallion to a mare. The finish line is far away.

This distance between selecting a stallion and walking into the sales ring is a problem for a reporter. Attention spans are short. Time must be condensed. With this in mind, the investors in this project will not be recruited until just before the mare(s) are ready to foal. There will be plenty of time between foaling and the sale to explain the interesting side roads in this unusual business/hobby/affliction.

Over these frigid months we plan. We set the stage. We take the first steps in the long and winding road to produce a yearling for sale. Fortunately, we have two potential mothers from the original series. Fantail Hanover and Mariko Hanover both raced well and come from solid families.

One of the first steps was looking at possible stallions and farms. My horse race partner, Jim, remembered reading some blog posts by Adam Bowden of Diamond Creek Farm and suggested this might be a good fit. Adam was enthusiastic. Plus, his farm stands Ponder and A Rocknroll Dance, stallions that were on the top of our list for Fantail Hanover.

Just as trainer Marty Wollam was a great asset in helping tell the ownership story to new players, Adam and his farm should be great “Dance” partners for the breeding sequel.

This early planning -- selecting farms, sires, state programs, and meeting new people in the breeding game -- has already proved interesting. Jim and I got through a few icebound days debating between sending Fantail Hanover to Ponder (a rock solid, proven stallion) versus A Rocknroll Dance (an unproven stallion who was a jaw dropper of a great race horse).

At first, the debate over sires was nothing new; we have wrestled the “proven sire” or “new kid on the block” dilemma more than a dozen times as buyers. Already, we have learned that the perspective is different as sellers. We now find ourselves thinking about what the market will be -- years from today. We opted to swing for the fence with A Rocknroll Dance.

This new adventure is exciting. Time will pass. The story will unfold. Meanwhile, notes will be taken, videos will be recorded, e-mails will be copied, nature will take its course and promising investors will be vetted.

Plotting a plan of action in these new fields helped pass a frigid month. Will this project be a waste of time and money? Will it reap a bounty of new players or will the fields be barren? Will the story go viral? Will our new players double their investment and other business people flock to invest in racehorses instead of soybeans, comic books, wearable umbrellas or digital startups? Will I ever stop losing money? Who knows? There are a lot of variables in the planting game.

One thing is for sure, if nothing is planted, nothing will grow.

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