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It Just Is
Monday, March 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.

“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” -- Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

Bob Carson

Why does a football team have 11 players? Why five players in basketball or nine in baseball? Why do baseball teams play nine innings while other sports have arbitrary time limits?

In many sports, the foundations of the game remain more urban legend than documented research. Definitive answers concerning the “whys” of long-established sports are elusive; they were invented long ago and evolved into the games we are familiar with today.

But they do evolve. Today, football games, basketball games and tennis matches are much different affairs than they were in 1914. When technology and money come into play, new twists on old sports occur. For example, it is likely that in the very near future football will eliminate the extra point, baseball will greatly expand video replay and golf is wrestling with new equipment regulations. Good or bad? Hard to say, but we accept and adapt to the changes.

Autumn Ryan graphic

It can be fun to imagine other innovations. Would baseball’s popularity improve if the game suddenly was played with a clock? Would basketball be an improved game with eight players per side or if they played until one team scored eighty points? Would tennis be a more appealing sport if the players reverted to wooden racquets? Who knows?

One thing we do know -- changes like these cause upheaval.

My uncle Eddie became apoplectic the first time he saw a baseball game with a designated hitter. He swore that, “The world was going to heck in a hat box” and he would never watch another game. His boycott lasted a full 24 hours.

Negative reactions to changes in our games and sports are understandable. Our first thought about any radical change is, “No, don’t mess with my game.” Most of us are traditionalists who are comfortable with what we know and what we like.

Racing harness horses is a very traditional sport, but logic should tell us that traditions are not mandates on stone tablets.

When we wager on our home track, be it in the grandstands, on our computers or on our cell phones, the time between races is often 15 to 20 minutes. We can imagine reasons for this rather long interval between races; the pace of life in 1914 was much more leisurely, patrons only received the program upon entrance to the racetrack, selling concessions was a source of income, customers needed to report to the window or bookmaker and place a wager, horses needed a break between heats, etc.

But this is 2014. Few of the reasons for this delay hold up to scrutiny; 99 percent of us get our programs on a device and we can place a wager in ten seconds. Only a small percentage of handicappers travel to the races. The world is much quicker. The rationale for our long, slow race program is rooted in the past.

Pull up a race today. Most likely it will be standard fare; something like eight trotters in the field and 15 minutes between races. A couple of horses can be pitched as unplayable. Outside posts are brutal. You have seen a million races, or close variations, similar to this race. This is our sport. We love it. We love it as it is. But is the racing we know the smartest course?

What if the race you are looking at was altered? What if this race was split into two fields of only four horses, and what if the interval between the races was only a few minutes?

Blasphemy you say.

Take a few seconds and examine these hypothetical changes from a different point of view. Imagine you are designing our sport from scratch. You are designing a sport for people who were weaned on technology. You are designing a gambling game to be competitive in the present gambling environment. And, this is important, imagine you are designing our sport for new players, not for traditionalists. Here are a few bullet points.

• A race with only four horses in the field makes winning much more likely, as our competition in the casino world has discovered. Repetition of the winning sensation is an extremely important motivator.

• Conversely, there is less time to dwell on those nagging losses because another race is about to start.

• Outside post bias is diluted. Players (and owners and trainers) do not have to worry about finding themselves buried at the back of a large pack.

• With four horses, the races are easier to follow, easier to announce, easier to display.

• Each horse race is still a pari-mutuel event. Sharp handicappers will quickly adapt. Trainers and owners will adapt.

• The pace of play will more accurately reflect the faster pace of life for modern players.

• Individuals with “casino-type” personalities, who prefer to get into a mental risk/reward bubble, would find a place in a racing world where players hardly have time to think.

• As for the pools, big fields may be the best formula for “traditional” players. But this new race program would not be marketed to traditionalists; this format is for a completely different audience. Why can’t we have different courses for different horses? Different races for different audiences?

• We have harness tracks on life support. Experimental programs of this ilk would fall into the, “What do we have to lose” category for a struggling track.

• A radical new way of playing our game would give new opportunities for marketing to new potential players, especially if the betting was simple and the presentation was top notch.

• A small field would be safer for drivers and horses.

• The races would be tighter. If the race secretary split our hypothetical trot into two races, the four favorites would not have traffic trouble. The four longshots would have a race with their own blanket finish. The product may be more exciting.

• The new experimental model would be simple to implement; basically the race secretary divides the fields in half, and the races are run much more rapidly. The experimental program does not cost a nickel more; the starting car just has to make a few more trips.

• The horsemen would not sacrifice. After all, this program would require the same number of horses, have the same total purse money, and your entry would always be in a small, competitive field.

That’s enough madness for now. Some traditionalists may be hyperventilating. That’s okay. Besides, the idea is not for you, it’s for people who have never seen us and possibly never will.

Tradition is tricky. I will always remember interviewing an extremely successful general manager who was operating a wildly resurgent minor league baseball franchise. This guy was open to anything; he would have put cameras on the batting helmets, staged scenes from Shakespeare between innings, used yellow baseballs or changed games times according to the weather forecast.

When I asked him how he could foist this sort of nonsense on old time traditional fans he answered, “I never worry about the traditionalists, they are not going anywhere. Oh, they will moan and groan, but we couldn’t lose them if we tried. Everything we throw on the table is for the person who doesn’t really know us, but might love us if they get to know us.”

As harness racing tries to improve our standing in the sporting and gambling worlds, perhaps the architects of the future should consider the words of Somerset Maugham, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”

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