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Another Bridge
Monday, May 23, 2016 - 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.

Bob Carson

The following sentence makes perfect sense because you are familiar with the sport of harness horse racing:

“My Cantab Hall gelding is staked to the Hambletonian.” 

If you are not familiar with the sport of harness racing, the above sentence makes as much sense as, “Equi certamen ventum vincere trium annorum erat optimus pater eius,”  which is Latin for “This horse will race like the wind at age three and win because his sire was one of the finest.”  

Few of us like to feel stupid. This is a major obstacle for growing our sport. Harness racing seems like a simple game; most sports seem simple after you understand them. However, sports and games are surprisingly complex when visited by people with absolutely no knowledge or background (try explaining baseball to a Welshman who has never seen the sport).

Harness racing has higher hurdles than many other sports and games in the recruitment of new participants. A new visitor does not have access to our sport on television. Harness racing is severely limited by geography with just a handful of tracks. Few mentors are available.

Entering the world of harness racing from the wilderness is intimidating, much more intimidating than you might suspect. I came to the sport about 15 years ago with scant knowledge and zero connections. Everything was a puzzle.

It was maddening how long it took me to recognize the difference in the gait of a trotter and a pacer. Many of you have harnessed thousands of horses and could do it in your sleep. The simple act of harnessing a horse and taking it for a jog was, for me, like solving the quark theorem. And don’t get me started on reading a sales catalogue page with pedigrees, which for five years was more complex than reading a French menu written in hieroglyphics.

So how did I walk off the street and become a harness race fan? Looking back it is easy to see my circumstances were abnormal. I had an occupation with flexible hours, a racetrack near my home, an obsessive personality (according to my wife), and a pal to learn with. All of these things helped me learn the harness racing ropes. My situation allowed me to push through the fog and discover the subtle joys and wonderful people in our sport.

Should we limit our search for new gamblers and new owners to people with my profile (time, location, personality, mentors) we will not find many new participants. Should casual visitors feel bewildered or overwhelmed, few will stay.

The digital door is our best bet. At present, though, harness racing presentations are merely for wagering. There is little education for outsiders. Without context, a totally green rookie clicking onto a site with a horde of horses pulling carts in circles will be discouraged, not enamored.

We need to create more digital doors for the greenest of green rookies. There are assets and tools available today that would have made my breakthrough much easier and can make a breakthrough possible for anyone with a phone. If anyone should get the itch to move in our direction, we need to make digital scratching available.

Learning alone, at your own pace, without pressure or cost can be accomplished using a computer, tablet or a cell phone.

A few weeks ago, I learned quite a lot about the game of contract bridge while sitting on my sofa without the nagging feeling of being embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. It took about five hours to learn the basics and another four or five hours of watching good players play to get a fairly good understanding of the game. Whether or not I end up playing the game is not the point. The computer allowed me to put my foot on the bridge.

How? My instruction came via a very basic, very low key, completely non-inhibiting instructional YouTube video on how to play the very complex card game. The video I chose was a bit dated, the pupils looked like they could have been in the cast of “Three’s Company” circa 1980, but the presentation was soothing and the instructor was excellent.

He started at the very beginning, “This is a deck of cards, a deck of cards has 52 cards in four suits…” The video was three hours long. During the journey a tweedy chap named Taylor Shaw was my guide. He had a languid style and his teaching was supplemented by the student slowly evaluating, bidding and playing hands with thought bubble voiceovers explaining why players did what they did and what they were thinking.

The success or failure in any teaching exercise depends on the instructor. The mentor must make the experience fun, social and absolutely unintimidating. Each teacher has his or her own method.

Taylor Shaw never left his pupils frustrated, even in this tremendously complicated game. After the three hours, and a few rewinds, my confidence was bolstered. Playing a game of bridge (at least against fellow novices) was not out of the question. 

About 100,000 novices have followed this particular lesson in the two years since it was first posted. Once you reached a certain level, those interested could supplement their instruction by looking over the shoulders of bridge players in action.

We could use similar instructional videos for novices in harness racing.

The ability to learn complex games or sports in anonymity is tremendous. The computer is an unbelievable tool for fools who fear looking foolish. A YouTube video lets the viewer go to new places and try new things. In the past year, not only did I learn how to play the card game of contract bridge, I also replaced the front bumper of my car, figured out how to play the sport of cricket and became a fan of an Australian Indie band.

We need to be out there for inquiring minds that may creep to the doorway of “harness racing” in their search engine. Of course, visitors to our game will not get the full experience in the blue glow of their digital devices, but they do need vehicles to travel from zero to jogging speed at their own pace.

Take a look at this video for a few minutes. See if you don’t agree that presentations of this ilk would be useful.

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