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People like to win
Tuesday, July 08, 2014 - by Frank Cotolo

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Introducing people to harness racing is not easy these days, due to the immense competition for the entertainment dollar. However, stiff rivalry, like water, seeks its own level. From in my experience, it has never been easy to create a new patron of pacers, so to speak.

I can go as far back as the early 1970s in the dense harness racing territory of New York and New Jersey—where I was introduced to the sport and the game—and count on one hand the number of people turning into harness racing fans. Aside from the ridiculous notion that harness racing was not on the level (something far too many people accepted without a scintilla of evidence), there was the stigma of the racetrack enviornment, where every corner of the joint was concentrated with charlatans.

Harness racing did not get good press and it did little to change that because there were crowds of people paying admission and parking just so they could gamble. Those crowds included what was leftover from the afternoon Thoroughbred audience: people who lost money betting and wanted to get even and people who won and wanted to win more.

When I moved to California in the late ‘70s and adapted to harness racing there, I was a walking, talking ambassador of the sport. I tried to introduce people to the sport all the time. Most of them didn’t know that Hollywood Park presented harness racing and many of those were not aware of harness racing (“You mean like in that old Walter Brennan movie ‘Home in Indiana’?”). In the West, harness racing’s stigma included it being an old man’s sport, based upon celluloid images.

But not every introduction was a failure and I based all of what I was to do to promote this sport for the rest of my life upon the reasons for the successful fans I created. There was common thread: they liked to win. It’s primal, I know, but the joy in the reward ignites a closer look at the details of the game itself and everything about it becomes attractive.

What begins as a mere game of chance, playing a few dollars on which animal will be the fastest going in a circle of many animals, continues with a desire to learn more about the animal, which, in turn, continues with a desire to learn more about why the animal is not ridden, but steered from a buggy (which, in turn, the person learns is called a sulky or a bike), etc. And during the learning process the person is loving to wager. I remember one fellow getting into the sport who was so excited to know that if he bet to place and his horse won, his ticket was worth something.

I was happy to guide each of them into the world of harness racing through the portal of pari-mutuel wagering and introduce them to all of the other wonderful aspects, details and history once they embraced wagering. Over the decades, I have continued to find success introducing people to harness racing by helping them to win playing the game so that sparks of a romance with the details can blossom.

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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.