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Director's Chair: Rivalries and Summits
Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - by Ivan Axelrod, USTA Chairman of the Board

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I cannot begin this month’s column without describing the incredible rivalry going on between Always B Miki, Wiggle It Jiggleit and Freaky Feet Pete.

I watched the Jim Ewart Memorial Pace from Scioto Downs from Sept. 10 a total of six times now. I have tried to think of a more incredible battle that I have seen over the many years of my involvement in racing and this is the best. With a 25.2 first quarter and a head-to-head battle from the half-mile pole home, Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit and their drivers poured out their hearts and souls to the finish line. 

This was, to me, a race for all time.

I do not forget Freaky Feet Pete leaving from the far outside post 9 and directly outside of Wiggle It Jiggleit, being parked the entire mile and finishing fourth. Had he decided to leave from that post, we would have seen a sub-25-second first quarter. 

The more amazing fact is that the connections of these three horses continue to battle against each other rather than pick easier spots in other racing jurisdictions that would allow them to possibly earn as much money as they are earning now; however, they are up to the battle and are providing us with the greatest racing and entertainment we could ever hope for. I want to personally thank all the connections for your true sportsmanship and competitiveness.  Racing owes you much for what you are doing for our sport and our fans.

Looking Forward

I received several e-mails regarding my last column and they focused on ideas to update our product, market and provide better opportunities for new owner development, fan generation and a better gamble for our bettors.

We know that the addition of casino gaming has been extremely important to our industry in generating substantial increased revenues to racetrack operators, horsemen and owners.  However, this added revenue is not sufficient alone for the long-term health of the industry.  We need to identify and address the critical areas that need improvement and changes if we are going to move forward.  

From time to time, I go back to the two Zielinski studies we had done on behalf of the harness racing industry: the first in 1991 and an update completed in 2010. The first study focused on 13 interrelated issues that should be addressed if we were to change the direction of the industry. In 2010 the USTA engaged the original consultant to update the report. Dr. Zielinski summarized her findings at that time in stating that of the 13 original issues and projects, nine of them continued to be major issues for the industry.  Those issues are noted below with a few of my comments and questions for you. Do you believe that some of these are truly important to the future success of our industry? If so, have we made enough progress to date?

Foster industry cooperation: Some of our racetracks have had significant success in developing their business; however, many are limited by lack of funding. Industry summits have not been very successful in developing enough coordinated efforts from our various racing jurisdictions. We still operate as individual businesses (which we are) and are unable to bring ourselves together on many of the major issues of the day.

Hire a boss: Nothing has been done to bring together any type of national leadership. This has not received any support from the industry and is not likely to change.

Organize and conduct industry best-practices summit: The summits presented to date have only dealt with individual projects that could be incorporated into an overall program. A summit to discuss best practices and a plan to assist racetracks, breeders, and horsemen define strategies for long-term growth has not occurred.

Establish legislative liaison office: The industry has not been able to develop an overall strategy and consolidate our efforts. Some say this has to be done at the individual racing jurisdiction level and many tracks and horsemen have been successful in this area. 

Conduct market research segmentation study: Do we know what our customer wants or do we think we know what is best for them? We are looking to attract the 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds. How many of our current leaders can address this age group effectively?

Conduct in-depth interviews of current heavy bettors: Do we know what the gamblers want in order to attract them to wager with us? The USTA attempted to arrange a summit in 2016 to address this issue. Unfortunately, the summit had to be cancelled and has not as yet been rescheduled.

We do know that the takeout is a hot-button issue for gamblers. Some of our racetracks have takeouts exceeding 30 percent, meaning that the racetrack and horsemen extract 30 percent from the wagering pool before a single winner is paid out. Why would we be shocked that gamblers avoid those tracks?

Stop whipping horses: Progress has been made and continues to be made in this area. 

Develop strategy: The industry needs to develop a plan of action and expected results over a one-year, three-year and five-year period. 

Support “Harness the Stars”: This was a harness racing reality show presented to the USTA in 2010 that did not materialize.  Is this something necessary for success? Since 2010, the internet and mobile device usage have exploded onto the scene and other avenues for marketing our sport are more likely candidates for support.

If some of these issues should be addressed, how do we effectively fund the projects? If others should be added or replace some of the above, please let me know your thoughts and suggestions.

Expansion into the casino gaming area at many of our racetracks today has given us the opportunity and some funding at the local level to address the above issues. How do we attack projects that could be handled at the national level unless we develop other funding sources?  Think about it and let’s come up with some ideas. You can reach me at iaxelrod@aol.com.

Good luck and good racing,
Ivan L Axelrod
Your Chairman

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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.