Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Treating New Fans as One of Your Own

A few members of The Horseplayers Association of North America this past weekend visited an exacta of tracks – Monmouth and the Meadowlands in Jersey. The hope of the trip was to meet with some of racings participants and see if they and players could find some common ground to move this sport forward. And of course – to enjoy this wonderful game.

The first leg of the trip was the Meadowlands and the $1.5M Hambletonian. HANA Board member Charlie has never handicapped, nor barely even watched a harness race before, and he was thrown right into the fire; being a newbie and not having anywhere to turn. However it turns out he did have somewhere to turn – that sports’ participants and fans. He was welcomed into the sport with open arms, and he shares his story with us in this featured blog piece.

The Meadowlands and Monmouth – in fact all of Jersey racing – is faced with mounting challenges, and in fact might cease to exist. With hospitality and genuine good cheer like this, we sincerely hope not. Please enjoy Charlie’s experience below.

"So, do you have any idea how to read these past performances?"

That began my first experience with harness racing.

I asked this question to the nice gal sitting at our table at dinner the night before the big race at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Little did I know that our area of the room was full of harness racing aficionados, trainers, owners and industry types. Not only was the nice lady that explained even the most simplest of items on the PP's the wife of trainer Jonas Czernyson, but also at our table were the owners of a horse that raced the next day in the Hambletonian itself and some other top drivers and trainers in the sport of harness racing.

I cringe thinking of how stupid our questions must have seemed to them. What does the number after the track code mean? What does it mean when there isn't a purse (qualifier)? What's the difference between a trotter and a pacer? It would be like someone at a Thoroughbred track asking what 6f means.

Through it all, I never sensed any frustration, and they seemed happy to explain this game to me, a clueless thoroughbred player. They had no idea who I was - I could have been a mover and a shaker, or just who I am, a horseplayer - nor did they seem to care.

We ended up discussing the state of the Harness industry, differences between Harness racing and Thoroughbred racing , and even breeding. Did you know that they only breed pacers to pacers and trotters to trotters? I just assumed it was a training issue, so that one was a big surprise.

After finding out who these folks were, I was even more grateful for their help. It shows a lot when people of their stature take an hour out of their evening to explain their sport to me. I looked for them the next day to say thank you but there were so many people around that I never got the chance.

We then met Moira Fanning from the Hambletonian Society, who runs the marketing for the big race. She has a vast amount of knowledge pertaining to pretty much every aspect of the sport from both the Harness and Thoroughbred sides. I can't help but think that if she had more power in racing, we would be in great hands. She gave us all sorts of suggestions for viewing the races the next day, and we talked for an hour about the various issues and opportunities currently facing both sports. Whenever I get frustrated that it seems like our industry continues to make bad decisions, it will help to know that there are people like Moira out there, doing their best, and refusing to give up.

The next day I went to the paddock and took a look at a lot of great horseflesh. I continued to ask anyone around me questions on items that are different from the Thoroughbred world. Why are there constantly horses out warming up? Why are all of the horses back in the paddock instead of just the next race?

I never had a single person refuse an answer.

I have no idea who the people I was asking question to were, but when you're near the horses, you have to assume that they're pretty involved in the sport. It was just an amazing feeling to be such a newbie, and yet have access to any information that I could possibly think to ask for from people that were only too happy to help.

The racing was fantastic as well. I got to see two track records and a world record. I got to see upsets, stretch duels, front running winners - It was great! I didn't bet much because I didn't know enough to bet, but I left promising myself that I'd study up on Harness racing so that next time I get to the track, I'll be able to show my gratitude through my handle. I even asked someone that does know harness if there was a database of results, or a software program out there to use so I could study the sport. Sadly there is not, but maybe there will be sometime soon.

The cheer that went through the room when the winning connections in the feature mentioned how much they hoped the Meadowlands would be saved warms my heart, and I can't help but agree.

Suffice to say, I had a wonderful trip, and I hope the Meadowlands is still there next year so that I can do it again. We certainly felt accepted and a part of the family, and I can only hope the Thoroughbred industry and their fans take note and try to do the same for new visitors and potential customers – the ones who stand there, look out of place and ask questions like I did.

I'd like to say a big thank you to the Hambletonian Society for treating me so well, as well as everyone in the sport of harness racing for their warmth. I'd like to give a special thank You to Moira Fanning because she was great. I hope to see you all again next year!

For some pictures of this unique day in sport, please click here.

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