Just days before the Quebec provincial government recently announced their end-game for harness racing in the province, they put out a release. It included this paragraph:
"Let us not forget that the horse racing industry started its decline several years ago. Since 1995, the government poured more than $450 million in subsidies to support this industry. In spite of this aid, the industry continued to regress. The evolution of wagering on horse racing proves this. In 1990, $315 million was wagered and fell to $136 million in 2008. More than 80% of the money wagered on horse racing is money wagered on horse racing that takes place outside of Quebec at Hippo Clubs."
I urge you to read the words carefully because I have a feeling it’s not the last time you’ll see such a statement. The failure of horse racing – harness racing specifically – to address the shrinking fan-base and alarming decline in wagering is the sport’s downfall.
What happened in Quebec is disturbing. The government essentially abandoned racing and as can be expected, the public outcry was minimal. Even across Canadian harness racing circles, was there much more than a whimper regarding the loss of the country’s second largest standardbred jurisdiction?
Yet somehow month after month, meeting after meeting, we are met with industry leaders who have no problem distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in purse money without any plan to drive bettors or new patrons to the track.
A Sires Stake program, mares residency, breed improvement and new ownership initiatives are all very positive things. They’re vital pieces of the puzzle. But without a product that is relevant to the consumer, harness racing is hurling head first toward its demise.
The only broad-based action plan on the wagering and customer side emanates from the Board of Standardbred Canada, who had the courage to develop a Strategic Plan that looks at some of these issues. But the subject is huge and research and development is a major undertaking.
A few weeks ago, I watched a five horse Gold Final at Kawartha Downs go for $170,000. One owner had four of the five horses. The single-file event had less betting on it than a $4,000 claiming race later in the program.
As Standardbred Canada’s financials are public and published annually in this magazine, I can tell you that the annual budget for R & D and Business Development amounts to less than the purse for that single race.
Standardbred Canada is funded by membership and user fees and thus no percentage of slots or wagering finds its way to pay for these projects. And while progress is being made, we are in a race against time, and we’re losing it.
In Quebec, the government says it ‘poured’ $450 million into horse racing only to witness the sport’s steady decline. While government played no small role in harness racing’s erosion in Quebec, I ask you this: what were the major initiatives instituted over the last 15 years in Quebec – by anyone – to reinvent harness racing?
Right across North America, despite mounting evidence that the sport is out of touch with the general public, the event is presented in a manner that, aside from the odd superfecta, is virtually identical to what it looked like 15 years ago.
So now, it’s just a waiting game. Waiting for courageous leadership to stand up and invest in the future. Or waiting for the next press release to take everything away.