There is an aura about attending a sporting event in person. People like to say that they saw this game live, or they were there when Bucky Dent hit the 3-run homer in the 1978 AL East tiebreaker. When you tell somebody you were live, it elicits a reaction and in part, feeds our ego.
“You saw Frank Sinatra live,” or “You were there when Reggie Jackson hit three homers in the 1977 World Series? When the attendee hears that, they take pride in the questions that follow, which range from “how was the atmosphere,” to “how loud was it,” and so on and so forth. The attendee beams and that is why people want to be there live to see these events.
Most agree that being live and in person is a great thing, but today, modern conveniences have made it easier to stay inside. Why pay $50 to park when you can watch the football game on TV? Why pay $300 for a ticket when you can see things better on your 70-inch wide HDTV?
Harness racing has fallen victim to this. Why drive to the track when you can watch the races and wager on them from your device? Many facilities concern themselves with getting their signal out to as many outlets as they can, hoping to get more wagering. Today, it’s wiser to invest in a HD broadcast signal then improving the clubhouse because “nobody goes anymore.” That’s what Yonkers Raceway did. There isn’t a prettier picture (The Meadowlands is good, too) on a computer or phone than Old Hilltop. They spent nearly a million dollars making their TV signal pretty. The grandstand looks a little ragged as does the clubhouse, but since live crowds are sparse, why bother with fixing the in-house amenities?
On Monday, October 16, I ventured down from Glenmont, NY to Monticello Raceway, a drive of exactly 125 miles, making for a 250 mile round trip. It was Monday and like many racetracks, it was…….nearly empty. The simulcast room had more people than those outside watching, but I wanted to see what the place looked like in person. In fact, when you tell people you’re driving 125 miles to watch harness racing (when you could watch at home), they kind of look at you.
There is something about being there live. Because the crowd was small, you could get up close to the horses, the drivers and if they were there, the connections. It was quiet and when a bettor got angry when his horse didn’t hit the board, you could hear it. It’s like listening to baseball game in April when it’s 40 degrees outside. There was always that one guy right below the broadcast booth bemoaning every wrong move made by the home team. That’s what it can sound like on a Monday afternoon at Monticello or anywhere for that matter.
Monticello does have an enclosed clubhouse, but it is no longer open. For those who wanted to watch the races you had to stand or sit in a carport-like facility that had stadium style seats. It was to the right of the finish line but the view of the track was decent. On this Monday, it was 45 degrees and with wind, felt colder. I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s 20 degrees in mid-December.
I was snapping photos on my digital camera when Gerri Schwarz, the track photographer invited me into to the winner’s circle to get some better shots. It was very nice of her and the two of us enjoyed each other’s company as we talked about what we liked, loved, and disliked about harness racing. Soon, racing directing Shawn Wiles came over to introduce himself. I had emailed him a few times, so I don’t think I was a total stranger when I told him my name. I was able to get some insights from him pertaining to the future of the track. The owners of Monticello Raceway secured a license to build a full-scale casino six miles away. There was some talk of moving the track there, but for now, the track will stay where it’s at and so, too will the racino. The horseman and the casino just signed a seven-year agreement keeping racing and alive and well at Monticello—at least for seven more years. When racino licenses were first granted, the stipulation was that they had to sponsor horse and harness racing. New York has racinos at six of its seven harness tracks and one at Finger Lakes, which conducts thoroughbred racing. The ninth license is at Tioga Downs which recently went from a racino to a full-blown casino, meaning they now have table games.
The best part of the day was being able to talk to the winning connections. Most were very excited to see their horse win a New York Sire Stakes race. Each Sire Stake had a purse of $50,000, meaning the owners spilt $25,000 a variety of ways. Fractional ownership is growing in popularity in harness racing and Marc Treffi told me that Cruising in Style earned enough on this day to pay for the rest of the horses that he has stakes in.
Fractional ownership allows more people to get in the game. Shares vary; some can start at 1 percent and go all the way to 20 percent or even more. Many own 2.5 percent of a horse, meaning if a horse is purchased for $40,000, a 2.5 percent share costs $1,000. This also means that you, as a fractional owner are responsible for 2.5 percent of everything—the training bills, the medical bills, the stall rent, etc. On this day, a 2.5 percent ownership share would get you $1,250 in earnings, which is usually more than enough to offset those above mentioned monthly training costs.
As long as your horse stays healthy, there is chance to make a few bucks. The great thing about Standardbreds is that they race often, sometimes once a week, but if they get injured and are on the shelf, they’re not earning money for the owners.
You could see the excitement in the eyes of these owners. They were more than eager to tell me where the next race will be and if they were going to try to get there to see it live. That’s where the digital and technology age have helped. Now, it doesn’t really matter where the horse races; if you can’t get there, you can watch the race live on your device or later on a replay. Treffi was hoping to see Cruising In Style race at Hoosier Park on the Breeders Crown undercard. Imagine that! The biggest day of the harness racing year and you’re a part of the action.
Sure, I could have stayed home and watched these races unfold on my laptop, but there is still something to being there live. Being live means mingling, talking and seeing the horses up close and personal, something that even the best of HD TVs don’t allow. All in all, a terrific day at Monticello Raceway and if being live is wrong, I don’t want to be right.