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First Over: Let The Games (Finally) Begin

Sunday, May 22, 2011  By: Andrew Cohen
>First Over-Let The Games (Finally) Begin

Last year’s champions are coming back to qualifiers all over North America. The stakes season starts in earnest with eliminations for the Empire Breeders’ races and the Upper Canada Cup. And we’re only a month or so away the Pepsi North America Cup. After another long winter of discontent and uncertainty in harness racing, the season we all wait for every year is once again upon us. All I can say is: Thank goodness, it’s about time.

I feel about the coming stakes season the way I used to feel about summertime when I was in school. I just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy it all. I want to see if See You At Peelers can keep it up. I want to see if Big Jim continues to be as dominant a force on the racetrack as his delightful owner is in person. I want to see if Roll With Joe will be as tough and as gritty as his older full brother, Bettor’s Delight. And I want to see what happens this summer to Pastor Stephen and Blue Porsche and Idylllic.

And those are just some of the three-year-olds. We are also about a month away from seeing the return of the baby races for 2-year-olds, which means yet another generation of new stars and disappointments, miracles and mishaps. This perpetual rejuvenation of the sport each year, like perennial flowers, doesn’t just bring about new hopes and new dreams. It reminds us all how long harness racing has been around—how many stakes seasons there have been for 2-year-olds—and it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of what the industry has done right.

Like me, you probably worried a lot about the industry this past fall and winter. You probably sweated out the future of the Meadowlands—it’s still not completely certain—and no doubt continue to worry about the sport’s continuing integrity problem. Maybe you were angry about the way that the industry was abused in Indiana or the storm clouds gathering over Pennsylvania’s slots income. And who could blame you if you are a small breeder who got whacked at last fall’s sales.

Put those concerns aside for the moment. Or at least allow them room to share brain space with all the wonderful racing we are about to see all over North America. Re-energize your inner battery over the next few months for the long fights ahead—over the means and manner in which we are about to try to rebuild the sport. Soak up all the good stretch drives. Absorb what these brilliant athletes can do when well trained and well driven. It’s almost Memorial Day. Gray skies are going to clear up. And harness racing is alive for at least one more glorious season to be.

News and notes: I wanted very much to like and recommend “Unharnessed,” the online video series about harness racing that Standardbred Canada is promoting on its website.

There is a place for such content on the web and in theory it’s a great way for the industry to connect with potential new fans who might be interested in learning about a sport with drama and excitement and fierce competition.

The first episode of the show was premiered this past week online but I’m afraid to say it was a disappointment on many levels. Let me briefly count the ways.

First, there weren’t enough scenes with horses and horse racing and too many minutes devoted to the workout habits of the drivers who were featured. Second, those drivers, each of whom I respect, all seem to do the same things and talk the same way, which means that by the third interview I was already bored. Third, both the written and the visual segues between the initial discussion of the North America Cup, and then John Campbell, and then some of this year’s drivers, were sloppy and uneven. Fourth, the frequent interludes with Randy Waples (as interesting as I find him) were jarring.

I could go on but space is short. If the show is aimed at current fans of harness racing it doesn’t provide enough detail or insight (or cool video) to make it watchable. And if, as I suspect, it is geared toward a new generation of potential fans, it does not provide enough context and perspective to make it interesting, much less compelling.

The concept behind such an online program is sound—a great idea actually. But the execution of Episode 1 didn’t match the hype. I hope Waples and Company stick with it, and improve it, before they roll it out fully to the world at large.

And I say that as someone rooting for the project to succeed…....Did anyone notice that Dodge Ram was a big sponsor at the Kentucky Derby? I wouldn’t mind owning a Ram truck and I think it would be a great idea if the good folks at Meadowlands and/or the Hambletonian Society were to call up those nice Dodge Ram executives and find out whether they’d be willing to raise their ante in horse racing advertising.

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