Attendance Light at TRA/HTA Convention

Harness track owner suggests reason why few attended annual event this year.

By Aleta Walther

Attendance has been light at this year’s joint annual meeting of the Thoroughbred Racing Association and Harness Tracks of America at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells, Calif.  The conference began March 9 and runs through March 11.

At a panel discussing on suggestions for improvements to racing, Jeff Gural, the owner of harness tracks at Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, New York, suggested that the light attendance was because “the race tracks that don’t have slots aren’t here because they can’t afford it. Those that do have slots aren’t here because they don’t care about racing any more.”

 In contrast, he said, he built Tioga Park thinking about how to get people to come to the race track, not how to get them to come to the casino. “Make it fun,” Gural said, “and make it the right size. Nobody goes to an empty restaurant,” and the Aqueducts, Belmonts, and Meadowlands of the world are simply too big to be made to look lively.”

Gural also criticized Standardbred horsemen and breeders for putting their own interests ahead of those of the sport as a whole, with their focus on 2-year-old racing and the retirement of almost every “star” without racing at 4 (years old). “I’m 100% certain that harness racing won’t exist in 20 years,” he said. “Thoroughbreds might last a while longer, because they’ve got the Arab (owners).”

Nevertheless, Gural said, “even though I’ve lost a lot of money, I still enjoy running Tioga Park.” And despite his losses, he remains an advocate of reducing the takeout. “If you’ve got slots,” he said, “the pari-mutuel revenues are a drop in the bucket. Why offer slots with an 8% takeout and then charge people 20% to bet on racing?”

Earlier in the day, Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center at the Albany (NewYork) Law School, and former member of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, lamented the “incredible history of unsolved mysteries and scandals galore” in the racing industry. A self-described “outsider embedded within horse racing,” he regaled the audience with stories ranging from Marge Everett’s involvement with bribery in Illinois in the 1950s, Alex “Doc” Harthill’s “five decades working on the dark side of Thoroughbred racing,” and fans rioting over an exacta payoff at Yonkers in 1971.He also highlighted more recent tales of rebaters such as the Hinsdale greyhound track in New Hampshire, Lakes Region (also in New Hampshire), and International Racing Group.

 “Why were the most famous handicappers betting with these people?” he wondered.

In response to the allegation, however, that permissive medication is primarily to blame for the declining number of starts that Thoroughbred runners make over their careers, he theorized that “we can assume harness horses are running on the same drugs (as Thoroughbreds), so why are they running at the same rates that they always have?” He also observed that not all mysteries remain unsolved, with the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Pick-6 scandal a prime example in which the culprits indeed got collared.

In the end, Liebman admitted he was now a part of racing’s know-nothing culture.  “Like the iconic Sgt. Schulz,” he said, “I know nothing.”