The Hambletonian is a Big American Event

I don’t care what people think, the Hambo should be treated like the big event that it is

by John Furgele (The Valued 228)

The first Saturday in May—the Kentucky Derby.  Any sports fan in America knows what that means but what about the first Saturday in August?  That, of course, doesn’t resonate as much with the average sports fan, but that day is the Super Bowl of Harness Racing; The Hambletonian.

The Hambletonian is the big day of the harness racing calendar.  The site is the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey and the day will be a festive one.  There are 16 races on the card and 14 of them (including the two Hambo eliminations) have purses over $100,000.

Harness racing is, well, no one is quite sure what to thoroughbred racing.  People who like the thoroughbreds don’t even pay attention to the “harnesses.” Those who follow harness racing probably, at the very least, pay attention to thoroughbred racing. It is a contentious relationship to be sure.

There will be 20,000 plus in attendance at the track affectionately known as The Big M and most will have a good time.  The Star Ledger, Bergen Record and other news outlets will send reporters to the track to cover the day’s events.  There will be the story where the reporter cruises the backyard and asks why the Jenkins family comes.  The family will say that they have been coming for 25 years and for them, the Hambo is a yearly tradition.  Matt and Ashley, the 28-year-olds who have been married for three years with no children (yet) will tell you that they came to have some fun with their friends.  The reporter will keep cruising.  She will find the 73-year-old that has been a harness racing fan since 1954. He will recite how great the 1989 race was and his recall will be spot on. He will tell the reporter that he has seen 30 Hambletonians and if the Lord is willing to let him keep coming, he will do so.

Most that come have some type of interest in the sport of harness racing.  There are hundreds of other festivals, picnics, sporting events, bars, boats, etc. to do on a Saturday in August in New Jersey, but something has drawn them to East Rutherford.  There has to be a little bit of interest in the sport, right.  Does anybody blindly see the Hambletonian online, in a paper or magazine and say, “let’s go?”  Doubt it.

That’s where I get confused.  There are many that say harness racing is a dying sport and to be sure, the media treats it as such.  ESPN won’t be there and I’m pretty sure the New York Times won’t be either.  Ditto for the new hip websites like the SB Nation, Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports.  But, 20,000 plus will be there; betting, drinking, eating and in general, having a good old American time at a good old American event.  Most won’t know any of the horses, but they will look at the program, pick out some cool names and make some wagers with the hopes of scoring the big score.

Americans like big events, in fact, they like them more and more in these, the modern times.  With instant gratification so easy to attain, events become more and more popular because most of us can take the one-off.  It’s the 162 game baseball schedule and the 82 NBA/NHL schedules that we can no longer devote our time to. The one-off is easy because you only have to do it/see it…..once.  The Super Bowl gets great ratings every year because we can handle one four-hour event.  We can handle the Oscars, too; it’s the Golden Globes and Divisional Playoff games that we struggle with. Look at golf and tennis–they have majors for a reason; because they can market them and best of all, they have made people care.  They have convinced the American that one Wimbledon is better than 10 ATP titles and that one Masters is better than 20 PGA tour wins. Bjorn Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles, but never won the United States Open.  Arnold Palmer never won the PGA Championship.  We judge athletes and teams by how many big events they have won. Borg won 64 titles, Guillermo Vilas, 62, but outslammed him, 11 to 4.  Case closed.

My hope is for harness racing to try and cash in on this big event.  Most of the 20,000 that attend will not go to a harness racing track until next August when the 2018 Hambletonian is run.  There has to be a way to get these people back to a track more than one time per year.  Unlike the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby and Game 7 of a World Series or NBA Finals, you have to find the Hambletonian; it doesn’t find you.  These people have found it, so let’s use them to recruit new people to the tracks. They go, they like it, how can the sport get THEM to spread the word?

To me, it seems like harness racing should be able to build on this.  I’m a realist, I don’t expect 5,000 fans to come out to watch harness racing on a Friday evening on October, but these 20,000 have come for a reason and there is a good chance to get them to come again, and perhaps bring some friends with them. Get their names, offer them some perks, but most importantly, get them to spread the word. People buy from people they like. If Bob loves the Hambletonian and his best buddy is Jim, why can’t get Bob get Jim to come to the event?

I could be wrong.  We only have one Independence Day, one Thanksgiving and one Christmas (one too many!) and if we had more, they would lose their luster, so maybe I should be pleased that the sport of harness racing has one day to celebrate and be happy with that and those that come. But I’m a fan of the sport and I would like to see more people enjoying it, because I feel if we can expose people to it, it can grow, not by leaps and bounds, but enough to keep going and most importantly, to get more attention and to sustain a fan base.



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