Monday, April 19, 2010

Are we there yet?

Friday, March 26, 2010 by Jason Turner

Twenty years ago the late Terry Holton moved to Newark, Ohio, and was almost immediately befriended by a bright-eyed, harness racing enthusiast who lived across the street.

USTA/Mark Hall photo
Children wave as horse #7 races by.

The 13-year-old, who also served as the neighborhood paperboy, had been going to races with his parents since he was 5, and had been a fan of Holton’s for almost as long. But when Holton took the youngster under his wing, the teen’s passion for the sport, and the opportunities that came with being joined at the hip to an Ohio legend, changed his life forever.

Today that boy-turned-man, Jason Settlemoir, is one of the most active figures in the industry, serving as vice president of racing and simulcast for Vernon and Tioga Downs, simulcast director for the Little Brown Jug and vice president of Harness Tracks of America. He’s also a USTA director and president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association. It’s hard to imagine he’d be any of those things if the interest and enthusiasm he showed as a teenager hadn’t been fostered by Holton and his racing colleagues.

A toddler clings to her mom while assessing how to react to this different breed of horse.

“Everybody always treated me like I was involved,” said Settlemoir. “It was like God shining down on me and saying, “This is what you’re going to do with your life.”

Settlemoir knows first-hand the importance of creating an environment that is welcoming to kids and the enduring impact it can have, which is why he and other likeminded track directors are working to ensure that kids are a focal point of the harness racing experience.

Among the most crucial components of a family-friendly track experience is providing activities that are specific to kids. Going to the track should be exciting for the whole family, Settlemoir said, not just the parents.

“At Vernon and Tioga we place a strong emphasis on Family Days and doing things so that kids can be actively involved,” said Settlemoir. “We have a bounce house, we do caricatures, balloons and we offer backstretch barn tours so kids can get a good look at the horses.

“We want to emphasize bringing families to the track. That’s how most of us got involved—a parent or grandparent brought you to the track for the first time and you fell in love.”

Some of the kid-friendly activities include face-painting, blow-up bounce houses, clowns, and balloon animals.

Providing entertainment and interactivity for kids and families is an equally important goal for the staff and management at Grand River Raceway, said Marketing and Communications Manager Kelly Spencer.

Among Grand River’s youth-inspired initiatives is a horse craft station, where kids are invited to create, color and solve puzzles, and as an added bonus, they’re also given the opportunity to make a trophy and present it to their favorite driver in the winner’s circle.

The craft station and winner’s circle presentation are just a few of many opportunities available to kids and their families as part of Grand River’s popular summer series “Fun and Frivolity Friday Nights,” which is well-attended, said Spencer.

“We recognize there is an opportunity—I’d even call it an obligation—to make an impact on kids right now,” she said. “It’s an investment in the longevity of the sport. Most kids are smitten with horses and we try to nurture that affinity.”

Education is another key component of Grand River’s family-focused approach.

USTA/Mark Hall photo
A great way to get youngsters into horses is giving them a ride in the job cart, as shown here at the Delaware County Fair.

In addition to co-hosting an annual harness racing youth camp, Grand River also works with the Ontario Harness Horse Association to put on an interactive open-house event where participants learn about horse care, equine anatomy and many other topics.

Similarly, Tioga Downs offers monthly backstretch tours, where kids and their families are given the opportunity to meet drivers and trainers, ask questions, tour the paddock and even feed the horses. At the end of each session prizes are awarded.

“We need to educate kids on how the sport operates,” Settlemoir said. “I think it’s important to the viability of any sport to have young people involved and wanting to understand it.”

Being a family-friendly facility, however, does not eliminate limitations. There are slot machines at both of Settlemoir’s sites, and at Grand River, and the casino floor is one area where kids are not welcome.

“We want everyone to have a good time, but just because you’re a racetrack doesn’t mean you have to focus on the gambling,” said Settlemoir.

Currently at Northfield Park slots are not an issue, but finding the right balance between accommodating kids and their families and serious bettors sometimes is.

Even outriders get in on the act, allowing children a chance to get up close between races.

“It’s our goal to make everyone feel comfortable,” said Northfield’s Vice President of Racing and Simulcasting Dave Bianconi. “We would like for our track to be kid-friendly. The restaurant has a kids’ menu. It’s definitely not anti-kids, but we don’t have puppet shows. It’s different than going to a pro sports venue where kids are the main target they’re going after. We don’t keep score in attendance. We keep score in handle, so it’s just not the same.”

Despite the challenges, track operators agree that creating a track experience conducive to kids and their families is essential for the future of the harness racing.

“We [tracks] should be catering to families,” Settlemoir said. “We’re creating fans of the sport and I think that’s important.”

“Since I spend thousands of dollars every year trying desperately to awaken some inkling of curiosity in adults, it seems obvious to me that we—as an industry—need to be extremely vigilant in speaking to tomorrow’s racing fans today,” said Spencer.