Group wants harness racing industry to get younger

A group of people have come together under the name Harness Our Future to explore ways to make the harness racing industry sustainable in the future. At the top of their list — attract more young people.

'We're going to be dying a slow and painful death via attrition'

Brendan Curran, 23, joined the Harness Our Future group to help attract more young people to the sport. (Submitted by Brendan Curran)

Brendan Curran says it's hard to explain the feeling you get when you watch your horse race down the track in front of a cheering crowd.

"It's almost a high," he said.

Curran, 23, would like other people his age to experience that thrill.

That's why he joined Harness Our Future, a group of about a dozen people from the three Maritime provinces committed to finding ways to keep the harness racing industry viable well into the future.

"If you don't attract young people that are passionate and involved and want to remain involved and we don't make it appealing to them, there's no long-term sustainability," he said.

'Have to pull together'

"We're going to be dying a slow and painful death via attrition almost, so we have to pull together to make this work."

Harness Our Future was started by Norman Hall, a longtime harness racing owner, breeder and volunteer.

Harness racing has been his passion for the last 40 years, he said — "and nobody wants to see their passion extinguished."

Norman Hall, 77, wants to see future generations enjoy harness racing as much as he does. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

Hall said harness racing is a social sport that can bring families and communities together. But that community will disappear, he said, if the "grey-haired industry" doesn't change the way it operates and look to the future.

"If you look around most racetracks elsewhere, perhaps not so much in P.E.I., but if you look at other racetracks you'll see a lot of grey-hair-headed people in the stands and not many kids running around."

We can't just sit back and let Nova Scotia and New Brunswick fail.— Norman Hall

There were only six tracks active in the Maritimes last year — three in Nova Scotia, two on P.E.I. and one in New Brunswick.

P.E.I.'s tracks in Charlottetown and Summerside, "professionally run" by Atlantic Lotto and the P.E.I. Harness Racing Industry Association, are doing OK, Hall said, but there needs to be co-operation and collaboration with the other provinces.

"We can't just sit back and let Nova Scotia and New Brunswick fail — and they're getting to that point — and say, 'well we're OK.' That has implications for the future of our industry, too."

Dawn Hubbard, 54, says young people could bring fresh ideas to harness racing boards. (Submitted by Dawn Hubbard)

Hall's group has members from all three provinces, including Dawn Hubbard, a horse owner and breeder in Greater Lakeburn, N.B.

Hubbard, 54, has been involved in harness racing all her life and is concerned about the industry in her province. There were no harness races at tracks in Woodstock and Fredericton last year, she said, and she's seen participation continue to decline at the Saint John track.

"In New Brunswick, I would say the harness racing industry is in tremendous trouble."

Hubbard said if more young people sat on harness racing boards, they could re-examine rules and bring fresh ideas to an industry that can get stuck in its ways.

"Youth can really teach us," she said. "The youth have a lot to say, it's just to get them talking."

Harness Our Future has created a Facebook page and website to generate discussion about the future of harness racing in the Maritimes. 

Expense can be a barrier 

Curran said one barrier to attracting young people to harness racing is the expense. Costs have gone up, but the purses and income have not risen at the same rate, he said.

One solution Curran likes is for multiple people to invest in one horse.

"You can own one per cent of a race horse and have 100 per cent of the fun."

Some other ideas being floated include an Atlantic Grand Circuit, and increasing revenues by finding ways to optimize the online better pool.

"The initial thing is to get the ideas on the table, and get them sorted out and prioritized," Hall said. "Then hopefully if we have enough people behind that initiative, people will listen who are in a position to do something about it."

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About the Author

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.