The 10th of October 2022 represents a historic date for the team at Harnesslink.com with it marking the 20th anniversary since launching as a platform for global harness racing news.
When Harnesslink.com launched in 2002, there were no smart phones, and Facebook was still in beta testing only officially launching to 50 campuses across American as FaceMash in 2003.
Back in 2002, only 9% of the world’s population was using the internet. Today that figure is 63.1%. The average internet user was online for 46 minutes a day. Today that figure is 413 minutes.
Harnesslink was, and still is a pioneer for an industry that in many ways has been slow to let go of traditions and move with the times.
Twenty years in business is a significant milestone for any company, let alone an independent racing media website.
On this historic day, we spoke with Harnesslink CEO, John Curtin, to get his thoughts about the longevity of his brainchild and what makes
Harnesslink fly in the face of adversity.
John, where did the idea for Harnesslink come from?
It started with a desperate need for knowledge, it was very hard to get easy access to information in those early days and you had to rely on books and magazines from all over the world.
In the early days of my bloodstock business when we were shuttling In The Pocket, I used to be ringing the USTA every five minutes looking for updates as to how his progeny were performing. It’s obviously very different today. Here in the Southern Hemisphere and vice versa, you rarely had access to analytics or stories about what was happening in the business which is why publications like the Stallion Register were so popular.
It was always a dream of mine to get the harness racing media from around the world together, so that’s how it started. There has been plenty of instances over the last 20 years where I thought we would just close Harnesslink down and walk away. It takes a big effort to produce an independent platform that is engaging.
We have a 70% return visitor rate where if you look up the statistics for other global media outlets, they have around 10%. That is one of the primary reasons I could never throw it away, but it certainly has cost us a lot of resources to keep going when other areas of my business were much more profitable.
What were some of the challenges early on in setting up a racing website in the early 2000’s?
There were a lot of challenges. The main one being it took us 18 months from concept to launching the website. It was La Trobe University in Australia that got us underway.
It was a young guy called Saad Lebdeh who has become a very good friend and he is a cousin of well-known trainer Ahmed Taiba who incidentally is a partner of our current Australian reporter Amando Rando. It cost a lot of money in those days and being so early in the dot com era, it wasn’t an easy thing to get up and going.
It was hard to get cut through initially because the industry was still so accustomed to print media. Racing was still being published in the mainstream print media and the early uptake with the internet wasn’t great with slow internet speeds and high costs.
It took forever to buffer anything with a video and when they did start it wasn’t very good quality, so we didn’t have some of the luxuries we have today with aspects we have successfully integrated into our platform.
Robert Kennedy once said: “Progress is a nice word, but change is it’s motivator, and change has its enemies.” As you mentioned, this is an industry that even to this day in many regards would prefer to get their information in print. Given the demographic and older age of our participants, how was Harnesslink received when it launched?
I think it was well received. It took us a while to get any momentum and I think because people knew I was behind the website, they thought I would end up promoting just the horses I was associated with. But it’s something I have made a conceited effort to never do. We have taken every story we can lay our hands on from all around the world and have great cooperation from the global racing jurisdictions right from the word go.
One of the main reasons we set up Harnesslink was to be independent, so participants could have their say at a time where the narrative was largely controlled by the jurisdictions. It’s like anything, you have to have an open opinion situation, within reason, for any industry to thrive. And I think that’s something the general public and even those in power have respected about us since we kicked off.
We have to print the good and the bad, but that’s not the mandate of the news media today. A lot of people have told me we shouldn’t be publishing anything negative on the industry, but that’s not the role of the media in my view. If the news is good, then great, but if it’s not so good, we still have an obligation to share the factual truth of any situation and report it. There are not many news media outfits in any industry who are able to confidently hang their hat on that notion.
When participants cheat the system, we share the news and rightly or wrongly they are some of the most read articles on the website. I believe it is a positive thing for the sport so that this sort of behaviour doesn’t manifest in private.
You must have had a few people doubting Harnesslink would be around to blow out the candles for a 20th anniversary?
A lot of people didn’t think it would last 5 minutes.
In the first twelve months everyone was telling me I would have trouble keeping Harnesslink going, and they were right to some degree. I did have trouble keeping it going financially. We were very fortunate in those days of selling a lot of horses to the late Joe Muscara in North America and that helped us tremendously to keep things going because technology was expensive in the early days of Harnesslink.
As I said earlier, tech resources were only starting to develop when we first started, and IT knowledge wasn’t readily available, so you had to pay a premium to get anything done.
When did you first start to sense that Harnesslink was having an impact on the racing industry?
I remember about 10 or 12 years ago I was at the Meadowlands and going into the office at the racetrack about 25 or 30 minutes after a feature race, and Doug DeFrank was able to show me racing results and an article on our own website that weren’t available anywhere else in the world so quickly.
I knew then that right back in those early days Harnesslink was having an impact. Most people in the harness racing fraternity used the website as a valuable resource.
We have regularly made the New York Post and the New York Times and The Paulick Report with some of the stories we have been able to produce which is telling in itself.
75% of our followers have primarily come from North America but that has changed over time, and we are still growing in the southern hemisphere and have recently brought on key personnel to help us grow the global aspect of the website.
What did the early origins of Harnesslink and the writers look like?
Anthony Corban was our first editor way back in the early days, he was the racing editor for the Waikato Times publication here in New Zealand. I’ve actually got photos on my walls of the teams we started out with and believe it or not, we had more people working for us back then than we do now.
Good staff are hard to come by and we have had a few journalists come and go.
One of the best would be Mark Robinson. I was a great friend of his for many years and he sadly passed away a few years ago. He was always looking for jobs, and because I didn’t know he could write I didn’t offer him a job until 12 months before he passed. But he produced some tremendous investigative articles and could get to the bottom of anything that was going on. To me he was a very valuable part of the business, and I would have loved the opportunity to work with him for longer than we did.
And what about today’s team? You’ve been adding to the stable lately and must be happy with the direction things are headed?
I’m really proud of the team we have put together and at present I truly believe we have the best group of international journalists covering the sport by far. Hall of Famer Steve Wolf in the USA is my longest employee, nine years now, and at the time he was president of the United States Writers Association. He and John Berry are both Hall of Famers in their craft as journalists.
We have a great blend of youth and experience who all have their own styles of writing and the ability to breathe life into their reporting through words.
To do that, you have to be passionate about what you are covering, and we have got a team together who are deeply passionate and care about the industry. It has fostered an environment internally where each and every one of our staff are committed to doing the best job, they can for Harnesslink, and I think that shows in the content we are producing.
170,000 unique IP users a month would tell you that our followers think so too. My son Jonathan has been a great asset in improving the IT for us and we are just starting to discover our real potential which is exciting!
Who are some of the behind-the-scenes people that have been instrumental in Harnesslink reaching its 20th anniversary?
Two people who have helped us a tremendous amount in North America are Chris Wittstruck who is a lawyer for the New York Horseman’s Association, and Joe Faraldo who runs the New York Horseman’s Association. I never leave America without going to dinner with those two guys. They are great friends and keep me up to date with the New York harness racing Industry.
Another chap way back was Ted Smith, he used to be the president of Standardbred Canada and he was there for many years. We had many many great days with him and has become a great friends with my wife Sally and I.
And of course, my wife, Sally.
If you were able to go back in time, what advice would you have given to yourself in starting Harnesslink back in 2002?
I would have to have to be an idiot to get it started, because it’s something I haven’t been able to get rid of (laughs).
The fact I haven’t is a testament to the industry and how much the participants crave information and knowledge about the sport they are passionate about. Once harness racing is in your blood, it’s like a disease that is impossible to get rid of. People want as much information as they can get, and we try to deliver it to them.
This week you will be unveiling the winner of your 20th Anniversary giveaway which has a fantastic $10,000 travel package as it’s grand prize. If you were to win, where are you heading and why?
I would probably choose the Prix D’Amerique in France because it is one of the few along with the Gold Cup and Saucer in Canada that I haven’t been too.
They tell me they are both tremendous days and draw huge crowds, but I would love to experience Paris on their biggest day of harness racing.
I’ve had some great sessions at New Zealand Cup Day, Interdominion carnivals, lots of Hambletonian’s, Little Brown Jugs and Breeders Crowns in America.
I’ve been lucky to experience most of the biggest days around the world and I’m excited for one of our followers to be able to follow suit and pick a destination of their choosing. There is nothing like the atmosphere of being there on race day.
Here’s to another 20 years then boss, the best is yet to come!
by Brad Reid, for Harnesslink