How I'd Save Thoroughbred Racing

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An article called ?Twilight At The Track? in the May 13 issue of Time (scheduled, I'm sure, to coincide with the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown) really caught my attention. And since I'm a long-time follower of Thoroughbred racing, my subject this week is how I'd save Thoroughbred racing from drifting into the night.

I began handicapping the races at the New York tracks when I was a teenager 40 years ago, and I later spent about a decade as an amateur steeplechase jockey. And since 2000 I've spent absolutely countless hours watching racing from ?coast to coast? on TVG, America?s horse racing network, because I just like to watch horses race. As a former race rider, I like to watch for the jockeys? strategy; I like watching for horses coming on late and seeing if frontrunners can stay there. I like admiring horses with heart.

Plus, the art of handicapping is fascinating to me?I like listening to Simon Bray, Matt Carothers and Todd Schrupp discuss the horses? chances and predicting the race. But I've never bet a cent through TVG?s website; a couple times I've had an inkling to try, but I'm just too cheap to bet my own money.

The only times I've bet in the 13 years I've been watching TVG have been on three occasions I've gone to track; twice to Charles Town (in West Virginia), when we lived in Northern Virginia, and last September, when we went to Golden Gate Fields outside of Oakland. I actually won about $30 that day.

Our day at Golden Gate was a lovely one, starting with beautiful weather at an attractive and well-designed track. We used the valet parking and then ate in the clubhouse for a very reasonable price. In the comfortable clubhouse, our six-person party enjoyed our own table right up against the windows overlooking the finish line for the entire afternoon. From there, it was an easy walk to the betting windows or down to the paddock or out on to the apron. But the place was nearly empty?I don't think there were more than 3,000 people in the grandstand, including the employees. We wondered when we left, ?How do they keep this place open'?

Turns out, that's a good question. The Time article quotes a 2011 study commissioned by The Jockey Club that found betting handle was down 37%, attendance was down 30%, and starts per horse and race days were down 14%. The article?s conclusion' That Thoroughbred racing is in an irreversible downward spiral. I hope that's an overly dire prediction.

I've enjoyed watching the races at five of our country?s premier tracks: Belmont Park in New York, Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Saratoga in New York, Keeneland in Kentucky, and Santa Anita in California.

I've also been to two middle-of-the-road tracks: Delaware Park and Golden Gate Fields. And I've been to four tracks that are at the low end of the spectrum: Charles Town, Penn National in central Pennsylvania, Canterbury Park in Minnesota, and our own Sonoma County Fair.

What's the difference between these three groups' In a word, quality. Quality of the facility (beauty, upkeep, cleanliness, food); quality of the horses and, thus, of the racing you watch; and quality of the experience. A high-class track and top-quality horses gives your time there an aura of a special event, like watching an NFL game or a baseball playoff game. ?You go home feeling excited, checking your calendar to see when you can go back again. But you have to be a real fan of horse racing or a dedicated gambler to enjoy a work-a-day afternoon or evening at Golden Gate or Penn National enough to want to go back.

What could the leaders of horse racing do to save their game' Well, the biggest thing would be to make it a unified sport, like the NFL or even like NASCAR. But it's not?Thoroughbred racing is several dozen state or regional associations that are dealing with state legislatures hungry for tax revenue and able to claim jurisdiction because states have a legal right to oversee gambling. And those legislatures each have different priorities and expertise. They can't even agree on how to license trainers and jockeys or on which medications to permit.

So, admitting that the change that would make the most sense won?t happen, what could be possible' I think the biggest thing would be to market the sport as more about the horses and the people and less about the betting. The betting is necessary for many reasons, but part of racing?s problem is that it's continued to rely on betting in a world where people who want to gamble now have dozens of choices, most of which are far easier and have better odds.

So use something else?how about the horses, without whom there wouldn?t? be any racing' Race the big stars longer so they can develop a following; use social media better to develop that following; have regular ?meet-the-horses? days at the track. I offer Zenyatta as an example of a charismatic star who drew people to the track for several years. And remember Secretariat and his immensely likeable owner Penny Tweedy' How huge would they have been with Facebook'

Bring in owners and trainers and jockeys to talk to the fans and sign autographs. I still vividly remember when I was a kid going with my family to a program called ?Breakfast at Monmouth,? where you could sit next to the track and watch horses work in the early morning, listen to track personnel and others explain things about the racing, and have a nice breakfast. Programs like this could take people on tours of the barns and other parts of the track too.

They could also try having shorter seasons at each track, and better coordination between tracks in a region, so they aren?t fighting for horses, fans and media attention. When I was a kid in the ?70s and closely following racing, New York?s Aqueduct closed just before Christmas and then re-opened in early March, mostly because winter made racing unattractive if not impossible. So there were distinct seasons, and horsemen and fans looked forward to the beginning and culmination of both. Then, in the mid-70s, Aqueduct put in an all-weather inner track so they could run non-stop through the winter. The result wasn?t more fans or better racing.

A good example of coordination is Churchill Downs and Keeneland in Kentucky, or the three tracks administered by the New York Racing Association, because their dates never overlap. The horses and the people move from track to track. Today?s most successful meets are short and focused, with high purses, top-quality racing, lots of fans, and heavy media attention. I'm talking about Keeneland?s two meets a year (April and October) and Saratoga and Del Mar (California) in July/August.

Those are the three meets that I (and many other racing and TVG fans) look forward to every year, because of their quality and excitement.