Photo: Eclipse Spotswire
Horse racing is one of the most over-looked sports in the world. Although it gets it’s glory one day per year, on the first Saturday of May, that fails to draw leagues of new fans to the racing world. What is it that keeps Kentucky-Derby-Watchers from following the rest of the sport?
In order to answer this question, I flashback to my own experiences at small-town racetracks such as Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park. Those are the tracks that will never see a crowd of 100,000, will never fill their capacity, and will never have fans vying for a spot at the rail. I’m often one of those fans at the rail, along with about any other ten or twenty on any given day. Looking around, I can’t see why anybody wouldn’t want to come here. It’s not like our tracks are old, run down, or scary! However, that may just be the stereotype we are getting.
On television, in any sport or activity, the bad is far more broadly reported on than the good. If a horse breaks down or pulls up in a classic race, you can hear all about it on the next morning’s news. But if a hot walker for a small, 4-horse stable gets promoted to head groom, what other words go said other than ‘congratulations’ by the hot walker’s family? Why do we not hear of these things?
The media strives on the emotions of it’s viewers. Otherwise, how could they gain views if they reported on a man who gave $20 to charity? Rather, why not just report on the person who stole $20 from the same charity and gain sympathy from the viewers? It’s a win-win!
Except that it’s not, not for racing. When a breakdown is reported on national television, millions of people see it. That, given the publicity and wide-spread view on the sport, gathers a very large public view on the sport that all horses break down and are harshly beaten to gain every ounce of speed out of them for human pleasures. However, everybody (well, almost everybody, I hope) knows that this is really not the case in any way that could possibly be imagined.
As some of you may know first handedly, parents will do almost anything to protect their children. If the parents are dragged to a local racetrack, and then see the whipping of the horses mid-stretch, we all know what they will most likely think. Oh no, poor horses! They are probably in so much pain! I am never taking my child to a race ever again! Such a horrible sport, I hope it gets banned! Okay, they may not all think to that degree, but some do. And those reputations spread, and they spread fast.
Our sport is made up of the trainers and owners who run their horses at all tracks all year long. If horse racing stopped in a certain season like baseball or football, how many people would pay attention? We would have the Triple Crown season and then be done with. While this might not seem very relevant, just imagine it. How are those sports so popular when we go all year long?
So what can we do to prevent these stereotypes, these poorly informed thoughts? Ignorance just may be the key. Being informed when going to the races would help any first comers find their way around much easier. You know those signs at the zoo in front of each animal’s cage that describe which animal it is and how it came about at the zoo? Maybe tracks could try those. I’m not suggesting anything like major renovation, but a few explanations here and there would be nice. Like, in front of the paddock to explain saddling, by the grandstand to point out family friendly areas or places to bet (a map, basically), by the homestretch to explain whipping, and/or by the winners’ circle to explain why horses go there after winning.
Most tracks have gift shops, correct? Maybe, if somebody took on the challenge, maybe if somebody wrote a ‘guide to this track’ booklet that could be sold regularly that explains every asset of the track, maybe that would help many people. Maybe, (no, I’m just kidding, I just used that word WAY too often.) Perhaps it would also bring in a profit for racetracks, and, let’s be honest: Which track couldn’t use an extra check every month?
I know many tracks have family events to try and bring families out, and I think that’s great. But for those families who drive four hours each way to drag their kid to the closest track (not unlike mine) so they can see the races, I think tracks may need to offer a little more service. I definitely cannot speak for any track I haven’t been to, which is most, to be honest, but I can speak for those that I have had the honor of visiting. Perhaps just more focus on visitors who love the horses and not just the bettors.
I believe that media is half to blame for our diminishing sport. However, with the right tools and the right people, I think we can collect to uplift a sport to how it once was in the 60’s. After all, we were once the most attended sport in America. Why couldn’t we reach that standard again?