Recent media exposure on the “issues” in the sport of racing have caused a ripple effect, both in the executive offices of tracks across America, and on the backstretches of those tracks.
While no one particular faction wants to publicly hold the other accountable as to why the sport isn’t as popular these days or why the sport is seen with a negative glare much more now as opposed to a quarter-century ago, there is overwhelming evidence that the sport is as divided as ever, and shows no real signs of coming to any sort of mutual agreement to help save it from itself.
Regardless of what side is to blame, and in spite of the fact that the solutions are clear as to how these things can be fixed, the fans are the ones who will ultimately decide the fate of the sport of kings.
Last weekend’s running of the Kentucky Derby is a showcase event, with racetracks across America featuring the race going out of their way to promote the day, offering prizes, opening up parts of their facility normally not used for live racing dates, etc.
There is a sense of urgency and exhilaration that surges throughout a racetrack offering live wagering on the Run for the Roses.
And throughout the land, people responded in droves.
A look at the official attendance numbers for several racetracks that offered live wagering on the Derby card indicates that the Derby is still the most important raceday on the calendar.
Belmont Park, home of the third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown had over 9000 people on the grounds for their live card, which included the running of the Kentucky Derby. Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., the home of trainer Doug O’Neill, who saddled Derby winner I’ll Have Another, had over 10,000 people on track for their live race day. Lone Star Park in Grand Prarie, Texas, had an on-track crowd of over 17,000 people for Derby day. Right here in our neck of the woods at SunRay Park, with its live raceday and simulcast of the Derby, drew an excellent on-track crowd of over 4,600 people.
Those are all excellent figures, and the tracks that did promotions for those racedays likely did quite well.
The drop off though, is what I was fascinated to see.
The following day’s attendance figures according to Daily Racing Form, at those tracks were off sharply just 24 hours removed from Derby day.
Belmont Park, down 50 percent. Hollywood Park, down 63 percent. Lone Star Park and SunRay Park, both down 75 percent.
A drop off between the biggest day on the sport calendar and the next day is not surprising.
It’s not particularly alarming either.
Except for one thing which continues to baffle me.
It happens all the time, and no one seems to want to do anything about it.
The problem from this perspective, is that management of these racetracks, by and large, don’t do a better job of promoting and marketing the sport on a daily basis, instead putting all of their eggs into one or two small baskets and expecting people to come back wanting for more.
People have short attention spans. We live in a culture that gets the majority of its news from video clips, scrolls on the bottom of their televisions and 30 second sound bites.
Racing is a cerebral game, it’s a sport that is played out over the span of hours on a day-to-day basis, and its currently being played and presented to an audience that doesn’t understand that way of doing business anymore.
The fans deserve better treatment than a few days each year in which they’re given a potpourri of rich races and shiny television productions, only to then be cast aside because the rest of the racing calendar just doesn’t cut it.
The racing fan sees that, and as a result, they are not coming back.
The fans aren’t getting it from the tracks that put on the races, and they’re not getting it from the people who are paid to make you want to come back to the track again.
The other side of this coin is the work being done in the barn areas. The trainers, the veterinarians, the farriers, the jockeys, the assortment of horsemen who live under a shroud of secrecy -- immersed in their own private world which we have been led to imagine resembles precisely what was seen on the recently cancelled HBO production, “Luck”.
Think about it, if your general impression of the racetrack was that it was filled with shady characters who cared little about the athletes at the center of the sport, you’d walk away from that sport about as fast as people walk away from a grisly crime scene.
And who is to blame for that? Certainly not the fans, and certainly not the mass media that tried to present racing in a variety of fashions, whether it be movies, television, books, newspaper articles, etc.
It’s always been the responsibility of the individual to take care of itself.
Racing, as an entity, is exactly in the same boat, it needs to take care of itself. The people put in charge of the sport are the ones responsible.
As such, the sport has been presented with a golden opportunity to do just that.
There appears to be a groundswell of support now to establish national, uniform medication rules that would change the general impression of the novice fan, or most importantly, the non-racing fan who believes the sport is infested with a gaggle of equine pharmacists looking for an edge, regardless of what it does to the horse or the sport itself.
The tracks need to do more to promote the sport -- not just the athletes, the participants of the sport -- but the people who come to the track, whether it be to spend a day at the races wagering and handicapping on their own, or that same family, with mom and dad teaching their kid about animals, about being near some of the most intriguing, if not, most mysterious athletes we have in any sport of any kind on this planet.
My father did that for me with baseball, with tennis, with boxing. It's the same principle.
There are efforts underway to do just that here at SunRay. The American Quarter Horse Association, Equibase, and different racing and equine organizations are coming together here to hopefully bring out a new fan base. This is one small step, but it is a necessary one, and one that hopefully will lead to more forward progress on all sides, be it the executive level or the trainer working on the backstretch.
Believe me, I’m a fanatic for this sport. I have invested the better part of 30 years of my life in promoting, publicizing, marketing and introducing people to this sport.
I’m not saying I have all the answers, and I’m not callous or disingenuous enough to believe that efforts made at this point by anyone can return the sport to its glory days.
I will say this though, I’m tired of this sport being maligned the way it’s been in recent months. I care too much about it to see it degraded and downsized.
And I’m upset enough about it that I’ll fight for it.
There needs to be a lot more of that spirit than what I’ve seen lately.