By Ron Flatter
Bad decisions. Rotting venues. Lack of transparency. Anonymous trolls. Poor media coverage. Who says I was talking about racing?
Get outside our sport’s bubble, and we find critics everywhere. Major sports that have not been around as long as our game are hardly immune from the bite of angry fans who alternate between their channel changers, their bags of chips and their anonymous, social-media handles.
In one of those paeans to user-friendly reading in the 21st century of search-engine optimization, I have concocted this list of five things racing does better than other sports, and five things that it does worse. Your mileage may differ.
Betting platforms. Talk about playing catch-up. Sports bettors are babes in the woods compared with those of us who have been using phones and tablets to bet on horses for a generation. It is hard to believe advanced-deposit wagering has its roots in the late 20th century in Illinois, where there is no shortage of blame for blowing that opportunity. Other states and sports are catching up fast, especially with fixed odds and in-game wagering. But racing blazed the trail. Just think of where the sport would be without handheld ADW access. It might not even be.
Analytical data. The NFL has introduced us to NextGen stats. College basketball has taken us through RPI and NET. We have come to bring WAR and VORP into our baseball lexicon with RBI and ERA. These other sports have nothing on our game. Think about how long we have had past performances in our hands, especially in the U.S. and Canada. Now we have digital samplers of speed numbers, track variables, charts, graphs, sheets, even First-Timer Power Ratings for horses who have not even run yet. Yes, that last one was from my ubiquitous collection of shame-free plugs for Horse Racing Nation. I feel like other sports are trying to catch up with us. Aside from getting Europe and Australia to provide quantifiable detail in their form guides, the challenge now is getting a grip on new customers long enough to teach them how to use all these tools. Oh, yes. And making those tools affordable.
Making stars. This is where the cynicism of social media actually helps the sport. We see young horses run off the screen and win races by open lengths. Right around the time the ooing and aahing reaches a breathless crescendo, those of us with tamping tools bring in the oxygen tanks and tamping tools to say calm down. That keeps us honest. It is only when we apply some of the analytical data ballyhooed above that we can get proper framework and perspective and identify some legitimate stars. That was what happened with Flightline and Cody’s Wish. It is happening now with Tamara. We also get it wrong. The name Hidden Scroll comes to mind. Within our industry, though, these performances turn into rallying points to discuss, debate and even promote. I get that football has the built-in advantage of its enormous audience, and more of the general public would sooner know a backup linebacker than realize Tamara is not the day after today. While we work to build our big names faster, the actual making of a football star is not that easy. Honestly, the shiniest in that sport now is a college coach who actually became an A-lister nearly 40 years ago. Oh, I am taking Coach Prime plus the 21 points at Oregon.
Saying no to bad images. There is a double-edged sword here. When Nick Chubb had his knee bent the wrong way Monday night, ESPN made the immediate decision not to show the most gruesome replay. It was, however, displayed quickly on the big board at Acrisure Stadium, and the crowd reaction was cringe-worthy. It quickly became available on social media, and ESPN could have urged viewers to look away before showing the replay once. Admittedly, I have a double standard with horses. I do not want to see spills over and over again, and I especially do not want them misused by animal-rights extremists who only take them out of context to paint the inaccurate picture that this happens all the time. I may have a professional curiosity about an incident I did not see live, but that is overridden by the application of common sense. We might be able to stomach Joe Theismann’s broken leg, but there is no need to show it over and over again with a horse.
Media access. You may not realize this, but owners and trainers and jockeys generally are pretty easy to reach. At least that is the case for the dwindling number of us journalists covering racing let alone using our phones as, well, phones. There are scant but notable exceptions, and it would not take too many cocktails for the consensus of us in the fourth and fifth estates to divulge their names. By and large, though, it is pretty easy to connect with the connections. Do some of us get too chummy with these sources? Yes. I will plead guilty at times. Friendships come easily in this game. Even with that ethical conundrum in the frame, I would not trade the access I have with any of my brethren covering my old beats in the NFL and NBA and Major League Baseball. More and more they are told when and where they may speak to coaches and players. Too often it is only when they are spoken to.
New venues. Turf Paradise joined Arlington Park and Calder and will be joined by Golden Gate Fields and Aqueduct in the graveyard of racecourses. The rebuilding of Belmont Park and Churchill Downs may be refreshing changes, but let me take this one step further. The Tampa Bay Rays became the latest baseball team to roll out pretty pictures of an unbuilt stadium this week. The A’s did so in two cities. That illusion of investment gets cheap attention in the media, even if the projects never progress past the stage of paying architectural artists who have lots of sports franchises to fund their family’s college educations. Why can’t racing come up with such unrequited blueprints? The only time I remember this recently was when the Maryland Stadium Authority unfurled dazzling images of the new Pimlico during the Christmas season of 2018. It never will be built as it was imagined then, but hey, it merited attention for a couple days on channels 2, 11, 13 and 45 in Baltimore. In a burst of déjà vu Thursday, the Carey family claimed again it will build its long-promised rumor of a casino at Hawthorne. No, really. To go with that latest annual promise, how about drawing up some colorful drawings for channels 2, 5, 7, 9 and 32 in Chicago?
Transparency from stewards. Remember when Forte beat Saudi Crown by a nose in a very physical running of the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga? It took only 5 1/2 minutes for stewards to decide there would be no change. However, we were not provided with one word of the conversation with jockeys and trainers. When I lived in Australia nearly two decades ago, objections and inquiries were televised live at the track. The same goes in Dubai. Whenever there are video reviews in sports like cricket and rugby, the conversations between the lead official and the replay center are heard on the big speakers in the stadium. With all cameras and mics playing gotcha with us everywhere, it should not be difficult to add live coverage of stewards’ hearings here in North America.
Rules analysts. If the NFL can have ex-referees Mike Pereira and Gene Steratore on its telecasts, FanDuel TV and Fox and NBC could have someone like, say, longtime steward Bernie Hettel available to jump in with an informed opinion before a controversial race goes official. This can go hand in hand with the televising of the stewards’ deliberations. One crucial element is that the expert must be conversant with the nuances between each state’s rules. That was a big deal when some of the TV rules analysts in football had to know the difference between pro and college rules.
Clocks. In the name of progress, we have microchips and GPS and even the old-school laser beams. Yet the timing of races has become about as reliable as a commercial airline. It only seems to be getting worse, especially with the measurement of courses when turf rails are moved. Other sports are meticulous with their timing. “Will the clock operator put four seconds back on the clock, please?” The NBA is downright anal retentive with referees ponderously staring into sideline flat screens to arrive at the proper number of tenths. In our sport, we somehow regard 24.19 seconds as 24 flat. We have inconsistently measured run-ups that defy the logic of simply starting the clock when the gates fly open. Decades ago we would see the teletimer ticking away live. We do not even get that anymore. Confusion that never stops. Closing walls and ticking clocks.
Clear views. I have been on a harangue about this for decades. If trees are such a good idea in the middle of a racetrack, then why don’t we grow them just inside the foul lines in baseball or on the hashmarks in football? I actually saw something innovative in a YouTube video of the 1963 Belmont Stakes, which was run at Aqueduct during the previous rebuild of Belmont Park. CBS televised Chateaugay’s victory from a camera positioned high above the finish line on the infield. It was extraordinarily easy to follow the horses all the way around, especially without the mid-race camera switches that arrive with modern producers and directors trying to justify their jobs. My one gripe was that the finish line was not distinctive enough, but that is solved easily enough nowadays. The worst offense in other sports is the pan cameras are so close to the crowd, some drunken lout can jump up and block the view for millions of viewers. Substitute trees and tents for drunken lout, and we have what ails racing on TV.
By the way, someone please build a camera tower so we can see more horses than rails on the backstretch at Saratoga. We have 37 weeks to solve that.