The Truth About Horse Racing

Horse racing, as a sport, is written about mostly as a thing that's dying. Which is a shame, because that ignores how alive and strange it is, even now.
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Horse racing is in trouble. Horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner. Horse racing’s attendance and television viewership are drying up, bettors aren’t betting, and only the pomp and pageantry of the first Triple Crown in over three decades can return it to its former glory. There’s no certain indication that any of the above is correct, but those dire certainties have long driven the mainstream conversation about this sport. But as someone who spent 2013 covering the sport for America’s Best Racing, and in the process attended some of the biggest races at tracks all over the country, I can tell you that horse racing is doing just fine, and certainly much better than you’ve heard.

It’s both easy and oddly fashionable to write the “horse racing is dead” piece. Vice ran a pretty putrid and offensive piece calling it the “sport of America’s underclass,” which is not a good look. Deadspin recently published a long and significantly more artful piece by Jeb Lund taking America’s Best Racing and the Jockey Club to task for not employing what he considered the proper PR strategy for bringing in new fans. This would be a place to disclose that I am part of that strategy in my role as one of their bloggers, but I still feel I should point out that he did his research for the piece in March during the Florida Derby, which is literally the beginning of the season -- and that Deadspin then ran the piece right before the Breeder’s Cup in November, the end of the season -- without checking back in to see how those ostensibly backwards PR strategies were doing. The Jockey Club claims they are working, and that they have the data to prove it. But rather than look at the various relevant stats regarding pageviews and Twitter followers and Facebook likes -- which are important in their way, but boring and unrepresentative in every other way -- permit me instead to offer my own anecdotal evidence over the past year travelling to various racetracks. I have seen the stats, but the stats are the stats. Racing is bigger than that, still.

***

I grew up in one of those horse racing families that Lund makes mention of in his Deadspin article. My parents started taking me out to the track at a very young age. The track was both part of my family history and a part of my small town community’s identity. Having said that, the sport has stayed with me well into my thirties; my enthusiasm for it has never waned, only waxed, if wax is what you call it when it gets bigger. Anyway, it got bigger.

And as a writer I love writing about the sport, and love the way horse racing offers so many opportunities for drama, for metaphor, for parable. As with those other ostensibly declining sports boxing and baseball, much of history’s best sports writing has been about horse racing, and that’s not a coincidence. It’s a thrilling sport with many moving parts and plenty of interesting characters. It can be beautiful and dingy at once, and that bipolarity and lack of focus are a lot more fun to write about than, say, the NFL’s seamless, brutal corporate perfection. I find it more fun to think about and easier to care about, too.

The sport’s popularity has dropped over the years, this is true. A recent and oft-cited report from McKinsey cites that horse racing is losing fans at a faster clip than it is gaining new ones. This combined with lower overall attendance and betting handle has been the greatest cause for alarm, within the sport and without. But I submit that these are tough times for most sports, save for perhaps the aforementioned NFL. A narrow-niche sport like horse racing is bound to see some drop-off as the consumer’s choices for how to spend an increasingly scarce entertainment dollar grow by leaps and bounds each year.

Moreover, this decline makes some sense. The ability to watch the sport from home or online will have an impact on on-site attendance. The ability to wager online and offshore will put a dent in on-track handle. The competition with other sports that take place on the weekend during the day (like golf or NASCAR) will hurt TV viewership. But even golf and NASCAR are experiencing slumps in ratings right now. Baseball and boxing, two sports that once ruled the American sports pages along with horse racing, are both in a similar decline -- they’re healthy up close, and profitable, but also and undeniably shrinking.

And with all of these examples the media likes to look for the silver bullet. Tiger Woods or an American heavyweight champ or a Triple Crown. Something dramatic and heroic needs to happen to arrest the American sports fan’s imagination again. We are told this, always, by people whose job is to spend a lot of time with these supposedly dimming sports. So here’s what I experienced during my time covering this sport, this year.

The Arkansas Derby

My first stop on the trail was in my old hometown at the Oaklawn Park, an assignment I practically had to beg for. The Arkansas Derby wasn’t on the Jockey Club’s list of top-tier races in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, and they weren’t sending their much-ballyhooed, brand ambassadorial bus-full-of-youngsters to it.

The Arkansas Derby’s attendance was 66,158, and that doesn’t even rank in the top 10 of this race’s all-time attendance records. The stadium in which the Arkansas Razorbacks football team -- the goddamn state religion -- plays only holds 71,000 people. These are big numbers, and they have been consistently big for many years. In Arkansas, going to the races continues to be a popular weekend outing as the winter weather starts to warm up. Families go and sit on blankets in the infield, college students drive down in droves in pastel shirts and bright sundresses. Perhaps on a weekday in South Central Los Angeles, or on the Queens and Brooklyn border it is hard for a writer to find a lively racetrack. In the middle of BFE Arkansas, during Oaklawn Park’s boutique meet, it happens daily.

The Kentucky Derby

There’s not much to say here, or not much you and everyone else doesn’t already know. This is the one race that everyone watches and the one week during which almost everyone writes and publishes their “horse racing is dead” stories. Meanwhile, this one event had 165,307 people in attendance this year in the pouring rain; it did a 10.4 in the Nielsen ratings. Insofar as the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl for the sport of horse racing, a 10.4 is pretty great; the NBA, for instance, didn’t even come close to a 10 until Game 4 of the Finals. Golf typically only cracks double digits in the ratings during the Masters. NASCAR, which frequently does big attendance numbers, can’t pull in double-digit ratings even for their biggest events.

Not only that, but the Kentucky Derby has something that, in my opinion, only the Super Bowl can also claim: it is not just a singular sporting event, but a cultural event. People who never watch football will gather for Super Bowl parties and pick a team and cheer for them, asking others to explain the rules. Likewise the Kentucky Derby is an event that Americans participate in regardless of their knowledge or investment in the sport. At Derby parties and office pools around the country, Americans pick their winners merely to have a rooting interest. The Kentucky Derby is an American cultural institution. It’s not going anywhere, and it certainly isn’t dying.

The Preakness Stakes

The second leg of the Triple Crown is always exciting because, so long as the Kentucky Derby winner is running, a Triple Crown is still possible. The Pimlico Race Course, which is home to this 138-year-old race, is one of those hardscrabble tracks that people often point to in discussions of how troubled the sport of horse racing is. Outside the Preakness, the track has a hard time attracting a crowd and fielding quality race cards week in and week out. Over recent years there have been threats to move the Preakness to other tracks, or for the state of Maryland to take over Pimlico.

The Preakness Stakes is important, though, to the state of Maryland. The governor attends the race every year to present the trophy. The crowd on Preakness Saturday -- this year it was 117,203, the fourth highest in the race’s history -- is festooned in Maryland flags. The well-documented drunken-assholery in Pimlico’s infield can be found at most sporting events; unlike many sports, horse racing’s biggest events bring out a state’s top dignitaries and statesmen, especially in states where horse racing plays an outsized role. These are states like Maryland or Kentucky or Arkansas or Florida (and once upon a time, New York).

And while it did not do Kentucky Derby numbers on TV, the Preakness got a respectable 5.9 this year. It’s important to note that the Preakness Stakes, while important to the coveted Triple Crown, is one of literally dozens of Grade I races held throughout the racing calendar, and as such does a pretty great job of attracting an audience. If this is the Triple Crown’s weakest leg, it’s still pretty sturdy.

The Belmont Stakes

This is where many people find their supporting evidence for the “racing needs a Triple Crown” argument. It’s true that attendance and ratings for this race, the third and final in the Triple Crown, swell hugely in years where there is a Triple Crown on the line. The last year that a potential Triple Crown winner actually raced was 2008, and over 94,000 people turned out to see Big Brown potentially make history. This year, with no Triple Crown on the line, the race still had 47,562 attendees. That number was up nine percent from the last non Triple Crown year, 2011. (In 2012, I’ll Have Another was eligible for the Triple Crown but scratched the morning of the race.)

The fact that viewership and attendance drops off when there is no Triple Crown in the offing is no surprise. There is no small amount of drama and historical significance in such a feat. But 47,562 is still a lot of people! And given that without the Triple Crown the Belmont Stakes is just another Grade I race for three-year-old horses, those numbers are pretty stupendous. If anything, they represent a crowd that simply wants to see world class horse racing up close. And that number, fortunately, is the one that is and should be growing.

I spent this year’s Belmont with friends who had never been to the racetrack before. They each left the race excited that we had won money and anxious to know when I was coming back. Perhaps one thing had to do with the other; I’ll admit winning at the track is lots more fun than losing. But losing at the track ain’t bad, either, and the crowd on race day is proof of this.

Most people on any given day lose money, at the Belmont and elsewhere. Yet still the backyard at Belmont is filled shoulder to shoulder with people yelling, laughing, singing and dancing. The atmosphere is upbeat and lively, torn-up tickets be-damned. No, it’s not like this every week. But, Triple Crown notwithstanding, it is like this every year.

The Haskell Invitational

Now here’s a test. The Haskell is held every year at Monmouth Racetrack, on the Jersey shore. This isn’t a Triple Crown race, although many of the contenders from the Triple Crown chase will compete in it year to year. This year the race saw 36,284 attendees, which was up from the year before. Monmouth itself is experiencing new growth, remodelling the track and gambling on the legalization of sports betting in the state in planning a large, state-of-the-art sportsbook on site. The Haskell is the track’s premier event, and the attendance, while smaller than any other race else I attended this year, is impressive for that part of the state and that time of year.

The Travers

Saratoga Springs’s summer meet lasts for only six weeks and is packed with quality racing. This year NBC chose to air a number of Saratoga’s Saturday cards on NBCSN as “Saturday at the Spa.” The Travers, a Grade I race for three-year-olds that often features many of the Triple Crown contenders from earlier in the year, is the marquee race on the calendar. This year 47,597 people trekked upstate for the race, the highest attendance since 2004.

I went to the Travers this year with another friend who not only had never been to the races before, but was in racing’s (and everyone else’s) coveted 18-35 demographic. Again we won money -- we went heavy on Will Take Charge -- and again he left the track seemingly quite hooked. I’m not convinced it was the winnings this time. Take anyone to a day at the races in Saratoga Springs and they will fall in love. It is a singular, romantic, time-traveling experience. There is no other town like Saratoga Springs during racing season, and no experience in the sport that sets the hook so hard.

The Breeders Cup

This is the World Championship for horse racing, and means so much more than the Kentucky Derby to horsemen, jockeys, and race fans. Horses come from as far away as Ireland, Japan, Brazil and Argentina for this two-day festival of Grade I races, where purses reach into the millions of dollars and the best horses in the world face off in every type of race. No horse can miss the Breeders Cup and expect to be considered the best in their class. It’s a big deal.

It is also where the sport has its most puzzling conundrum. This is horse racing’s richest and most important day of racing, yet attendance and viewership is puzzlingly low. This year’s second day of races, which included the Breeders Cup Classic, saw a comparatively modest 58,795 on site at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California. The Breeders Cup rotates the site of the race every year, and while attendance has been a tick higher when the Breeders Cup has been in Kentucky, it hasn’t been anywhere near what’s expected anywhere it’s been held. Perhaps moving the race around is a good strategy for the sport, but it does seem to make it harder for the race to attract the kind of cache that brings so many to the Arkansas Derby or the Travers Stakes year after year.

This year’s Breeders Cup Classic was an incredible race, with a razor-close finish, that brought the fans to their feet in excitement. It was exactly the kind of race that shows horse racing at its best: competitive, dramatic, thrilling. Not every race is as competitive and close, but this was the biggest race of the year. It just wasn’t seen by nearly as many people as it might’ve been.

***

Throughout 2013 I watched a class of three year olds race against each other in dozens of races across the country. It wasn’t until just this past week, at the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, that I think a consensus started to form around one horse for three-year-old of the year: Will Take Charge. But Will Take Charge didn’t do anything notable in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, and barely got fourth in the Belmont. This is not a bad thing, by the way: this year had so many talented three year olds that every race was competitive, and every race produced a different winner and a new leader in the race for best of the year.

If we ever do have another Triple Crown winner -- and believe me I hope we do -- it will likely be because one horse is dramatically better than any of his or her fellow three-year-olds, to the point where each race will be a blowout. The country will be inspired and enthusiastic to rally behind a winner, sure, but then next year is another year. The question is this: does this sport need dominant winners to grow a fan base? Would fans not prefer to watch races where not only are multiple horses likely to win the race, but every horse runs as if they can and gives it their all to the final stride? I know for a fact that bettors would.

The last race I went to this year was the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. I went with the same friend I dragged to the Travers. He in turn brought several more friends of his who had never been to the track before. Most of them were comedy writers, Brooklyn hipster types who, I assumed, thought it’d be funny to hang with the gamblers and proles at the track. My friend from the Travers was excited to tell them all about how we won on Will Take Charge, about how the horse improved with the blinkers off, about how you can wheel exactas or box trifectas; basically to show off everything he had learned.

I explained to them they should just pool their money together and take turns picking their favorite names each race and betting it all to show, simply to have the most fun they could and not worry about making money. One woman in the group eyed my Racing Form, which I’d marked up per the usual with notes and numbers.

“Fuck that,” she said. “Show us how to do THAT.”

We lost money that day. Nobody laughed at our brethren in the grandstands, which was a small but lively weekend crowd of fewer than 10,000 people. Nobody offered their prescriptions for how the track could change to better suit them and their young urban professional needs. Everyone asked me when I was planning to come back. This is how horse racing works, and it does work.

Sure, weekday crowds are anemic. Smaller regional tracks are falling apart. Racing has dropped from the front pages. The sport has suffered unnecessary and regrettable scandals and controversies, and there are still problems to solve. But at the highest levels of the sport, people are watching. People are cheering. People are gambling. This is why the Jockey Club’s efforts to draw attention to marquee races is as good as any wood-knocking and star-wishing for a Triple Crown. The challenge is a lot simpler than all those online stats and the words “McKinsey survey” make it sound. Get people out to the track on a pleasant day for a heck of a race, and they’ll come back for more. It’s as true today as it has ever been, and it has always been true.

NOTE: We corrected the attendance figures for the Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup after publication.


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