Sport of kings needs a royal kick in the rear

I’ve got friends who think that when I cover the races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park or Del Mar, all I do is sit around and eat, drink and bet the races. Well, they’re wrong! I don’t eat quite as much as I once did.

Yes, the tracks feed the media, make sure we don’t go thirsty and make it too easy for us to lose our money. Two of the three major SoCal racing venues — Santa Anita and Del Mar — have a pari-mutuel clerk in the press box, along with self-service betting machines. Hollywood Park pulled its pari-mutuel clerk midway through the 2008 autumn meet, but there are a couple of machines for us degenerates to use. Sometimes they can be worse than those one-armed bandits in Vegas they call slot machines.

But we also work hard, too. When the average fan is counting his or her money after the day’s final race or heading to the nearest ATM machine to recoup their losses while heading home, the writers’ work has just begun as we carefully construct our stories that are torn apart, first by our editors, and then by the readers who disagree with what we write.

There aren’t as many of us in the press box as there were, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Many daily newspapers have drastically scaled back their coverage of the sport, choosing to cut out full-graded handicaps and results charts because they feel they take up too much space in an era when the price of newsprint increases each year.

The past few years, as on-track numbers have dwindled, management has taken that as a sign that this is a dying sport, when in reality it’s a sport that has changed because of off-track betting and the advance-deposit wagering companies. I’m still waiting for those same editors to eliminate some of their baseball coverage because more than half of the major league teams this season are showing a decline in attendance.

There are still a lot of people who care about horse racing, but they choose to drive to an off-track site that is closer to home or wager from the comforts of their living room while not having to pay $8 for a carved sandwich. Let’s face it, the era of on-track crowds of 50,000 or more at race tracks have gone the way of the 25-cent candy bar. They are long gone because it’s just way too easy now to get a bet down without getting in your car and paying three bucks a gallon for gasoline just for the privilege of paying three or four dollars to park and then forking over another five or six dollars to get into the track and lose your money.

Yes, the sport is in trouble, but more so because of a lack of leadership and bad decisions than a drop in popularity. Give the fans a good show — i.e. the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby, opening day at Del Mar and Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness — and the interest is still there. It’s just that with the old clientele moving on, the tracks need to do a much better job of attracting new fans to the sport. This is an industry that needs to come up with a way to make it, not only worthwhile for new fans to show up, but also for potential thoroughbred owners to buy and claim horses. Right now, it just doesn’t make economic sense.

While us writers were sitting around in the Hollypark press box this past weekend, eating all that food, drinking all those beverages and losing our fannies at the windows, we did toss around a few ideas about some of the problems that all race tracks in America — not just Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar — face today.

One of the largest, and one you don’t hear much about, is the time between races. In this day and age of instant gratification, there are many young people who don’t want to wait 30 minutes between races. They are the same people who love the NFL, NHL and NBA because of the non-stop action, but they detest the amount of time it takes between the fourth and fifth races.

They also might be dazed and confused about all these different types of wagers nowadays. I mean, it’s gotten so bad that you can almost bet on whether No. 5 in the sixth race will change leads or whether No. 4 in the eighth will be the first or last horse to return and be unsaddled.

This is a simple game, or at least it should be. During it’s heyday, horse racing had win, place and show wagering, a daily double on the first and second races and exactas in selected races. Now you can bet superfectas, super high-fives, super dupers, super scoopers. OK, maybe not the last two, but you catch my drift. Sometimes more is not better, and in this instance I agree with some of my colleagues in the press box.

I welcome your feedback. What can race tracks across America do to attract new fans? How can Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar survive, even if the industry’s kingpins don’t deliver better leadership? Is it even possible? Are editors right? Is this a sport that will fail to exist in five or 10 years? I don’t think so, but I might be wrong. What do you think?

23 thoughts on “Sport of kings needs a royal kick in the rear

  1. Bravo!! Could not agree more. I think the problem is so multifaceted and so long in coming that it is overwhelming. Personally i like the time bewteen races but you might have a point there. One thing I have written to Waldrop and others is the horse–it is about the horse—and therein lies the solution and the problem. I agree that provide the show people turn out–over and over again people prove they will go to a track to see a horse they want to see BUT racing has a real hard time publicizing a horse that might breakdown so it publicizes betting, hot dogs etc…

    ….as you said betting can be done from the comfort of the home so that alone cannot draw people to a track……but a horse that all want to root for and see as heroic is what will bring out more people and while ya got them there keep them entertained…..but again the breakdowns–i can’t tell you how many people i know that have no real interest in horse racing other than maybe watching the kentucky derby won’t even consider following horse racing after they see a breakdown or two, after they found out these horses used to be juiced, after they discover the greed of the breeders and after they discover about horse slaughter. So it does make it hard to publicize a horse doesn’t it? and Zenyatta–the national media have still only shown one of her races–the Breeders Cup and in talking to some TV people they say they found that the breakdowns turned off the public….

    …..take care of the horse and people will come back–we are all looking for more heroes and the public has always loved equine ones.

  2. People that like action every 5 seconds (poker machine at a casino) are never going to like Horse Racing. Do you know who will like Horse Racing? How about Sports Bettors? If the geniuses that control the world had a clue we would have sports betting on track only and guess what would happen? The tracks would be full because many of the sports bettors would bet and stay and learn to love the Horses. Action every 30 minutes instead of every 3 or 4 hours seems pretty good!

    It will never happen because it makes too much sense!

  3. The first thing — the very first thing — horse racing marketers should do is sit down with those who actually attend the races and find out what it is that continues to draw them to the track when so many other people have stopped attending.

    I read so much about how racing needs to get “edgier” and attract a younger demographic (that is, the Beavis and Butthead set). And the experts who make these claims do so taking for granted that those who trek to the track each day will continue to do so regardless of the indignities that might be foisted upon them. Instead, the industry needs to listen to what remains of its fan base, and move heaven and earth to cater to their desires, not to some yahoos whose idea of action is a 3-horse spill around the far turn.

    Furthermore, we’re on the cusp of the baby boomer generation entering retirement. Most of them will still have a decent amount of disposable income (recent economic events notwithstanding) and will want to find a way to spend all the free time they suddenly have. Racing has so much to offer them; there is no need to list everything here, but the NTRA or whoever needs to strategize to appeal to this demographic.

    The opportunity is there; I prefer to see the glass as half full.

  4. Horse racing isn’t for everybody, and it shouldn’t try to be.

    Racetrack marketing people need to start targeting their efforts to attract people who understand the pitfalls and benefits involved with taking risks.

    In racing, the disappointments far outweigh the victories — and that’s not something every person can handle.

    Also, I’d like to know the answer to the following question: How many people who are attracted to tracks for concerts, cheap beer, and hat contests even know they’re at a racetrack, let alone make as much as a $2 show wager on ONE race?

    Sure, it’s nice to get people into the facilities. But owners and breeders don’t get a cut of concession revenues.

  5. I like Andrew A’s suggestion about sports betting. If sports betting were ever legalized horse tracks and simulcast facilities make perfect sense as legal locations. I think horse tracks should be marketed as a guy getaway(of course females are welcome too); but it would have sports betting, a cigar shop or two, a barber shop, and maybe even an oil change/car wash. Anything to get people into the facility for a few hours. “Honey, Im gonna get the car washed, oil changed, and a get a haircut…be back in a few hours!” Take care of your errands and play a few races at the same place.

    Time between races could probably be reduced 5 min or so. Some(the slot/poker player) are still probably not going to be lured to horseracing by that though.

    Some significant brainstorming needs to be done and soon. There’s only a few tracks that get attention and bettors regardless of their marketing, the rest need to get agressive.

  6. Seriously, all you have to do is get people out to the track at least once. Most people either don’t even realize how much fun a day at the track can be or are even intimidated. By that I mean that the betting process is a daunting task. I’ve only been going to the races for a year and a half and it’s still not clear exactly how to make certain bets while at the track. I think a great idea would be for the tracks to hire roving betting ambassadors that could answer all the questions bettors have without holding up the lines at the windows.

    PS – it’s a little absurd to think the racing industry will go away ever, let alone 5-10 years. Art, when you’re out with me at opening day on Wednesday (hopefully, for you), ask yourself again whether racing will be ever dissapear.

  7. Isn’t racing in dire straits now because people prefer to gamble elsewhere? Once casinos expanded from Las Vegas racing has been in a tailspin, thus it seems quite clear to me that racing’s early success was not predicated on ‘star’ thoroughbreds and media hyped stake races, but on the fact that people had no other place to gamble legally; that racing’s real attraction is not the thoroughbred, but the ability to gamble.

    Why are slot machines so popular? People are not drawn to slot machines because a movie star, or concert star is sitting in the next row; they sit in front of slot machines hoping to win big money – no thrills, no media hype, no nothing.

    If slot players were informed that gambling on horses was not complicated, that certain wagers pay huge, and that they would find the environment exciting and entertaining in an environment conducive to gambling there is no reason why they wouldn’t give racing a try.

    Unfortunately, racing’s savants continue to promote racing as a sport and the thoroughbred as the attraction, when it should be clear that the ability to gamble is the attraction.

    A national marketing program directed at slot players stressing the gambling aspects of racing is precisely what is needed.

  8. Improve the racing plant to make it more attractive to attend. eg, cleaner bathrooms, courteous tellers, pleasant vendors.

    make it cost friendly to customers. eg, free parking & admissisions, specials days to discount soda,hot dogs & beer, specials for seniors.

    make it attractive to the younger set. eg, Friday night racing, Saturday/night concert series, fireworks for the kids, family features like pony rides, clowns, amusements on Sundays. ( oNCE YOU GET THEM IN, THEY MAY LIKE IT FOR THE SPORT)

    10 cent bets on all types of wagers

    tracks partnering with newspapers to promote the sport WOULDN’T HURT !

  9. Mr.Wilson. Sadly this article does not differe from the countless others that detail horse racing’s woes. The problem I see is everyone has a laundry list of horse racings issues but no one has solutions. You list two problems in your article (too much time between races and a confusing array of wagerin options) but you like so many other offer no solutions. It’s all about leadership or lack thereof. Until this sport gains nationwide leadership it will continue to be overlooked by anyone other than hardcore fans.

  10. TV ads promoting race meets in Maryland are tacky. I believe you need to have people relate to a racing situation. A brief personal story with actual race video would get attention. Example:

    My own memory of the John B. Campbell Handicap takes place in the 1970’s. I had a $10 win ticket on #?, Jolly Johu. I stood next to one of my biggest customers who bet on the horse next to Jolly Johu as they entered the stretch. I tried not to root, but the $100+ return meant the world to me. Here is that stretch run.

    The video would show a great stretch duel with Jolly Johu prevailing in a photo.

    Another idea with the same format:

    I wagered $5 to win on Medaglio d’Oro at 16-1 and the same amount on Sarava at 70-1 in the Belmont Stakes in 2002. Here is the stretch run of that race. After I got done celebrating my $356+ return on investment, I realized that another $2 on a bet called the $1 exacta box would have netted me an additional $1227.

    This type of advertising where people understand the “Bet a little, get a lot” appeal of the game should be promoted more than give aways and food discounts.

  11. Lower the takeout – a lot. A 20%+ vigorish is insane – for the bettor, anyway.

    I also wonder if the trend toward exotic wagers are causing fewer winners resulting in fewer return visits by the increasing number of losers.

  12. First, Free admission and free parking. People like coupons. $5 off on dinner would work. I have promised myself not to bet on a race with less than
    8 horses. If the race doesn’t fill, it should be cancelled. California race fields are abysmal. I love the sports betting idea, but a full
    casino would be better.

  13. Jim, I like your idea. Promote the wins and how much people win with such little cash outlay. A friend of mine, former turf writer Kevin Modesti, believes that horse racing does a TERRIBLE job showing the public that it’s the best betting option out there. And he’s right, very little is done in that regard to promote the sport.

  14. Tony,
    I’ve suggested steps in the past that I would take to try to revive the sport. But this is your chance to shine. I want to see readers like yourself offer up your opinions. It’s fans like yourself who go out to the track and whose voices deserve to be heard.

  15. Newt,
    You’re right … you could have counted on one hand the number of TV ads I saw Hollywood Park run this past season. I realize it’s a lame-duck race track, but c’mon — spend a little to make a little bit more. Wouldn’t hurt.

  16. WMCorrow, exactly. I just addressed that point, but you’re right on. This sport does a terrible job promoting what a great gambling game it is. The stars and all are nice, but the bottom line, like you say, is this — people want to gamble their money with a chance to win more money. Horse racing offers some of the best, if not the best, odds in all of gambling. I mean, I’d much rather bet a 5-1 shot at the races that I think has an excellent shot to win, rather than bet a football game and have to put up $110 to win $100.

  17. Here’s a very simple idea. Have the track’s get together with the Supermarket’s and have some kind of contest(picking numbers or horses)with the customers. Store customers could look at TVG and match their pick’s with the winning horse’s .Everybody goes to the supermarket.

  18. John,
    They used to have something similar to that 30 years or so ago. You could pick up a card with numbers on it at a grocery store and then at night once a week they would have simulated races or something to that effect on TV and people could tune in and watch to see if they won.

  19. Horse Racing has operated at an economic disadvantage too long Vs. the competition, so that is the primary problem.
    The people do love racing, but the gambling public has been driven away by greedy legislators (They set the take out rates),and poor leadership (The racing managers do not listen to the players voice).

    The take could be lowered to 10% accross the board and we would restore a growth pattern. You would be amazed at how many organizations and projects are supported by the 20% plus take out from the fans (Van and Stabling, TOC etc.)

    There is a lot to be examined, but there is no question that a lower take means more customers and more handle.

    Only when the take is somewhat equal between the gambling competitors will we know the true popularity between sports gambling,poker and horse racing.

    Horse racing is not dead, it is poorly managed.


  20. Art, fans need heros.You can’t get heros when the owners retire runners in their prime to opt for the breeding shed, and then they breed for speed[precocity] and the circle continues. Take the big $ out of the breeding, and give some incentive to breeding horses with stamina ie;longevity and with that hopefully a fan base. Slots is a different ball game. Handicapping is an art. An art that takes a long time to cultivate. Pressing a computer disc and watching pictures fly by, takes as much skill as tying your shoes….and who ever heard of allowing these guys to charge $15/20 for parking. Like interest rates, that greed like mentality sends the wrong message. Lastly promotion of the humans involved…trainers,jocks. I know their days are long, but trainers especially I think can help promote the sport, maybe a few TV spots to get the fans to come out. No matter, it’s a great game…take care of the thoroughbred, and the rest will take care of itself!

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