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?