It was recently reported that attendance and interest in horse racing in North America is at an all time low. As someone who grew up with a love for the sport of kings, the news is somewhat disheartening, but at the same time it was foreseeable. I recall well going to the horse races as a child with my family; each outing was an event and a guaranteed fun time. Once you paid your admission and walked through the gates it was all about racing. The touts were selling their sheets to any suckers that were willing to pay, the racing form salesmen were peddling their paper and opinion and the horsemen were clearly distinguished from the rest of the crowd due to their fancy attire. If you had a little extra money and were dressed appropriately you could go to the clubhouse where service was a little more personal. More importantly there was something for everyone to do. Between races the tracks often put on a show for the fans and there were always activities for kids, whether it was horse rides on the backstretch, a free arcade with a horse racing theme or other family activities related to racing. Furthermore, on days when there was a big event, if you weren't fortunate enough to get a reserved seat you had to arrive very early. Unreserved seats were scarce, and if you were able to nab one you stayed put and enjoyed the day. Waiting for the race card to start sometimes was long, but in the end it all worked out. When the races began you knew you were in for a good show and, if you were lucky, won some money.
While the lively atmosphere added to your experience, what drew you to the track was the quality of the product itself. Field sizes were almost always in the double digits and relatively competitive. Most importantly, you knew the animals were sound. It was unusual for horses to run with any ailment, since the track veterinarians checked the horses thoroughly before the races and medicines like lasix and bute were outlawed at almost all the major tracks. Consequently when a horse did break down it was usually due to a misstep. As well, horses tended to race exclusively at their home track, which allowed the local horseplayers to get to know them. When horses did succeed they would often travel to other cities to compete in major races, but invariably they would return to the home track for stakes races. I recall well a sense of national pride when local horses at Woodbine, like Deputy Minister, L'Enjelour and Runaway Groom, went on to win major races in the United States. And it was particularly exciting when Sunny's Halo won the Kentucky Derby. Regardless of the success and opportunities elsewhere, the horses' owners always rewarded the local fans by returning back to the home track for major stakes races.
Around the late 1980s, however, it was easy to sense a shift in the direction of horse racing. The young families that once were a major part of the track began to disappear. The excited children who would run to the rail to see the horses in the post parade dwindled. The pony rides, arcades and other activities at the tracks vanished and were replaced by a new clientele. Fans under 50 were rare, especially on weekdays. Even the adult demographic was shifting. Families, well heeled professionals, and young couples were replaced by predominantly unaccompanied men. Consequently, interaction between fans and jockeys, as well as interaction with each other, was becoming a thing of the past. Quaint and intimate tracks like Greenwood and Hialeah closed in favour of expanding less personal tracks like Woodbine and Gulfstream. Even the clubhouse was becoming irrelevant, and most closed altogether. The reason for the change was evident - the tracks became less about local horse racing and more about generating revenue by any means. Ticket takers were laid off in favour of ticket machines, the local touts and other sellers were replaced with information booths, and the greeters all but disappeared.
Perhaps most notable was that tracks now offered simulcasting from other courses. This ensured that the local horseplayers were always glued to a TV set and constantly gambling. Also, as states and provinces permitted, most tracks installed slot machines. This move caused a shift in public perception: rather than the track being seen as a place to go for a day of entertainment, it was now just another gambling venue. Naturally, this ended family weekend outings to the track. At the same time, as the focus of the track was changing, so too was the attitude of the horsemen. The connection to the local fans was not a priority anymore. A conversation with a Canadian trainer demonstrated this. A relatively famous Canadian owner moved all his horses with the most potential to Florida hoping to gain notoriety stateside. "That would never have happened in my younger training days," the trainer told me. "Unless there was a really good reason to move, the owners stayed put and rewarded the fans. It seems now the owners see the fans as nothing more than chattel, and it's all me, me, me."
The shift from an entertainment entity to a purely gambling venue would be acceptable if tracks had the product to back it up, but in reality, as a form of pure gambling, horse racing is lacking. If one wants some fast paced action, casino gambling is a better alternative. If one wants to take a shot at the big bucks for a low outlay, then lotteries offer higher payouts. In fact, nowadays with the exotic bets tracks are pushing, such as the superfecta, super high 5, pick 6 and the like, horse tracks resemble lotteries. And the high takeout from those bets is in line with what the lottery holds. Furthermore, if one wants to use their own handicapping skills to outsmart others and enjoy some entertainment in return for their action, then nothing beats sports betting. And unlike horse racing, sports betting offers more realistic odds of winning. In general, sportsbooks only hold 4% on bets. Horse racing on the other hand holds between 17% on win, place and show betting, and up to 30% on the exotics mentioned. Of course the tracks have this high takeout to pay for purses and track upkeep, but it doesn't change the fact that a 17% hold equates to a line of -140 both ways on a pick 'em sports match. What sports better in his right mind would bet an 80 cent line on a pick 'em game? As well, because only pari-mutuel betting is allowed in North America, one can never be sure of the odds they will get. In England horse racing not only has pari-mutuel betting, but it also works with bookmakers who offer fixed odds. Therefore you can lock in a price, and it is always far below the 17% hold at the North American tracks. In fact many bookmakers in England now even offer best odds, guaranteed. In better words, if you bet a horse early and the price goes up you get the better price. If it goes down you keep the odds you bet. Imagine something like that being offered at North American tracks! So by changing their focus, the tracks have managed to eliminate future generations of potential race track attendees, and at the same time have alienated the loyal track going base that no longer have time for the impersonal clutter of TV sets, slots and other chaos that now encompasses a day at the track.
In 1996 when Woodbine was to host the Breeder's Cup, the union that represented the ticket takers went on strike. David Willmot, the President of Woodbine Entertainment, considered withdrawing his bid to host the Cup. Upon hearing this I contacted Mr. Willmot and told him that if he did so he would pass up a golden opportunity to win a new generation of fans, and once again reclaim the families that would witness the great racing of the championship day. He in turn invited me to the offices at Woodbine to discuss the issue, telling me that he is indeed interested in the fans that became disenfranchised and that my demographic was exactly what they were trying to win over (20-30 something families with young children). We discussed numerous concerns, from lack of things for families to do, small field sizes, high takeouts, disassociation of the horsemen from the fans, lack of perks for larger horse bettors and many other issues. I mentioned about 20 issues, and he agreed with every single comment I made. In fact he told me of his grand plan to make Woodbine into the ultimate Entertainment complex. He envisioned family areas, slots for the single women who didn't want to attend the races, new betting options, perks for the regular attendees, lower takeouts for those who bet more and a better form of entertainment for all who come to the track. While off-track betting and racing on TV were starting to grow, Willmot agreed that the only way to get the next generation and those afterwards interested in horse racing again was to woo them back to the track. Only seeing the product live would win over those who aren't familiar with it. He listened to my arguments and comments, agreed with all of them, and implemented none. Yes, slots were added to the track, but those were already in the works prior to the meeting. Parking and admission prices, were dropped, but that was only because they couldn't charge people to play the slots. New betting options were added, but only ones that weren't winnable. I was talking about ideas such as horse matchups, and Woodbine instead opted for pick 7s and superfectas. As far as a place for women and children to enjoy themselves, Woodbine offers little; and on my travels to other tracks throughout the U.S., I noticed there was nothing for families there either. Plus, for the loyal race goer there are still no perks for them. In fact the only perks offered are for those who bet at teletheaters or by phone. Betting at the track gains the bettor nothing.
It was also a lack of interest in its traditional base, as well as pure arrogance, that convinced so many tracks to make decisions without consulting the race goers to see if it would affect their attendance. Several tracks chose to install polytrack and other synthetic surfaces without consulting the race goers, or presenting reasonable arguments for doing so. Most tracks that put down the synthetic surface cited arguments that it would cut down on horse injuries, but it appears that the amount of injuries has decreased only slightly. In the process they created a track style that has made all traditional handicapping irrelevant, and consequently lost a generation of horse players. Andrew Beyer stated in his column that he won't bet polytrack because it is unpredictable, and 2 elderly horseplayers at Woodbine that each went to the track at least 3 times a week told me that they may go once a month now, and even then tend to bet simulcasts from New York or Florida since their handicapping techniques still mean something on the dirt tracks at Gulfstream, Calder, Belmont and Aqueduct.
Lastly, it must be noted that people identify with a sport because of its stars. Golf was on the decline until Tiger Woods brought in a whole new generation because of his personality and his ability to break the colour barrier in what was considered a rich white man's sport. Boxing has been going through an era of disinterest because no names have come forward to entice a new generation. And, unfortunately for horse racing, there have been no horses in decades that have made anyone want to follow the sport. Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, John Henry, among others, were household names in the United States---and Secretariat, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Sir Barton and Man O'War were legends. It's difficult to even remember the names of the horses that won major races of late. And when a potential superstar horse does come onto the scene, it seems the horse always ends up retiring, or worse yet, being put down. Barbaro had the potential to win over many new fan,s and apparently the horse was generating a lot of young fan interest, but the trainer decided to run in the Preakness after the horse burst through the gate, and the result was tragic. Eight Belles was the darling of women everywhere, as she was the only horse that could keep up with Big Brown, but ended up being put down on the track. Smarty Jones was everyone's dark horse and Cinderella story, but he too had to be retired due to injury. Many articles have suggested that it's the current breeding and overuse of medicines that is causing these injuries, as well as the lack of concern by track veterinarians. As a result many of the younger generations see the sport as cruel, and the traditional horseplayers are just tired of seeing these beautiful animals racing a few times before they have to be retired. In fact a couple of very serious horseplayers in the MajorWager forums have suggested that they no longer follow or bet on horse racing because they don't like this new direction of speed at any cost. Regardless, without the superstar horses it is difficult to win over a new generation.
So what has horse racing's response been to the fact that most people are tuning out and seeing horse racing as a waste of time and cruel? The response has been to blame others. It blames offshore sportsbooks and Las Vegas casinos for "stealing" its signals and taking away customers. It blames the government for allowing too many casinos to eat away at its revenues. And it blames the race going consumer, for not understanding the benefits of its decisions, despite the fact that those race goers have stated over and over that they are not satisfied with the product. It seems the only place that avoids blame is the horse racing industry itself. Of course as I witnessed myself, you can tell the racetrack executives whatever you think, but in the end it will prove futile, even if they agree with everything you say. Horseracing may gain interest again at some point, but it likely won't be in my lifetime.
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