Saturday, January 26, 2008

And Away They Go

I have been to the racetrack thousands of times in my life. From Churchill downs on Derby day, to the Humboldt county fair, in Ferndale, on Marathon day. I have memories of tracks and champions that no longer exist. Longacres, John Henry, and a muddy set of goggles worn in a major Derby prep all figure prominently in my personal set of souvenirs. I’ve seen the fog roll in at the old Jefferson Downs, and I’ve seen Lost in the Fog roll on at Golden Gate Fields. Like the crustiest old hard boot, I know that just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes something else. It’s either a psychotic standing in front of Artax in deep stretch, or cobra venom, or even a stalled tractor leaving a starting gate sitting like an enormous hurdle across the track as a full field rounds the far turn. Hopefully, I’m in for many more unexpected sights, astonishing revelations, stellar performances, and heroic efforts. But the one thing I’m not prepared for is the current malaise our beloved sport seems to be battling. I’m not ready for the death of horse racing as a spectator sport.

Like many of you, I read the web sites, the blogs, the magazines and the Daily Racing form. I know what’s in the air. Being a witness to most of the technological advancements that are daily changing the perception and popularity of horse racing, I decided to do something about it. My decision was something I’ve never done before. To borrow a phrase from that noble American Steven Colbert, “I am a live horse racing fan, and so should you.” What I did was simple. I took a group of young people to the races. They ranged in age from their mid 20s to late 30s. They were nearly all half my age, but they were eager to go.

Last year, in the midst of Street Sense’s Triple Crown quest, Calvin Borel was asked about riding at Pimlico for the first time. I love how he answered the question. “It’s a racetrack,” he said deadpan, “it’s an oval; it looks just like the others I’ve ridden on.” My point being that you could probably take any young, eager, yet uninitiated group to any track and have an experience similar to mine.

As a new resident of Portland, Oregon, I knew I was going to miss the quality and pageantry of California racing. I love Portland Meadows, but let’s face it; it’s not Santa Anita, or even Golden Gate. I thought I could rely on cable TV or simulcasting to get by, but seeing the crowds at Keeneland last year, I have to confess I miss being there. Given the way many tracks handle the maze of TV screens, the overlapping post parades and post times, any emotionally sane person eventually succumbs to the confusion and distraction. How were my young friends going to handle their experience?

I noticed that given a short tutorial, they focused only on the live racing, and had a ball. They particularly enjoyed following the runners from saddling paddock to post parade to warm-up to the gate. They listened to what I said and when I was right, they thought I really knew my stuff. When I was wrong, they realized the truth of the variables, the intangibles, the inexact science of it all. They were not ready for Beyer numbers or track bias yet. But that day will come, because they paid attention to percentages, to body language, and to past performances. I was fortunate because all managed to cash some tickets. While I went after pick 3s and trifectas, they seemed content with win bets and an occasional exacta. They didn’t allow themselves to be overcome with anxiety or bravado. They didn’t bring their grocery money with them, and they did indicate that they wanted to return.

Here’s what I learned. The horse still comes first. I was almost apologetic for the fact they wouldn’t see too many future stakes winners or hall of famers in our neck of the woods. That didn’t matter. They marveled at the beauty of a thoroughbred, any thoroughbred. In one maiden race that day, a filly was entered with colts and geldings. She was a nice looking first timer who made the boys a bit studdish in the paddock and almost ran them ragged until she was caught about 10 yards before the wire at 16-1. My pick 3 died with her second place finish but when my friends were thrilled with her performance, I too stopped just a bit longer to appreciate her effort on my behalf. In the end, we laughed, we felt elated, we felt disappointed and we made memories.

If you’re waiting for all this touchy-feely goodness to stop, not to worry, it ends here. It ends here because the dark side of this story is that there may be millions of folks out there like my 30 something friends. They will probably never see the inside of a paddock, or wait for the gate to open with their heart in their throat. If any do happen to wander into a racetrack, they’ll no doubt be intimidated by the dueling TV screens, the impatience of many in the crowd, and the daunting menu of bets available. They may wonder why so few take time to walk outside and watch a race as it’s running. That’s bad enough, but the most fearful thing has yet to arrive on the scene. There is talk here in the Northwest about video horse race machines. You know, those slot-like stations where people bet on videos of old races. Has it really come to that?

Even though it would seem to be fourth and long, I wouldn’t punt just yet. Like that race with a stalled tractor trying in vein to pull the gate off the course, tragedy can be avoided. Those jocks, with a heads up from the track announcer, helped each other out that day. They somehow managed to organize themselves single file, scooted through a narrow opening by the rail, and pulled up their mounts with no injuries. The starting gate, like a dead dinosaur never moved. The will to make things happen can surmount catastrophe.

Like many, I know that the expanding technology is probably the key to bringing in a young fan base. The generation Xers are comfortable with self-service terminals and can easily navigate racing oriented web sites. It’s getting them to the track that’s going to be the ticket and that’s where you come in. Take someone half your age to the racetrack. You’ll both learn a lot.


Alykat said...

"The horse still comes first."
I appreciate that statement more than any other in your post here, because, as you go on to say, the industry has become so computerized and money driven. It makes me sad- gone are the old days of stakes winners racing at 4, 5 and 6 years of age. High dollar stud fees are ruining the sport.

My first visit to the racetrack came at the age of nine. I had already read about the greats in the sport, but that day they meant nothing. Every racehorse was beautiful- to me, the $2,500 claimer looked no different from the Derby winners I'd been reading about. The horse, not the race record, came first.

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