Monday, May 22, 2006

Loser's circle

America's generally diminishing interest in horse racing increased over the weekend ... for all the wrong reasons.

As you no doubt know, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down shortly after leaving the starting gate in the Preakness Stakes. The horse was shipped to a hospital in Pennsylvania, where his leg was repaired as well as possible. As of this writing, Barbaro's chances of surviving are 50-50, although it's easy to guess that every hour of time without incident improves his chances.

The stories about Barbaro, and the public's reaction, have been interesting to follow. I particularly liked the person who sent a get-well card to the horse; I suppose it will be a bigger story if he sends a thank-you note. The whole incident got me to thinking about horse racing, which has taken a, pardon the expression, wild ride in terms of public interest over the years.

I don't know how long horses have been racing against each other, probably for centuries in one form or another. "Modern" racing started in the 1700's. Many small towns had their own tracks, even if they were used just for the county fair. There was a certain country charm at such races, although horse racing soon became big business. Champion horses such as Man O'War and Seabiscuit became nationally known, and the Triple Crown races turned into major events on the sports calendar.

But something went wrong with horse racing, and it was probably television. The sporting landscape changed in the 1950's. Football and later basketball gained ground, while horse racing and track fell way back. Check the old newspapers and you'll see confirmation of that. My guess is that horse racing never figured out how to market itself until it had lost a generation of fans; opening the gates just wasn't enough any more.

The economics of the sport have changed greatly too. Breeding has become a big money-maker and the financial engine. Owners want good horses to win a couple of big races, establish some value, and then retire. It's not a strategy that will build an audience. The exception is a gelding like Funny Cide, but he hasn't been able to maintain a high standard of racing.

So where is horse racing now? You don't hear much about attendance figures at the smaller tracks and races anymore. You don't meet many people under 50 who know how to read a Racing Form. Some tracks are still open because of casinos. Most people don't like to work too hard -- using such skills as reading and math -- to earn money via gambling. Slot machines require much less thinking. The Triple Crown races attract public attention for about six and one-half minutes every late spring/early summer. People watch on TV, and then forget
about it.

Some stars would help the situation, even if they are shooting stars, passing brilliantly if briefly through the sky. Smarty Jones was a bit like that; he was forced into early retirement. Now there's Barbaro, coming off a stellar performance in the Derby and horrifying the casual fan who just wanted to see if he could be as dominant in the Preakness. You wonder how many won't be able to forget that image.

I still find the race track atmosphere on the charming side in a quaint sort of way. The horses are pretty to watch, and the feeling in the grandstand, with characters only seen near a betting window, is unique. The question is, how does horse racing get everyone's attention again for the right reasons?

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