Tomorrow marks the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, the so-called crown jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown. Though people will undoubtedly turn out for and tune in to the "Run for the Roses," the question remains: Does anyone really care about horse racing anymore?
As someone who attempted to grow up during the '70s, it's pretty amazing to see just how far horse racing has fallen in the eyes of the sporting public. Back when Secretariat was blowing the competition away and Affirmed was finishing off the sport's last Triple Crown in 1978, it seemed like New York City's Off-Track Betting parlors were mobbed on a daily basis. Today, they don't even exist. That's right, New York City failed as a bookie. How you can fail as a bookie when you are still taking a percentage of winning bets to cover your backside is anybody's guess. So much for, "the house always wins."
The failure of OTB nothwithstanding, why is horse racing itself struggling so much? Sure, there are those out there who feel that these animals are exploited and refuse to support the industry in any way, but they are far outnumbered by those who would gamble on just about anything. People fork over handfuls of cash on a daily basis to bet on numbered ping pong balls coming out of a plastic tube, for crying out loud. While folks will turn out in droves to watch a nine-inning baseball game and shell out close to 10 bucks a beer, they don't seem near as interested in packing a cooler and spending a day in the sun watching the ponies run.
So, as we've already covered, the waning interest in horse racing can't be due to the fact that people don't want to gamble. In fact, many tracks are trying to attract bigger crowds by adding casino gaming to their premises. It's also hard to imagine that people just aren't interested in horses, as countless books and movies such as Sea Biscuit and cult fave Let it Ride would attest. No, what horse racing really seems to have is a marketing problem. The public perception of race tracks is that they're dives, populated by the seediest characters society has to offer. Not true. Well, not entirely true.A great many tracks are actually pretty darn nice. Sure there are some colorful characters around, but where aren't there? Besides, I've seen far more wasted rabble at baseball and football games than I ever have at the track.
Last Father's Day, on a lark and because it was our day, my friend and I dragged our wives and kids out to Belmont Park for the day; a suggestion that was met with a healthy bit of skepticism and a few not-so-veiled threats. What kind of place for kids is a race track? Turns out, a pretty good one. On that day, along with races and wagering, there were also bounce houses and barbecues, pony rides and a petting zoo, and a full playground. And everyone had a great time. But who knew? The bottom line is that horse racing has to take a page out of the Las Vegas playbook and position itself as family-friendly destination. Is that so hard to imagine? Look, if Sin City can pull it off anyone can. Word of mouth won't get it done. Some money will need to be invested in advertising, as well as the tracks themselves. Build it, and promote it, and people will come. In the meantime, tomorrow I"ll probably throw Daddy Long Legs, Daddy Knows Best, and I'll Have Another, in a three-horse exacta box. Good luck to all.