The recent news from Ontario is another lightning bolt for the horse racing industry, and provides a renewed opportunity for the sport to come together and solve some of its own problems.
Throughout North America, there is mounting evidence that governments are watching gaming revenues “slip away” to racing interests with increasing concern, and you can expect more efforts to grab some of that money back. Does this break the promises made when they agreed to give racing a boost in the first place? Probably. But by the same token, did the “relief” granted to racing in the form of slot revenues mean that tracks could give up any effort to make their traditional product more relevant to today’s consumer? Were tracks just buying time before they gave up racing altogether?
Ok, I’m torn. As I’ve stated all along, I love horse racing. But the industry has come to rely on alternative gaming to prop up the system. That’s fine if there were signs of life in the racing product, but with empty racetracks and handle far off its peak several years ago, it looks more like an industry on life support. And more people are going to want to pull the plug.
There are new efforts to develop Thoroughbred racing fans. Some people thought HBO’s new series, Luck, would be a great way to bring racing to the masses. Well, I watched the first episode, and while it may be a typical excellent HBO production, as a racing fan I was horrified. And if you weren’t already a fan of horse racing, I just don’t see how the show would bring you in. Good television, probably. Good exposure for racing? Not in my opinion.
And the Jockey Club just unveiled new campaigns as part of its own efforts to stimulate interest in Thoroughbred racing. The focus on “America’s Best Racing” is all well and good. New stars, new television coverage, new emphasis on the best of the racing season from the Triple Crown through the fall championships. Horses do attract the best in us – at their peak, they are poetry in motion. But there are inherent flaws in this approach – sort of like putting the cart before the horse.
Suppose these new efforts are successful. What then? If people root for their favorite horse, an emerging star, it comes crashing down when even a minor injury sends the horse to the sidelines for several months, as has happened several times already this year. So much for star power.
And if people show up at their nearest racetrack expecting to see Saratoga or Keeneland, they will be disappointed. What they will get is a racetrack that is still relatively empty and is often dirty, and they will probably be charged ridiculous amounts for the privilege of getting inside and sitting somewhere halfway decent despite the empty stands. Then, they will see trainers whose names they keep hearing in the news for various violations. They will see horses being thrashed with whips whether they are doing well or are hopelessly defeated. They will see nearly every horse racing on some sort of drug cocktail. And, horribly, they may see horses get hurt, sometimes fatally.
What then? Will they come back? Or will that spark that was ignited to get them there in the first place be extinguished before it takes hold? The industry needs to address some fundamental issues before attracting more people to the tracks. Or all they will succeed in doing is turning even more people off the sport. I wish I had more definitive answers, although finding solutions to the issues I’ve mentioned would be a BIG start -- no simple tasks, but necessary ones. Aside from that, I’ll turn my thinking cap up to high. If I come up with any new ideas, I’ll give them away in a heartbeat.