Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on a book project that has me reviewing horse racing trade publications from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s amazing how much today we rely on digital information – news and data available at the touch of a keystroke. But so much of our history remains confined to the printed page. And some of it is absolutely brilliant.
Most of my research is about the careers of certain race horses, but as an industry observer and analyst, I can’t help but read through the commentary of the day about the status and future of the horse racing business. In the latter half of the 1980s, it was all about simulcasting – what it would mean to the industry. And while the worries that racing would quickly evolve into just a few super centers with live racing haven’t been realized, simulcasting certainly has changed the industry forever.
There were also numerous conversations about such diverse topics as the impact of medication on race horses and the need for racing to expand its television presence. Sound familiar?
But more ominous were concerns about the rise of Indian gaming and the coming expansion of casinos. Competition was at racing’s doorstep. I remember when Foxwoods expanded beyond bingo in 1993, the old Greyhound track in Plainfield actually benefitted – the road to the new casino was so jammed and the place was so crowded, that people simply gave up and went to nearby Plainfield to bet the dogs or the ponies. But of course that didn’t last long. Plainfield struggled to survive in the giant shadow, and somehow lasted until 2005 before closing its doors forever.
People in the industry were aware of what was happening, that casinos would have a major impact, but the common thread was that it was all about “them,” not “us.” Everything that was happening was someone else’s fault.
A column written by noted journalist Steve Crist exactly 20 years ago, writing back then for The Blood-Horse, was right on target. And if he ever wants to take a day off, he can just pull that column and run it today, when it would still apply to the letter.
In the first part of his column, he lamented about the industry’s belief that the “hero,” the next great horse, would single-handedly save the racing industry. Again, this sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it?
The second part focused on the lack of attention paid to the horseplayer, the gambler. Despite what many in the industry want to believe, racing is paid for by gamblers. And today, they have plenty of other ways to satisfy their need for risk and reward – if they don’t like what racing offers, they will go away. And they have, based on the numbers. While other gambling soared, pari-mutuel wagering sagged.
Among other things, Crist addressed the high takeout on racing compared to what players expect in casinos, which were just starting to sweep the country back then. He predicted that if racing’s powers at be didn’t address the gambling aspect, the results would be devastating.
I found the following comments to be quite powerful: “The most destructive part of the Hero Myth is that it keeps track operators and industry leaders from pursuing or making the changes that any other business would make...In any other business, the customer is king; in racing, he is an inconvenience.”
Today, I would add to the Hero Myth the Slot Myth -- the idea that racetrack gaming will save the industry, so there's still no need to address the racing product.
In conclusion, Crist said: “What racing desperately needs is new ideas, not a fast horse. If the game continues to slide, the fault will lie not with our stars, but with ourselves.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.