Flipping through channels late Sunday night, I stumbled across a silent film classic on TCM that struck an unsettlingly familiar chord, one worthy of further reflection.
In “The First Auto” (1927), Hank Armstrong is a livery stable and thoroughbred racehorse owner who, in 1895, is unwilling to confront the reality that the horseless carriage or automobile is supplanting his beloved horse. His own son betrays him by becoming fascinated with the new-fangled machine, and the entire film is a study in the “past” vs. the “future”— tradition vs. modernity. It’s definitely a movie for antique car buffs and those interested in early automobile racing (pioneer racer Barney Oldfield makes a cameo as himself).
While the film presents Hank Armstrong as a compassionate horseman, he is obviously the “villain” for disowning his son and angrily mocking his friends who show interest in the automobile. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel great empathy for him as his champion race mare Sloe Eyes dies giving birth to a filly; in palpable anguish, he awakens his son Bob to tell him “Sloe Eyes is dead.” His son’s apathetic response: “Gee, Dad—that’s too bad” as he rolls over to go back to sleep.
Later in the film, when provoked by Joe Saunders, Hank bets $100 that Sloe Eyes’ filly Bright Eyes can defeat an auto in a contest at the fair grounds, and folks turn out to watch the match race. As the buggy drawn by the trotting filly pulls away, Hank mockingly yells back to Joe, “Hurry up, Progress—don’t keep me waitin’!”
He feels complete vindication with the race won, but in puzzlement asks his friend as the crowd swarms past him and towards the defeated car, “What are they doin’ over there—don’t they know we won?” Prophetically, his friend says, “Sure, Hank, but it’s nothing to see a buggy go with a horse—the wonder is to see a buggy go without a horse!”
No one can argue that the horse holds the same relevance it once did. The agrarian culture of nineteenth century America is long in the past; the heyday of horse racing ended when the nostalgic memory of the horse’s fundamental, daily importance to pre-industrial humanity faded. Never again will the sport possesses the popularity it once did, with tens of thousands regularly flocking to the tracks and millions more voraciously reading turf writers’ accounts of the races and star horses.
What we are left with is a smaller core audience made up of dissimilar groups of individuals who, at times, find intersections in their interests. The secret for the powers-to-be to insure that the sport of horse racing survives the next century is to learn to properly and individually address the needs and desires of each of those groups.
There are those I’ll call the Legacies, those individuals whose heritage or family ties are bound to the sport—owners and breeders, yes, but also trainers, jockeys, grooms, veterinarians and all those associated with the care of these animals. Not being intimate with any of these groups, I dare not presume their fundamental concerns, although I suspect they would include, most basically, the viability and profitability of the industry. Insuring one can make a good living doing what one loves, and doing it safely, with concern for the overall well-being and health of the animal. And, yes, hopefully drawing in new owners and others who grow the sport, even if very marginally.
Then there are the Horseplayers whose interests in the sport chiefly lie in wagering. Since their gambling options today are more numerous—poker, slots, sports betting of all kinds, etc.—horse racing needs to draw in and maintain this group. Making wagering more economically attractive through lower takeouts, a wider variety of wagers implemented in a more uniform way from track to track, and by putting forth a stronger product with larger, more competitive fields. Also important is education and information, facilitated through better use of technology and abandoning the practice of “nickel-and-diming” customers. By no means is this list comprehensive—these are just some of the rudimentary issues that need to be addressed.
The group that horse racing most ignores is the Fan. Some may find it impossible to wrap their mind around this concept, but there are actually those who love the sport without placing wagers. Whether or not they are financially contributing to the same extent as the Horseplayers isn’t the issue, nor does it make them inferior in importance. Those who start off as just Fans often become Horseplayers (or they would if wagering were more accessible to them or less intimidating), and some even become owners.
While anyone can become a Fan, the most natural and obvious demographic is the horse lover who thrills in the excitement of competition, but is turned off by safety concerns regarding surfaces, drug use and other such issues. And while the horse lover can be male, a trip to any pony club meet, local library and bookstore, or viewing of movies and television shows demonstrates that pre-teen girls are horse-crazy.
When those little girls grow up, it’s not their interest in horses that abandons them—it is horse racing that snubs them. Ignores them, or repels them by condescension and undervaluing them as consumers of the sport.
Opportunities to appeal to women abound these days, as fillies and mares are, arguably, the best stars of the sport. When fillies like Rachel Alexandra or Zarkava take on males and defeat them, don’t for a moment think that—either vocally or silently—every woman doesn’t cheer. Rather than being a curiosity, wouldn’t it be interesting for the Fans if American horse racing were more integrated?
In the zeal to bring a sense of modern relevancy to the sport, it’s imperative that horse racing not lose its history. In fact, as an increasingly fringe spectator sport, it is more important than ever to know and honor that history through maintaining the use of champion horses’ names in races. Knowledge of, and appreciate for, history binds us together, making us invested customers in horse racing. If reverence for the past is surrendered in the clamor for ill-advised, misguided or impulsive changes, it is almost as bad as not wanting change at all. Balance is the secret. A seriously-considered plan of action, methodical in approach, based upon a clear, realistic vision of the future.
Like Hank Armstrong who wins the race yet loses the people’s interest, horse racing must adapt to the contemporary world—and look to the future with an eye to change. Or risk a slow death.