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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Winning the Race Without Sacrificing the Sport

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.


SaratogaSpa said...

I understand your post and mostly agree, but I have one question. You say: "horse racing must adapt to the contemporary world—and look to the future with an eye to change. Or risk a slow death"

How does racing grab the sedentary slot player who loves playing slots because it is easy? Do you think they really will put in an effort to get off the slot chair and study a racing program? (even a dumbed down version of one)

I am always sadly amazed at the hundreds of lifeless, mostly supersized shaped people who sit at a racino chair and push a button for hours on end.

Valerie said...

How does racing grab the sedentary slot player who loves playing slots because it is easy?

Honestly, for the vast majority of slots players: they don’t, and it’s time for them to stop thinking they can.

Why do people sit in front of a slot machine, mindlessly pumping in money? For the same reasons people sit in front of a television and watch crap—it’s mind-numbingly easy, and devoid of any intellectual effort.

For the most part, these people will have no interest in horse racing, as successful handicapping takes logic, math skills and reading comprehension; they may give it a whirl, but soon find it unprofitable and requiring too much thought, and will go back to feeding The Machine.

And, no, I'm not suggesting tracks need to focus their marketing efforts on college students to grow the sport. In fact, they need to look even younger: pre-teens and adolescents.

If, from a young age, children are exposed to the fresh air environment of the track, and spend quality time with family members there, creating life-long memories...those are race fans for life.

malcer said...

I agree with a lot of the above, but not with your opinion that the decreasing importance of the horse in daily life is a major factor in the decline of American racing.

You'll hardly find any countries where horses play less of a role than in HK, Singapore, Macau or Japan, yet all of those manage to attract "tens of thousands regularly flocking to the tracks and [the broad public] voraciously reading turf writers’ accounts of the races and star horses".

You don't have to have cleaned out horse poo yourself to fall in love with this sport. You just need it to be interesting sport, based on integrity and dignity towards all of its participants, equine and human.

Anonymous said...

Valerie, I have to say AMEN! to your comments especially in your response about the slot players. I believe we need to focus weekend racing as a family outing. Actually meeting horses at the track would really attract the very young. Thursdays and Fridays should be night racing with the focus on young adults. Young bands should be playing and it should be a social atmosphere while maintaining the same horse racing atmosphere.

Kevin Stafford said...

This is one of the most excellently written pieces I've seen in recent memory (I find I say that quite a bit when I read your writing). Perhaps I'm biased because, in you, I find someone equally infatuated with comma-filled sentences. :-)

To the point. I consider myself a "horseplayer" turned "fan" - and I think we often assume that the natural progression is the reverse (i.e., fan turned horseplayer).

As for keeping an eye on the future - could not agree more.

In my mind folks will watch anything as long as compelling drama is involved. The littany of crappy "realty tv" successes bearing witness to this.

We have excitement. We have drama. We have compelling story lines that can attract folks - it's just that we don't even try to tell them.

If you're not a racing fan and don't know inherently where to go for news (i.e. TVG, HRTV, Bloodhorse....the TBA! LOL), then you'll never find us.

In order to get people's attention, we have to be accessible. I know folks hate change and it may be expensive at first, but c'mon...think of what we go through now. We're racing NUTS, and even we can't see the majority of the races in a given week. Sure, we get the weekend, but Monday through Friday is a total waste for me. It's like I'm "weird" to the sport because I have a job (and few employers allow their employees to even access websites that remotely discuss a scandalous topic like betting).

Think of it...the stupid ShamWow and Snuggie get more air time than us. And it's our own fault. Rather than come together and agree on basic things like race dates, meet lenghts, post times, etc as a "collective" -we're a sea of competing and mutually exclusive interests seemingly incapable of achieving anything remotely representative of the "greater good."

Okay...rant done. :-)

On a lighter note, ever notice that the majority of "horseplayers" tend to be male, while the majority of "fans" tend to be female? Obviously that's not a golden rule as we both know many exceptions, but it's something I've picked up on over the years.

To me, reaching a new generation has one simple golden opportunity. It's going to make me sound a bit trivial, but heregoes:

What girl doesn't want a pony? Most young girls like horses - and pretty much wherever the girls are, the guys are sure to follow (especially if the can gamble AND check out the me, I know my kind...we're simplistic beasts). :-)

Could it really be that simple? Perhaps we've been missing the point all along by focusing only on would-be-gamblers? Besides...most of the true gambling folks can get quicker, more easily accessible, and less punishing (in terms of takeout) "fixes" from other mediums.

The one thing we have that no other does? GORGEOUS horses! :-)

Great article.

Anonymous said...

Fan Power! Thanks for saying that fans do count.

tvnewsbadge said...

I don't see how you can expect to "grow" a sport that is so inaccessible.

I watched all the prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby this season, and with rare exceptions, my only option was the local OTB.
There are few places more depressing to spend a Saturday afternoon than in a smoke filled, greasy OTB. I always left feeling "dirty" somehow. especially if a horse goes down in a race and the patrons "booed" him.

And even when you get to watch the big races from the comfort of your home on network television, the coverage is often just awful.

I still want to blow up my TV when I think about Chip Woolly singing Row Row Your Boat with some network clown in the cab of a pickup truck.

I can't imagine any sport surviving with such limited opportunities to see it in it's best light.

Considering the way the deck is stacked against it, horse racing might actually be doing pretty good to have the sad little audience it does.

G. Rarick said...

How do you get the slot player? In France, we have a betting offer called the "spot", where the computer generates a random ticket for you. As stupid as this sounds, this mindless lottery bet is wildly successful. It gives casual fans a stake in the race with no thought required. Also, we regularly have 18 and 20 horse fields, so people actually win with "spot" tickets.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, Roy del Ruth, the director of First Auto, later directed Broadway Melody of 1938, one of the biggest box office hits of 1937, which featured Eleanor Powell as a female horse trainer!?!

And to keep this nonsequitur moving along, who can forget Eleanor Powell tap dancing with a horse? Is this a way to encourage female interest in the sport?

Valerie said...

Ouch, all those splits were painful to watch, but thanks for the link to the You-Tube video of Eleanor Powell tap dancing with a horse! I had never see or heard of this—weird but cool.

I didn’t mention it but, in a strangely ironic manner, the actor who played Hank Armstrong’s son in “The First Auto” died before filming ended—in a car accident.