Alexander Pope once said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Hence, though I’m no economist, allow me to offer the opinion that there is just too damn much horse racing in this country.
Obviously, it’s a view I and others have stated before, and certainly it’s more complicated than I’m willing to concede. However, my rudimentary understanding of supply and demand is that, in order to make their product economically feasible, the producers (racetracks and horse owners) need to generate a product that meets—not exceeds—the demand of consumers (horseplayers and fans). Currently, that’s simply not the case.
Of course, owners and all of those whose livelihood depends on horses racing have a vested interest in how much racing is conducted, but if no one is watching or wagering how long can the sport survive? Check out the nearly deserted stands at Churchill for Saturday's “Stars of Tomorrow” card; it's an image that strikingly portends of a bleak future, despite the thrilling equine performances that continue to permeate the sport.
For far too long of late, horse racing has been controlled by owners and breeders who can’t (or simply don’t want to) see the bigger picture, and thus managed to oversaturate the market on so many levels. As businesses, tracks obviously want to wring out as much profit as possible, while those owned by gaming interests whose licenses mandate they conduct horse racing don’t give a damn about the sport, as it is simply a dying bastard cousin of where the real money lies (table games and slots). Additionally, despite slots-rich purses, tracks in states like Pennsylvania have yet to step up the quality of racing and build up fan interest, relying far too heavily on gaming revenue that the legislature is very likely to increasingly cut into as the budget crisis deepens. In other words, horsemen are living on borrowed time unless significant changes are made now to reshape the sport.
We—as fans, horseplayers, tracks, owners and caretakers—need to have a serious conversation about making the industry more unified and visionary—and less freelance and self-governing. The issues are diverse and complicated, so the task won’t be easy, but it must happen—and sooner rather than later.
Overhauling the number of graded stakes would be a beginning, as would the coordination (not to mention consolidation) of major race dates. Instead of thinking we need to spread out stakes races over several days during the week (such as Friday, Saturday and Sunday) in order to somehow draw more people to the track (not really happening), why not focus people’s attention with top-quality racing offered on one or two big days at multiple tracks (like Wednesday and Saturday)? In today’s busy world, fans simply don’t have time to dedicate themselves to horse racing day after day after day. If the spotlight shown on the sport once or twice a month, though, more people would likely make time to watch and wager. In the finest sense, less is more.
My bitter cold experience at Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup inspired a self-examination and respite for me, as I realized just how very burnt out I feel about racing this year. Unlike other sports, it’s 365 days a year, practically non-stop. Yes, certain tracks like Del Mar, Saratoga and Keeneland conduct shorter meets, but how much interest can watching bottom-level claimers run in below-freezing temperatures at places like Penn National (or even Aqueduct) hold?
Still, I feel like I’m missing something if I don’t check results regularly—a potential winner or underlay, not to mention the next superstar. Yet, the current number of races is just overwhelming. Did I mention it’s day after day, after day, after day, after...you get the picture? It’s almost enough to make me chuck the sport all-together, but I won’t—unlike the vast majority of folks who already have or never will engage a sport that is just too time-consuming.