The Problem With Horse Racing

by John Furgele

May is a great month for sports.  It starts of course on the first Saturday with the Kentucky Derby.  Despite the decline of horse racing in American sports, the Derby still draws over 150,000 people to Churchill Downs and more importantly, draws a 10.7 television rating.  There has to be some interest in this event, as 12.2 million TV viewers would indicate. 

Mint That Bird, at 50-1 pulled off a monumental upset and headed to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to see if he could win the Preakness and head to Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown.  Waiting for him in Baltimore was the fabulous filly, Rachel Alexandra, and she would get the best of  the game gelding with over 77,000 watching at Pimlico and another 7 million watching on NBC.

If the filly and the gelding head to Long Island for the Belmont, look for another strong television rating and 50,000 plus fans to head to the track to watch.  What does this say about horse racing?  It says that Americans generally care about big events, and the Triple Crown and even the Breeders Cup are big events.  The Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Derby and will always be covered and followed by sports writers and sports fans.  But, what about the rest of the horse racing season?

The major problem with horse racing is that there are too many tracks and too many races and frankly too many days of racing.  Every year, there is always the story that centers on broken down Pimlico and that this year could be the last year that the Preakness will be run at the second oldest track in America (Saratoga).  Pimlico only races on 20 days and even though nearby Laurel picks up after the Pimlico season, the average attendance is dreadful.  There is nothing special about horse racing anymore.  When there are 160 days of live racing, how unique can it be? 

If horse racing wants to grab a bigger slice of the sports landscape, the tracks have to offer less, as in more is less.  Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post suggests that Laurel be closed and Pimlico enhanced to have a 30-35 day meet ala Saratoga to make sure fans make plans to get to the race track at least one time.

Saratoga Race Course remains the model, or what every other race track aspires to be.  The Upstate New York haven is only open 36 times per year and averages about 25,000 fans per day during the meet.  Saratoga is special.  The quality of racing is good, the purses are good and people know that it is only going tobe around for just 36 days.  There is no fall, spring schedule for those who miss the 36 day summer meet.

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) operates Saratoga and also runs Belmont and Aqueduct, so in essence, they offer year-round racing.  But only the diehards would venture to the Big A for racing on the first Saturday in February, but rather than close, states insist that horse racing live on, day after day after day. 

More tracks should follow the Saratoga model or the Beyer model.  By operating on fewer days, you make the product more special.  The NFL is the blurprint.  There are 16 games, just 16 chances to see the product, and frankly, even though expanding the season by two games is tantilizing, the NFL would be better served by not doing it. 

Beyer thinks Pimlico could be saved by offering a high quality 35 day meet with quality races from early April through Memorial Day.  He also suggests closing Laurel and refurbishing Pimlico into a must go to venue, both for horseman and fans.   A ritzier Pimlico with only 35 dates could be appealing for Marylanders, who still take pride in breeding horses. 

It costs a lot of money just to open a track and why open the track 160 times for 750 fans when you can open it up 35 times for 10,000 fans or more?  Americans prove each May and early June that they like horse racing; that they like to watch a big time sporting event like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.  But, after these three races, they don’t really care about the sport anymore, and they certainly don’t care about the other 250 days of racing in America. 

The industry, because it varies widely from state to state probably won’t change, but each state should consolidate.  Maryland doesn’t need Laurel and Pimlico and certainly doesn’t need 100 days of racing.  New York probably doesn’t need winter racing at Aqueduct, but that doesn’t mean it will change. 

Most want to see horse racing stick around, but the best way to do it is to cut down on the product, because we all know that most of the time, less is more.


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