Twilight at the Track
On the 3rd of May, the day before the Kentucky Derby, I was sitting on a plane having just completed the final edits to my forthcoming book, Healthy Stables by Design, and reading the Time Magazine piece “Twilight at the Track” by David Von Drehle. I congratulate Time Magazine and Mr. Drehle for his article, as well as the numerous articles published by the NYT about horses and racing that I read frequently. I thought I would share a few of my thoughts about the things discussed.
Mr. Drehle’s article describes the sad situation of thoroughbred racing in the US. As tracks close, purses dwindle, breeding declines, and trainers and breeders retire, fewer and fewer people are attending, betting at, and enjoying the races. Surprisingly, the article states that only 46% of horse racing fans would even recommend the sport to others. Perhaps this fact should not be so shocking, as only a few races, such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Breeder’s Cup, still manage to attract large numbers of excited spectators.
Having designed horse stables and planned many horse farms in my thirty-year career as an equestrian architect (some even for leading thoroughbred farms such as Sagamore Farm, Lanes End, and Heronwood Farm), this story does not actually tell me anything new. That’s not a criticism, as I think most people connected with thoroughbred racing in this country are aware of its sad decline. There are some passionate breeders out there with a desire to restore racing to its glory and to build on its history. Kevin Plank (Sagamore Farm) and Will Farish (Lane’s End) are two that embody the spirit and love of the sport.
Let me just say that I simply love horse racing. For me, it is the most fantastic sport in the world. With the parade to the paddock, the showing of the horses in the parade ring, and the procession to the starting gate, excitement builds with every step. Though one race is typically only two minutes long, those two minutes are definitely “the most thrilling two minutes in sports.” Since each race has various changing elements, such as length, track surface, and horse gender and age requirements, no race ever runs the same. By watching various races throughout the day, one can truly spend a great and full day at the track.
Having attended a number of races, I have my own methods that add to the excitement. Starting the day with a review of the racing form and the “pink sheet,” I begin to make my choices. This can be a long and tedious process or it can be a quick review of basic facts and data, like the jockey, horses’ record, trainer, and field. Mind you, I am certainly no expert at playing the horses and I never wager large sums, but betting definitely adds to the excitement and the thrill of victory. Once I have made my preliminary choices and stopped at the wagering window, I make my way to the top of the home stretch at the rail. This is my favorite spot to see a race because you cannot only see everything, but also feel, smell, and hear it. There is nothing like the excitement that floods your veins when a herd of horses rounds the turn into the homestretch galloping at top speed with leather rubbing, hooves pounding, dust flying (or at the Derby this year, mud flying), and the crowd cheering. While some may prefer the finish line or the expensive seats high up in the stands, I need to be where I can see, feel, smell, and hear it.
My experience with racing is based on this excitement and entertainment. Now the question is what can we do to bring this excitement back to the track and make the experience of going to the track enjoyable (whether one wins a little money or not)?
From my point of view, there are two main problem areas with racing. First, drugging and doping is still a sad negative pulling down the most exciting sport in the world. Not only does this severely endanger the horses, but it also detracts fans from the sport. Laws need to be restructured so that the punishment for drugging deters owners and trainers from the practice. Perhaps then, racing will truly be about the quality of the horses. Although strides have been made to remedy this problem, the restrictions have not yet solved the issue. Second, a change to the racing experience is necessary. The “racino” culture proposed as a “fix” to infuse money into an ailing industry is not a long-term benefit and may not be a “fix” at all for the sport. Though it may have helped by creating larger purses, improving competitiveness, and bringing bigger fields, it does not return the public back to the track. In fact, I believe it drives them away by cheapening the experience.
Perhaps with these two fixes, racing can begin to deliver everything that people used to love. One only has to attend Saratoga in August to understand the excitement that a full track can bring to thousands of diverse people and families, who gather to enjoy a full day of fun. It is this type of full-day experience, where families, couples, or individuals can go and hang out at the races, eat at good restaurants, and enjoy the spectacle of the day, that may restore racing to its former glory. I think some of the tracks in the UK might be a good example for our American tracks to consider. Having attended thoroughbred tracks in the UK (Windsor and Goodwood), I have seen first-hand how the experience can be thoroughly enjoyable. Though the British are known for betting on virtually anything that moves (and probably some that don’t), there were no tacky racinos, but rather, a pervading sense of pageantry and style. With this atmosphere, the racetrack became a place I could take my wife and enjoy a delightful afternoon.
In the US, Keeneland Racetrack, which only holds 32 days of racing each year, has reduced the amount of race days in order to have every race feature strong horses and large fields. Interestingly, their attendance and profits have rose amidst the closing of tracks across the country. By being able to restore the integrity of the sport, they have been able to make racing successful despite the declining industry. Let’s hope that other racetracks take note and restore the enjoyment of a day at the track. While the professional bettor or the individuals who hope to hit the perfect Trifecta may not be deterred, the future of Thoroughbred Racing lies in making it an experience that everyone can enjoy. By stopping the current drugging problems and the overall cheapening of the racetrack experience, I believe it can be done.
You can check out the article yourself at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2142495,00.html