The inspiration for this article came from a conversation I had with a good friend who works in the horse racing business.
(Editor’s note: Wait, Andrew has friends? We’re as shocked as you are.)
(Writer’s retort: You’re a jerk.)
On the whole, I don’t share the “doom and gloom” outlook on horse racing possessed by some loud voices on horse racing Twitter. I don’t think horse racing is on its deathbed, or that the sport will cease to exist in a certain number of years. I love this game, and as anyone who follows me can attest, I pour a great amount of energy into it on a consistent basis.
The fact is, however, that competition for legal wagering dollars has never been greater. Sports betting is being legalized in a majority of states around the country. The latest state to approve the industry is Kentucky, whose governor signed a sports betting bill last week.
Sooner rather than later, residents of the Bluegrass State will be able to log on to DraftKings, FanDuel, or whatever platform they want. They’ll be able to lock in wagers on their favorite teams, at set odds, with an abundance of free information at their fingertips. The rules of these contests are iron-clad and laid out for all to see, high standards for competition and the settings of competitions are set, winners and losers are known when the clock shows all-zeroes, and, by and large, confusion is at a minimum.
Meanwhile, in horse racing, all of the following items on the list below are true.
- Racetracks, on occasion, have major issues correctly timing races from start to finish.
- Three major racetracks (Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs, and Fair Grounds) have had significant problems growing and maintaining grass on their turf courses.
- Late odds changes are commonplace across many prominent circuits.
- The California breeding industry is facing immense obstacles, and a major source of Cal-breds, Ocean Breeze Farm, has been put up for sale by the Reddams.
- One state’s racing circuit, which had been handling record numbers over the past few years, stopped sending its simulcast signal out of its state, resulting in millions of dollars in lost handle each month (and that’s being conservative).
- At the time of this writing, nearly two years after the 2021 Kentucky Derby, we still don’t know the official winner of that race.
- Nearly four years after the 2019 Kentucky Derby, we don’t have one uniform answer to the question, “what is a foul that merits disqualification?”
With all of that in mind, why would any novice who doesn’t have the time to dig into specifics choose to bet on horse racing rather than sports? This is true even in Kentucky, a state that prides itself on being the heartbeat of the racing industry. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the history of horse racing matters too much to someone who’s been to the track once a year, has $100 to gamble with, and has a choice of a Pick Four or an NFL game he/she/they can research a thousand different ways without spending a dime.
Take all of the things we horseplayers bicker about on Twitter and throw all of them out the window for a moment. Instead, let’s ask ourselves this question: What are we, as a sport, doing to ensure we get things as right as possible, as quickly as possible, for the benefit of every stakeholder involved?
Optics matter, and not just for whatever part of racing’s multi-legged stool you happen to reinforce. There are no simple answers to the below questions, but they need to be asked.
- What are we doing to educate new fans, make them more informed fans, and give them the confidence they need to put their money through the betting windows more than once or twice a year?
- Why are we breeding fewer horses, and why are the ones we breed now running fewer times, needing more time after races, and becoming harder for the average fan to develop interests in than thoroughbreds of years past? More importantly, how do we reverse this trend to where we’re breeding to race instead of racing to breed (or, even worse, breeding to sell on a widespread basis)?
- What are we doing to get new owners involved in the game when the economics to do so have never been more challenging for the non-gazillionaires out there?
- How do we keep the mid-sized, 10-12% trainer in business when the 20-25% trainers seem to have all the top bloodstock, owners, and riders on lockdown?
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m a bettor and a marketing/communications guy. I’m not a horseperson, or a veterinarian, or someone who’s intimately familiar with the challenges barns of all sizes face on a daily basis.
(Editor’s note: Wait a minute. He’s actually NOT a pompous know-it-all?)
(Writer’s retort: Shocking, right? Don’t tell anyone. Wouldn’t want to ruin a good shtick.)
I’m also not trying to insinuate the industry isn’t doing anything at all. A number of outlets are doing good work, and, in many cases, doing so while fighting numerous uphill battles. Acting as though they don’t exist, and/or minimizing their efforts, paints a biased picture.
(Also, say what you will about HISA, a well-meaning but imperfect piece of legislation clearly absent input from horsepeople before it was drafted and signed into law. However, it’s attempting to get everything under one roof with one set of rules. We can debate parts of the legislation all day long, but that particular goal is an admirable one.)
Still, there’s more that can be done across the board by everyone in racing’s ecosystem. Acting as though everything is fine and dandy when it isn’t is flat-out delusional, and it’s long past time for the industry to stop kicking the can down the road.
We don’t have to agree on everything in order for this to happen. If anyone knows about not being agreed with by some very vocal members of horse racing Twitter, it’s me (shoot, I got read the riot act once by someone angry I posted resources for victims of domestic violence). We can check our opinions about HISA, people in the game, and almost any other racing matter at the proverbial door.
The important thing we need to agree on is this: Things in horse racing are broken. If the industry is to survive (and maybe even thrive), a lot of things need to be fixed. The answers aren’t small tweaks. They’re huge, foundation-level adjustments that may require short-term sacrifices (a dirty word, I know, but go with it) to ensure the sport is still around for future generations.
The solution to these problems I’ve mentioned isn’t shooting the messenger. The problems are the problems themselves, not people talking about them (a lesson those quick to criticize the media would do well to learn). Whatever solutions are out there will take lots of thought from lots of smart people.
If we don’t find them soon, the consequences will be real and have longstanding effects for everyone. Let’s start the work now.
Excellent recap. Thank you!
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