Let me tell you a story: I was out of town over the President’s Day holiday, and when I returned home, I was curious about who had won the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park. I like the looks of this horse Old Fashioned and wanted to see if he’d taken a step toward the Derby. Now, I’m not wired at home—more about that later—and had missed the paper, so what to do, other than wait for next week’s edition of The Blood-Horse? I thought I’d call Oaklawn. The conversation went like this:
OP: “Hello. Oaklawn Park.”
RL: “Could you please tell me who won the Southwest Stakes yesterday?”
OP: “Hold, please.”
I’m put on hold. Music plays. I drum my fingers on the kitchen table.
OP: “Did you mean the featured race on Monday, not yesterday?”
RL: “Yes, I’m sorry. Monday.” (One of the maladies of the retired life is that one never knows for sure what day of the week it is.)
RL: “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know the numbers. Do you have the name of the winner?”
OP: “Hold, please.”
OP: “Hello? The name of the winner was Old Fashioned.”
RL: “Thank you. Goodbye.”
“5-3-6-7.” I sat at the table and contemplated this answer. I could think of no other sport in which you’d get such a response. “Hello? Texas Stadium? Who won the game yesterday?” “The team wearing red; I’m not sure where they were from.”
Well, OK, maybe at some small-time drag strip, but Oaklawn is not small-time. Smarty Jones ran here. Curlin ran here. Azeri ran here. And, OK, maybe for some small-time races, but the Southwest is an acknowledged Derby prep. And, OK, maybe for some teams, competitors, or horses, but Old Fashioned is a legitimate Derby threat; Haskin had him at No. 1 on his “Derby Dozen.”
No, the answer “5-3-6-7” must be unique in this circumstance to horse racing.
And “5-3-6-7” has, I think, something to do with how horse racing presents itself to the public and something to do with the future health of the game.
Obsessive readers of “Final Turn” may know that I am not a bettor; I’ve written about that here in the past. And hence not typical of the horse racing fan. And God knows I’m an oddball in my inability to find the results of a race online faster than I could have dialed the phone.
Still, there’s something to be said for packaging the sport for me, or at least for those like me. That’s the way most people enjoy football or basketball or NASCAR or the Olympics or golf or curling. OK, forget curling—you have to be a complete fanatic to watch curling, and no one bets on the matches. But if horse racing doesn’t want to end up with popularity somewhere around that of curling, it had better do something about the way it’s packaged and do it quickly.
We have exactly one race that 80% of Americans care about, and, with careful packaging, the races leading up to that one could become popular. But it is not careful packaging to reduce the results of the race to “5-3-6-7.” The last thing we need is to take the horses out of the game and leave only numbers behind. There are players at Oaklawn who never watch a live horse race, merely pulling a lever to bet on a race that has already been run. If that’s the future of the game, count me out.
Am I making too much out of all this? Perhaps. It was one phone call to one track about one race. Maybe it was a day with a temp answering the phone. Maybe I caught someone on a bad day who knew who Old Fashioned was and how important the Southwest was. Maybe I put her off-stride by getting my days mixed up. Maybe no one cares anymore about people who phone for information like that, when anyone—well, almost anyone—can get all the information he or she needs online.
Maybe. But for me, Old Fashioned was not just the five horse in the ninth race. He and his cousins are the reasons I follow the races, and horse racing needs fans like me, too. The future of the sport must not be just “5-3-6-7.”
Robert Laurence is retired from teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School and now looks after equally retired horses near Hindsville, Ark.