(Originally published in the April 18, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)
Not too many years ago racing had one less fan. She was a “sometimer,” one of the many who watch the Derby, the Preakness, maybe the Belmont Stakes (all gr. I) if it appears a horse might duplicate the feat of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. This casual observer loved the beauty and grace of the horse but knew nothing of stakes, furlongs, stud farms, or Bluegrass.
One weekend she met her father for a visit at a halfway point, and Keeneland seemed a pastoral backdrop for their reunion. They watched a couple races, then wandered among the barns where she could caress a few muzzles and murmur sweet nothings into pricked, fuzzy ears.
During one such encounter, they were approached by a man in jeans and a cowboy hat who introduced them properly to Flaming Dixie, introduced himself, then went about his business of pulling one of Dixie’s teeth. The woman was worried: Would it hurt? Couldn’t he give her some novocaine?
They walked farther along. Once again they were approached by the man in the cowboy hat, this time holding out his curled fingers, inviting her to open her palm. Upon it he laid the newly pulled baby tooth. The woman didn’t wince or complain.
Right then, she became a fan.
Folks in racing lament that the sport isn’t attracting new fans, wonder why it isn’t, and press for slot machines and casino-like atmospheres at America’s racetracks to improve the lure of the game. But the allure of the sport is not in the gambling on it, but in the personalities in it.
We all remember those childhood friends who went in together on a horse, rented a big yellow school bus to take them to the Derby because that’s all they could afford, and watched in amazement as Funny Cide romped under the wire first.
The following year Smarty Jones earned the appellation the “People’s Horse.” America was crazy for him. Why? Because we learned he had survived a life-threatening skull fracture sustained in a gate-schooling accident. Because we chuckled that he was named for his owner’s mother who had been known as “Smarty” in her childhood due to her smart aleck tendencies. Because we learned of his jockey Stewart Elliott’s struggle with alcohol and admired his hard-fought sobriety.
The next year, America latched on to Afleet Alex after he lost the Derby and had no hope of becoming a Triple Crown winner.
So why? Because a little girl named Alexandra Scott battled her cancer by selling lemonade at her front-yard stand, giving the money to her doctors to help find a cure for other children. Afleet Alex’s owners donated a portion of their winnings to Alex’s Lemonade Stand.
America cheers for the personalities.
It appears Animal Planet gets this. Its current series Jockeys shadows seven riders during last fall’s Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. The show’s tag line is “Get to know the jockeys who risk it all for the love of horse racing.” Introducing potential fans to the game’s players, allowing watchers to get to know them and form attachments to them, creates an interest and a bond that will continue beyond the series.
Racing must promote its personalities: in short features and talk shows on television; in articles in non-trade magazines; through more documentaries like “The First Saturday in May;” with fan appreciation festivals featuring jockeys, trainers, and horses; even personal appearances at coffeehouses, sporting goods stores, or fairs. The more exposure the sport gets, the more opportunities the sport has of attracting new fans to its personalities, which ultimately results in higher attendance at racetracks, more wagering, and more interest in what it takes to become a racehorse owner or breeder. Racing needs people to feel a connection with the sport.
The woman who met Flaming Dixie and Larry Jones in the shedrow at Keeneland went on to follow the campaigns of Jones’ Hard Spun, Proud Spell, and Eight Belles. She tracks Flaming Dixie’s half-siblings Grasshopper and Turf War, racing with Neil Howard and Mark Casse, respectively. She has made some money (and lost some money) on wagers. She has traveled to Keeneland, Lone Star Park, Santa Anita, and Fair Grounds. She subscribes to an industry trade publication and volunteers her time with a retired racehorse organization. She thinks horse racing is awesome, all because of a couple personalities.
Racing enthusiast Susan Hayden Kennedy is an English teacher in Dallas-Fort Worth.