The Thoroughbred community, like the country, is enduring a string of bad years. I often wonder what it will take for our sport to survive. Recently, in my meditative state (that translates to a second cup of coffee), I recalled the Zen parable of the man who was walking in the jungle and chanced to stumble upon a hungry tiger. He took off running until he came to the edge of a dangerous precipice. The tiger lunged. The man leapt and grabbed a dangling vine 10 feet down the cliff. Just then two mice came out of a small hole in the side of the mountain and started gnawing on the vine. Looking around, the man saw a beautiful blackberry growing on a bush nearby. Just as his lifeline snapped, he picked the berry, popped it in his mouth, and exclaimed, “What a deliciously sweet blackberry this is!”
Some people, with their world crumbling about them, are able to remain in the moment. When our leaders are faced with overcoming a malaise of epic proportions as we have now, they would do well to remain in the moment. The historian in me, like the handicapper, knows the value of never ignoring the past. I also know that when there is a well-bred first timer in the post parade, coat gleaming, walking confidently, head up, ears pricked, it’s best to be in the moment and act accordingly. Forget the odds. No past performances exist. It’s a good old-fashioned leap of faith that our industry needs to make. That maiden, like any other Thoroughbred, is that sweet blackberry, ripe for the picking.
It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate to figure out how more folks could become interested in Thoroughbred racing. We’ve already got the most important part of the equation: the horse. So how do we get people involved? In education circles it’s called engagement. Find out what they know (prior knowledge), what they care about, and what constitutes their comfort zone.
Success is the best motivator. It’s an investment in people. Up here in my little corner of the Northwest, Portland Meadows involved the uninitiated by creating “the people’s horse.” The brainchild of Will Alempijevic, the track’s general manager, Mystacallie, a 4-year-old filly, began her racing career in the barn of trainer Ben Root, but was co-owned by the people.
The lightly-raced filly became part of a promotion to bring more young people to the track. In concert with local radio station 95.5-FM (The Game Sportsradio), Portland Meadows promised to match the filly’s seasonal earnings as a donation to the emergency relief fund of the Oregon National Guard.
It was as if the ghost of Seabiscuit, responding to the return of hard times, took over. Nobody could have predicted that Mystacallie would win 7 of 14 starts. Her earnings totaled just more than $30,000. Not a great deal of money by most tracks’ standards, but definitely put to good use by the Guard.
The bigger picture shows that people felt connected to something much bigger than themselves. That this drama played out at Portland Meadows, a Magna Entertainment-owned facility facing extinction, is even more remarkable. Sometimes the little guy has something to show the rest of the world.
People who make up Portland Meadows, that is, those who attend the races; those who own, train, and ride the horses; and those who work there just might be having a little more fun than those at larger venues.
I loved Silverbulletday in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), but I have no silver bullet now. No magic words, no “easy button” for the ills of Thoroughbred racing. Still, I know what I know. Make the sport user-friendly. Don’t underestimate the sensibilities or intelligence of the audience. Learn from the past, but usher in a future that’s inclusive. Have one national racing channel. Stop the glut of racing that only underscores an inferior product. Races with five-horse fields and a scratch or two cannot continually be offered to the public. Embrace the aesthetic and the natural drama. They are the hook.
Finally, and just for fun, think of the two 2008 Eclipse winners for older male and older female. Take the last two letters of his name and then the first three letters of her name. Form two words. (While eating a blackberry) you’ll find the answer.
Bruce Greene is a former correspondent for The Blood-Horse who now lives and writes in Portland, Ore