The climate is as bad as I’ve seen in my 19 years with this publication. Racing and breeding, already facing serious challenges going into the recession, now face an even larger and more daunting list of crises. The time to act is now, before Thoroughbred racing retreats to county fair status or goes away altogether.
The majority of our readers have an economic stake in the business, so I don’t need to detail the predicaments we face. Suffice it to say that Thoroughbred racing is on life support. Investment and operating capital have evaporated and the four major sources of replenishment—handle, new-owner investment, racetrack entrepreneurship, and credit—are bone dry.
What can be done? Simple. Make racing fashionable once again, rebuild the fan base, and return racehorse ownership to a proud and profitable venture.
Well, perhaps it’s not so simple. The various associations that shape this industry have chipped away at these objectives for two decades with little success. However, Americans are notoriously fickle and impressionable. There’s no reason why a professionally managed, well-funded, long-term national marketing and public-relations effort couldn’t rekindle America’s love affair with Thoroughbred racing. When I was a kid, we avoided eating pork due to the fear of trichinosis. Today, thanks to a terrific, long-term marketing campaign, pork is the “other white meat,” a healthy alternative to beef.
Of course, properly prepared, pork is a tasty experience. A newcomer’s visit to the typical racetrack is not. But cleaning up the racetrack experience shouldn’t be too difficult. Just look at the vibrant environment already pulsing on the casino side of today’s racino facility.
Can we set a goal of doubling the popularity of the sport? Why not? Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, recently told me there are some 7.4-million core racing fans in the United States. Doubling this number is within the realm of reason and would lead to a surge in handle and a much-needed bump in purses.
And speaking of handle and purses, it’s time for owners to stand up and demand their fair share of the take-out. In the days before simulcasting, tracks and horsemen shared take-out equally. But racing was late to the Internet revolution and allowed crafty offshore hubs to highjack a substantial portion of the wagering pie. Today, third-party bet-takers siphon off unconscionable fees, leaving a pittance for horsemen. The time has come to change the pricing model and more fairly compensate Thoroughbred owners for their financial risks.
Increasing the popularity of the sport and improving financial opportunity would help lure new owners to the game. But we must go further. Although progress has been made since the star-crossed 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), many issues of integrity are yet to be resolved. Some problems are chronic; the specter of illicit drugs continues to haunt the backside. Other challenges are looming; past posting is growing more common thanks to our 30-year-old tote-system infrastructure.
The capital provided by Thoroughbred owners is a crucial factor in the survival and growth of our sport. Improving the economic opportunity and taking racing to a new level of popularity and integrity—making it “cool” to own a racehorse—would attract a wave of new owners and interesting personalities to the sport.
Of course, none of this will happen without strong leadership. Decisive, empowered leadership is the key to making any sport prosper and grow. The new sport of “Ultimate Fighting” comes to mind. It has experienced incredible growth because it has a single point of management control. In contrast, racing is out of control. Like a driverless car racing down a mountain road, it careens uncontrollably toward some ugly fate. In the past, we’ve made two half-hearted stabs at supporting a national racing commissioner. Unfortunately, in both cases their organizations spent more time putting out intra-industry fires than exercising the bold leadership so desperately needed.
Shall we give this approach one more try? I confess that I don’t have the answer. But I do know that unless we come together as an industry, our future is bleak. In a 1959 speech, Sen. John F. Kennedy opined that, “When written in Chinese the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” The crisis is upon us. We are in danger. Let us seize the opportunity.
Stacy Bearse is president and CEO of Blood-Horse Publications.