Whither Racing? - By Bob Heleringer

(Originally published in the June 5, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

One week after the Preakness, Andrew Beyer wrote a column in the Daily Racing Form that all but said horse racing in America is on life support.

Extremely pessimistic, even by Beyer’s usual standards, he allowed that ”the sport’s day-to-day product has never been worse.”

Seconding the motion, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan lamented, on an edition of ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters,” that racing in the United States is at a nadir, with racetracks closing and most of those still in operation having deserted grandstands. The few fans who do show up are generally old enough “to have voted for Ike.” Alternative gaming is all that stands between some tracks and the bulldozer.

As Beyer noted in his column, total handle at America’s racetracks “plunged from $14.7 billion...to $12.3 billion” in just the last two years, as droves of our one-time loyal patrons seek alternative entertainment—of which there is an abundance. Even with allowances for a recession that seems to be recovery-resistant, racing is not currently flourishing anywhere. It survives as a popular, semi-profitable enterprise only at the so-called “boutique” meets at Keeneland, Saratoga, and Del Mar. (Perhaps Monmouth Park’s “less is more“ experiment this summer will add that track to this exclusive company.) As the Globe’s Ryan sadly noted, racing today has nothing but questions and no answers.

In law school I studied the legal philosophy of one of the most brilliant intellects in American law—Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. But my favorite quote from Justice Holmes isn’t derived from any of his erudite pronouncements on law, philosophy, or political science—fields he continues to influence 75 years after his death. At a speech he gave in 1890 to a group of Union Army veterans, Holmes—who had served the Union cause with great distinction as a thrice-wounded infantry captain—told his aging comrades: “I believe a man must be involved in the action and passion of his time, at the peril of being judged never to have lived.”

Most people reading this are not board members of The Jockey Club, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Breeders’ Cup, the Jockeys’ Guild, the national Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, or the American Horse Council. Not to disparage their efforts in any way (far from it), but racing’s devoted fans ultimately will determine whether the sport disappears from the fabric of American life. True lovers of Thoroughbred racing must become more knowledgeable about the game and lend their time and talents to grassroots organizations that aggressively promote racing in state legislatures, communities-at-large, and other such venues. If there isn’t such an entity in your state, start one.

Do your state representative and state senator know your name...and your passion for racing? If every serious racing fan became a vociferous advocate for the cause, think what an impact that would have.

I am gently hustled from time to time for contributions to this or that charitable event. My donation is always the same: a day at the races including a clubhouse box for six at Churchill Downs, six free programs, and dinner for six at a nice restaurant in town. (Alas, they have to pick their own winners.)

When is the last time you considered doing something such as this, or just going out to the track with some of your uninitiated friends to introduce them to the sport’s excitement (and possible profits)? How about joining a partnership (some for as little as $500) and actually experience owning a share of a Thoroughbred? My four sisters and I have immensely enjoyed the highs and lows of the one- and sometimes two-horse stable we inherited from our sainted mother.

In the final furlong, whether racing in the U.S. survives is not up to the elite board members of racing’s numerous interest groups, however dedicated they are. Racing’s future, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, will be determined by the “action and passion” of its most committed fans.

Bob Heleringer is an attorney, former racing official, and former Kentucky state legislator. He teaches Equine Regulatory Law at the University of Louisville’s Equine Studies Program.

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