Have Horseplayers Lost Touch With the Horse?

If you’re a racing fan, especially in the New York area, you can tune in to “Belmont Park Live” on the days it airs and be guided through four races by handicapper Andy Serling and two of the sport’s most knowledgeable observers of horses in the paddock and on the racetrack, Richie Migliore and Maggie Wolfendale. And moving the show along smoothly is host Jason Blewitt. It is a great way to connect with the sport.

While Serling, Migliore, and Wolfendale provide an invaluable service to horseplayers, what they are doing is essentially what horseplayers did themselves years ago, when there was an actual visual connection with the horses. That connection unfortunately has been lost through technology, which in many ways has made the life of a horseplayer much easier. But has it also become less rewarding?

The sport of Thoroughbred racing has most definitely evolved from a technological standpoint, and the racing fan/horseplayer has merely been swept along for the ride in a constant attempt to keep pace. We can ask how racing fans and horseplayers have changed over the years, but it is more appropriate to ask how racing has changed, and, despite all the modern conveniences nowadays in the world of pari-mutuel wagering, has that change come at a cost?

First off, let us establish that there are two types of racing fans. Both types are everyday people who fuel the sport, either through their intense passion and love of the horse or through the thrill of wagering. The sport could not exist without the latter. With both types it is all about the rush the horse provides and the sheer enjoyment they get interweaving their lives into this wondrous world of action, beauty, and countless thrills and agonies.

If we have established that are two types of racing fans now, can we also establish the fact that the horse lovers, who often worship these remarkable athletes and have a tendency to anthropomorphize them, have little desire to wager on them, at least not major amounts of money. Of course there are exceptions to everything. And can we also establish the fact that the big-time horseplayers are not as emotionally invested in the horses and are not the ones who typically start equine Facebook pages, keep up scrapbooks, start horse rescue organizations, or have photos and paintings of horses hanging in their home. Both love the horses and most of all the sport in their own way, but possess a different mental approach on how that love manifests itself.

I am not a millennial nor am I a member of Generation X, who now make up a good portion of the crowd on big race days. I am a good old fashioned baby boomer, so I do remember racing when there was little separating racing fans. Back then, you knew all the horses, you read all the magazines, some started scrapbooks, and, yes, you wagered on the horses. The majority of racing fans/horseplayers were known as $2 bettors. We came out to the track in droves, many by bus and train, and mingled with the men in hats and sport jackets, as well as the few in T-shirts and undershirts. The vast majority were males and the smell of cigar smoke and beer was intoxicating. As equine heroes like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Forego, Affirmed and Alydar, and Spectacular Bid infiltrated mainstream America throughout the 1970s, the crowds became younger and we saw an increase in the number of females, who became more heavily involved.

Yes, we all gambled through the ‘60s, but our only exotic bet was the one and only daily double of the day on the first and second race. There were no exactas, trifectas or pick anythings until the 1970s; only win place, and show or pass the race. There was no simulcasting and no off-track wagering until New York OTB in 1971. There wasn’t even Sunday racing until the ‘70s.

Now, racing fans can sit at home and choose between any one of a dozen bets at any one of a dozen racetracks. We can bet on our cell phones, our iPads, our laptops, our computers, on any racetrack in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia at any hour of the day or night. We can get notices when our favorite horses are entered or have worked, get notified when the horses are in the post parade, one-minute to post or in the starting gate. So, yes, the racing fan/horseplayer today has it made…but again at what cost?

Today’s horseplayer has for the most part lost touch with one important element of the sport…the horse.

Yes, we see horses on selected local television shows like “Belmont Park Live,” where experts pretty much tell us what we’re looking at – which horses look good and bad in their opinion. As mentioned, that is what most horseplayers used to do themselves.

Racing fans look at casino/racino gamblers sitting at slot machines all day mindlessly pulling a lever and are amazed how they refuse to incorporate the thrill of gambling into something far more exiting and stimulating like horseracing, where you actually have to think and analyze and where the rewards are so much more gratifying, and not let your brain atrophy from such blatant nonuse.

But, you know what? In some ways, compared to racing fans of the past, that is the way some may see today’s horseplayer, as he sits at home continuously pushing keys on his cell phone all day, entrapped in a world of numbers and technology. Bettors used to concoct their own speed figures; now it is done for us, whether, Beyers, Brisnet, Timeform, Ragozin or Thoro-Graph. The more the horseplayer gets in the routine of spending an entire “day at the races” in front of a keyboard, the more he distances himself from the beautiful, noble creature on whom he is wagering. These new methods of wagering are convenient when one can’t get to the track, but most prefer just staying home.

Look, technology is wonderful, and enables us to do things with little physical effort, while expanding our cerebral horizons. Past performances give us more information than ever before.

But what of that special, cathartic connection with the horses themselves? It used to be where the bettors would actually make it a point to see these horses close up in the paddock, post parade, and galloping to the post, and make their final determinations. They would line the walking ring 10-deep to get an intimate look at the horses, even if just to bet on the pretty one. The horses were flesh and blood creatures who they got to know on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. They knew if they were bays or grays or chestnuts and if they had white ankles or a blaze. Some more knowledgeable fans would go the paddock to see if a horse had a grass foot. If someone mentioned a horse’s name, you could close your eyes and envision the silks they wore. They may have often been called the 4 horse or the 5 horse by many, but they were living, breathing athletes who projected great beauty and grace. Now in most cases, those horses are faceless creatures whose number you punch on your cell phone hundreds of miles away.

In short, we have lost contact with the beautiful steeds on which we are wagering. They are devoid of personality and physical characteristics, and in many cases are no more intimate than pictures on a slot machine. I’m not referring to those few who we idolize like American Pharoah or Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra or Songbird. There is no one more passionate than horse lovers. I’m referring to horses in general, most of whom are not major stakes winners and who go out there day after day and run their hearts out in front of empty grandstands.

Yes, we now have the technology to watch the replays of races, and we can scrutinize over them a dozen times, dissecting a race. But we have lost something far more precious. Back then, you saw a race once and that was it. So, how can you remember what you saw? It’s simple. When you see something only once it becomes imprinted in the mind’s eye, and it is that live image that you remember so vividly for decades to come. It was not only the way you saw it, it was the way you wanted to see it. They were not just horses on a computer or TV screen, but larger than life works of art brought right up close with the use of binoculars. You not only remember that image of Damascus and Dr. Fager charging down the Aqueduct stretch, their colorful silks vibrant and alive, you can feel the cool late September breeze in your face, you can hear the roar of 55,000 cheering fans, you can smell those cigars wafting through the grandstand. They all form a single image that becomes ingrained in your psyche.

As mentioned earlier, racing fans today have experienced unforgettable moments that have rocked grandstands around the country, but that is a rarity and occurs only when we are on the verge of seeing history made. I’m talking about experiencing a live full card of racing, binoculars hanging from your neck, Racing Form in hand. How many racing fans today have never experienced watching a race live with binoculars? The sweeping panorama of a race and the lush green backdrop of the track is right in front of you, yet many still watch the race on a TV screen.

No one is insinuating that racing technology is a bad thing. It is actually pretty remarkable. But why rely only on that and give up the true essence of Thoroughbred racing and what it was meant to be? Why not go out to a racetrack once or twice a month and replace your cell phone with a pair of binoculars? Don’t just watch the races live; absorb them, experience them. Get to know the horses, not just as betting tools, but as beautiful, powerful, and courageous athletes who are born to do what they do, where competing is as natural to them as your next breath. Watch them, feel them. Let them hear your cheers, whether they are California Chrome or $20,000 claimers. The closer we get to the horses, figuratively and literally, and the more they become individuals, perhaps the better their chances of one day finding a good home.

I am fully aware that my pulpit overlooks an empty congregation, but if even a handful of people listen and attempt to experience the racing world into which I was drawn so many years ago, it will be a fruitful endeavor. Continue to embrace technology, but never forget how to use the computer with which we are born, where images are stamped forever.

There is a scene in the movie “Atlantic City,” where an aging Burt Lancaster tells a young man who had never seen the Atlantic Ocean before, “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.” In many ways the essence of Thoroughbred racing, like the Atlantic Ocean, has remained unchanged. Although it looks the same in every way, you should have seen Thoroughbred racing in those days. We still can if we just open our eyes and our mind.

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