Human Cost

By Frank Vespe

Ran into my pal the usher the other day at Laurel.

That is, the ex-usher.

Because Laurel -- besieged by nearby tracks with slots-infused purses and battling the collapsing national economy -- no longer needs ushers on normal days.  And so my friend is an ex-usher.  After 50 years.

Once, a track like Laurel employed a small army of ushers to handle the crowds that thronged the facility.  Live racing -- the only gambling game in town -- regularly packed a Laurel grandstand that mystery writer Dick Francis lauded for its comfort and luxury.

Nowadays, the action is largely downstairs, in front of the endless banks of simulcast televisions.  On most days, decent seats at the main simulcast theater can be hard to come by.

And Laurel's grandstand -- suffering from too many years of not-so-benign neglect -- is no longer a place of comfort or luxury.  Even on days when big crowds visit the central Maryland track, the combination of insufficient air conditioning, too many years since a decent paint job, and streaky windows make the grandstand the seat of last resort.  Even in the cold, bettors will huddle outside for the races rather than take in the expansive, cross-track views from the grandstand.

And so, my friend the usher, another victim of our faltering racetrack economy.

"Creative destruction" is the term with which economists describe the workings of the capitalist economy. Creative, in that we're always on to the next big thing; destructive, in that it's the last big thing that is often left behind. From the ashes rises the phoenix.

These days, it can be hard to determine whether from the ashes of closing racetracks will rise a new, stronger game -- or whether the game itself is slated for destruction, the creative part leading to new types of gambling and different sports.

While we may intellectually understand the wisdom, indeed, the necessity of this creative destruction, we are also human.  And as humans, we find change unsettling; we inherently understand that what is being destroyed is not just a faceless company or an obsolete industry; there are lives here, and careers on the line.  And so we hope for creative destruction tempered with mercy, or at least compassion.

Racing is a labor-heavy sport.  It takes a lot of people to put on even one race: trainers, jockeys, backstretch employees, a gate crew, stewards, outriders.  The list is virtually endless.  Add in the labor needs of the venue -- wait staff, bartenders, customer service people, janitorial staff, tellers -- and you've got the recipe for bankruptcy.

It's one of racing's curses, this need for labor.  That won't change.  The vagaries of a dozen undersized people on a dozen skittish horses, coupled with the needs of thousands of hungry and thirsty fans, mean that live racing will always require lots of supporting labor.  Which means that tracks will find economies where they can: ushers, kitchen help, janitors, security.  They'll try to make do with less.

The need for labor is also one of racing's charms.  Racing attracts a potpourri of characters, half rogues' gallery, half Bowery Boys, that give it a raffish goodwill that is -- like so much of the game -- largely out of synch with modern life.

On Friday, as I sat in the grandstand, I couldn't fault Laurel for their decision.  As is the case at so many tracks these days, there was more than enough room for everyone.  Or ten times everyone.

On the other hand, 50 years on the job is a virtual lifetime; a man with such a history is a human archive of the shifting fortunes of a sport and an industry.  You wonder if alternatives exist.

"Call me when you have a horse in," he told me.  "I like to be there when my friends run."

I'll do that, of course.  But, still, it makes you wonder.  If we've learned one thing from witnessing capitalism's creative destruction, it's that everything is temporary: a company, a racetrack, an individual's job.  Perhaps even the old sport itself.

18 Comments

Leave a Comment:

mary

racing needs to wake up and literally smell the roses. the whole venue is changing and the needs of the patrons are what will sustain the sport. It's not fun to go to the races at Laurel, trust me. We raced at Md tracks for the last 24 yrs. and when we went out of town to Del. or Charles Town (pre slots), we were treated like royalty. Not so in MD. Not since Frank DeFrancis died has Md catered to the fan or the horseman. That is the reason, Md racing is where it is. Georgeanne Hale racing secretary in MD is a breath of fresh air, but she can't do it alone.

02 Dec 2008 2:14 PM
DONNA

  As the old saying goes, You have to spend money to make money. Who wants to go to the track and sit on an old decrepid grand stand with dirty windows on top of it? It only makes sense to clean a place up. Give me a nice renovated track like Churchill or Arlington Park, even the beautiful Keeneland. Look how well maintained they are. They all have good crowds. What does that tell you??

02 Dec 2008 4:18 PM
mg

Partner, Mary hit it on the button. Maryland racing hasn't done ANYTHING for the fan qnd little for the horsemen since Frank DeFrancis past. Laurel has become a pitiful venue and is rapidly catching Pimlico which I notice you didn't bother to mention, wisely so. I feel the pain for all the suppot crewa involved. Only slots can fix this mess.

02 Dec 2008 5:41 PM
joe

I'm not relieving current and recent management of the rundown state of Laurel.  But in this I also see the negative impact of owners/trainers placing all their chips on the Breeders' Cup, with fewer prep races-and major races-on their calendars.  I recall the Laurel Futurity into the 80's with stars such as Devil's Bag and Bet Twice, and the cold autumn afternoon when All Along galloped to victory before a throng of fans.  The Breeders' Cup emphasis dealt a fatal knockout to Laurel's championship season, and set the stage for the current sad situation.

02 Dec 2008 5:54 PM
ofelia

I visited Pimlico recently, and I have to say, it does not look better than Laurel. The surrounding area needs redevelopment, the barns are held together with bailiing twine and the grandstand is falling apart. The second jewel in the crown deserves better.

I adore horseracing but I do not see the general public's interest changing in favor of racing.

02 Dec 2008 11:04 PM
Kateinabox

Here in Japan, most of the infields have been turned into family havens. With games, play grounds, and tons of family fun activities. I think that has helped Japan keep its attendance up.

Also easy to use ticket machines. While they still use tellers, they have hundreds of machines that print off your tickets and cash your bets for you. Means more people can bet, less waiting time. And I am not talking about the touch screen ones that used to be at Churchill. Just a big plastic machine, takes your betting card, takes your money, shows on a small screen what you chose, then spits out your ticket. You can do many many tickets at once too. Both buying them and cashing out. Seems very very popular.

Merchandise! When I was at Emerald downs... the gift shop was big, but the items were vague, and many poorly made... My ED shirt didn't make it a month. A jacket i tried on literally broke in house. Here in Japan you can get so many different items with your favorite horse on it. I have folders with Vodka and Yukichan, Deep Impact coin purses, Deep Sky cellphone charms, Japan Cup wind breaker, Meisho Samson key chain, Daiwa Scarlet hat... and the list goes on. haha As Americans, we love to show what we are fans of. But there isn't a good way to do that with horse racing in the US. They have tried. I have a Go Baby Go hat circa 1998 and a Breeders' Cup jacket. A few things here and there, but it all felt like stuff you would get at a golf pro shop. I was able to dress up like a jockey here, cause they have that stuff available. Other than the Derby... most of the merchandise seem to be poorly handled.

But all that merchandise stems from the fact Japan's average racehorse races 5+ years here. So fan bases can grow. There is nothing to be a fan of in American horse racing. Horses need to stay around longer!

On a state level you could market you state-breds. everyone is keen on local pride. Commercials on channels other than TVG and HRTV, print ads in things other than the DRF, BH, and TB Times.

Like Donna said, you have to spend money to make money. While a think a narrowing of your sport might be the right thing to do, for now. We should focus on building QUALITY not quantity. And they will come back. There is racing all year round here in Japan too, but the JRA focuses on quality. The local government racing's facilities are not as nice. And they don't get the same kind of patronage. Quality!

02 Dec 2008 11:59 PM
Bellwether

Ms. Mary is right on time by the way & after Mr. DeFrancis passed Maryland racing went to HELL in a hand basket & HE went to HEAVEN!!!...GET A REEL PROMOTOR... BELLWETHER PRODUCTIONS(SUPERCHARGED V8)...U FOLKS NEED ONE & U NEED IT NOW!!!...GET BUSY!!!...Long Live The King!!!

03 Dec 2008 3:25 AM
Bellwether

ps...modern life is out of synch with HORSE RACING...REALITY & THE TRUTH not the other way around...the real ROGUES GALLERY is on WALL STREET FOLKS...Long Live The HORSE...slots alone will not save OUR NATIONAL TREASURE i can tell u that!!!

03 Dec 2008 3:33 AM
JOE MOLONEY

LAUREL IS SUFFERRING THE SAME FATE AS MOST OTHER TRACKS.

MANAGEMENT REFUSES TO MVE WITH TIMES AND TRY AND ATTRACT THE NEW PLAYERS, IN NY BELMONT MAY HAVE 5,000 PEOPLE ON ANY GIVEN DAY(IF LUCKY) THIS IS A DISGRACE , WHEN 15 MINUTES AWAY THERE IS 9 MILLION PEOPLE.

IN EUROPE THERE WOULD BE ONE LESS RACING DAY A WEEK AND THAT TIME WOULD BE SPENT PROMOTING THE SPORT TO THIS BIG AUDIENCE,COMPANY DAY OUTS,CORPORATIONS ETC.

PROVIDING AMENNITIES FOR KIDS AND FAMILIES, GIVE AWAYS ,BIG JACKPOTS AND EDUCATING THES NEW FANS.

THE SPORT IS THE BEST BUT THE COMPETITION OF CASINOS AND MOTOR SPORTS ARE WINNING THE NEW PROSPECTIVE FANS, LOOK AT ANY LAS VEGAS CASINO THEY FLY PEOPLE IN FOR FREE JUST TO GET THEM HOOKED, WHAT DOES RACING DO, NOTHING.

THE ONLY PLACE THAT I SAW AN EFFORT TO COMBAT THIS WAS IN KEENELAND AND IN LONESTAR AT BREEDERS CUP THERE.

IN ASCOT THE MEETING IS RUN AS SHOWCASE OF YEAR, PEOPLE GET DRESSED UP HAVE A GREAT DAY OUT, IT IS A DATE ON SOCIAL CALENDER.

HERE IT HAS GOT SO BAD THAT PEOPLE LOOK DOWN ON YOU AND THINK THAT YOU ARE A DEGENERATE IF YOU SAY YOU GOING TO TRACK.THE ONLY WAY FORWARD IS IF MANAGEMENT AT TRACKS CHANGE THEIR ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE CUSTOMER. THE PLAYING FIELD HAS CHANGED WITH CASINOS,ONLINE POKER,MOTOR SPORTS ETC.

IT IS TIME FOR MANAGEMENT TO GET THE FINGER OUT.

IF I HAD BELMONT FOR SPRING/SUMMER MEET< THERE WOULD BE 1 LESS DAY RACING, BUT I WOULD HAVE 10,000 PLUS AT THE TRACK EVERYDAY AND WOULD HOPE TO HAVE 20,000 PLUS AFTER 1 MEET.

THE POTENTIAL IS HUGE, BUT THERE PR IS DISMAL.

03 Dec 2008 10:35 AM
Frank

Thanks for weighing in, folks.

Joe - interesting observation.  In fact, the very concept of the Breeders' Cup was in part a pilfering of the DC International, which was the first American race to draw significant overseas attention.

MG- Not too many people have been stronger advocates for slots than I've been.  We need them to compete.  But... they alone won't fix what ails racing.  

Donna - agreed - people demand more out of their sports venues than they used to.  That's a fact that racing has largely ignored.

Mary - I agree re: waking up and smelling the roses.  Though I can't say that I've ever felt like royalty when my horses ran at Del Park...

03 Dec 2008 11:36 AM
John

Well done, Joe. nice that someone remembers that. Laurel's fall began with the International. When I first began to attend races as a reporter, the press box was brimming for that event with racing writers from Italy, France, England . . . The Breeders' Cup destroyed that race. Then, ironically, the Laurel Futurity was forced to the turf to survive. The BC clobbered a lot of great fall races. Even the still big ones, like the JCGC, truthfully, only run two or three horses deep anymore.

Laurel is still a nice place to watch the races. Lovely old paddock. I wish they would stop cutting corners on food, though. Sure, the dining room is passable, but most people want to eat in the grandstand and the clubhouse and the food there is bad. If Ruby wasn't working the soup counter, there would be no reason to go there at all. And bring back Ms. Margaret!  

03 Dec 2008 12:36 PM
Jeanne W

MD had a long and hearty tradition of fine late autumn racing.  Read up on the early 1900's and you find that once things wound down in NY, MD was abuzz.  They had a great program and filled a late season need in the era before racing was a 12 month a year sport, everyplace.

First, NY went year round and then a bit more than a decade later it was the Breeders' Cup swallowing up late season fixtures like a kid eating candy.

03 Dec 2008 1:17 PM
SalemPoe

If you want to get really depressed over conditions at the track (grandstand & backside both), visit Beulah Park.

03 Dec 2008 1:29 PM
mike

I was stabled near Freddy and his wife at Belview Hall 40 years ago,good people

03 Dec 2008 1:43 PM
Sandy W

Your blog really woke me up.  I hadn't realized that the ushers had disappeared at my local tracks, but now I realize it has been years since I've seen one, except in the highly reserved areas.  We used to have an usher stationed in the aisle where our box was located.  He helped guests and newcomers find their seats, helped older people bring down their belongings, and chased out grandstanders that just hopped into a seat.  Now, there's not enough people at the live track to worry about who will sit where.  And no one to help the last remaining seniors carry their bags. How sad.

03 Dec 2008 4:43 PM
Al

No one can blame the pathetic service at the Maryland tracks on the decline of the DC International and the Fall turf festival.  Even after the International began its decline, the DeFrancis Dash rose in prestige for several years.  For the last decade or so, the moment you set foot on the grounds at Laurel or Pimlico you feel like you are inconveniencing the employees there.  Plus, when you are struggling to attract business, what does it say to the average paying customer (without a horseman's badge) when he has to open his wallet as many as four times to four different people before even getting to a betting window?  Timonium is the only Maryland track worth my time these days.  

03 Dec 2008 4:49 PM
hardtobeafan

I am a breeder/owner who races homebreds and attends races as a (very) smalltime bettor.  From personal experience, the racing experience SUCKS.  I find it hilarious that a televised dog show can be made more interesting than a horse race.  The competing horses and their connections could so easily be turned into local celebrities BUT horses don't last and luckily some people realize that dying celebrities are something to avoid publicizing.  It's a two way street.  The industry needs to be more educated in preventing and avoiding injuries rather than just dismissing them as "part of the game" and the general public needs to be shown the competitive spirit of these horses that occasionally die doing something they love.  The racehorse owners and trainers need to be treated well by the tracks in person and financially, which could include paying back to 8th place (or jock fee back to 10th) in a 10 horse field so as to provide a reasonable chance of paying some of the race expenses if your horse belongs in the race which would encourage full fields.  The bettors need to be provided enjoyable facilities that still promote the horseracing product rather than throwing it in as an afterthought.  I love to watch the horses compete but can't see a darn thing live from any of the 6 tracks I've attended races at and the simulcast viewpoints are boring, though at least I can see the race.  We need a uniform minimum breeder's incentive package in every state that encourages the middle tier of racehorse production rather than the lowest tier which shouldn't be producing horses or the highest tier which doesn't need the money.  Something reasonable that promotes breeding durable successful racehorses not just momma-had-a-uterus horses or top stakes horses, horses that stick around and help put on solid full-field races and can become celebrities.  The root issue though is that a horse race needs to be an enjoyable and desirable experience rather than a rude, abrasive or upsetting experience.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once delivered a classic quote, by saying that he could not exactly define porn, but "I know it when I see it."  That's how the ideal racing experience seems to me.  I can easily visualize an enjoyable, sustainable and successful racing industry but the vision seems to disappear when the selfish participants fall on the potential income like a pack of starving dogs on a plate of scraps and all that's left at the end is a torn up mess and most of the scraps ground into the mud.

03 Dec 2008 5:08 PM
Bill

Simulcasting has killed the live racing experience all over.  I used to avidly look forward to attending the track as a weekend warrior. I really enjoyed going to the paddock to check out the horses prior to each race.  I got acquainted with the available racing stock at the Maryland tracks and followed the careers of the best ones.  Not many horses shipped back in the sixties and seventies, so it was easier to keep track .  Now, horses ship all over the place and it's hard to get a handle on them.  That is one of the big differences I have seen in the last 40 years.  I enjoy simulcast betting, but it makes it more difficult to become familiar with the horses, their idiosyncracies, etc.  I don't get to see live horse racing very often and I'm sure I miss a lot - especially the physical condition of horses which you don't get to see by watching a TV set. It's a very different game today.

04 Dec 2008 11:23 AM

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