Wiener dogs and ostriches and dwarves: game's savior?

By Brad Edwards, Tote Board Brad Blog 

Fans came out in droves Sunday April 5th for the 9 race card a Golden Gate. 11,462 in paid attendance availed themselves to the popular dollar day promotion, which constituted the biggest on hand crowd since at least 1995 when 11,087 fans took in the presidents day program. No attendance surpassing Sundays mark was released by the track, although it is likely larger crowds had flocked to the east bay track in the pre-simulcast era. "I've been here since 1980" said second leading trainer at the current meet Steve Sherman, "and I can't recall a single day when it was this packed." Trainer Steve Miyadi, when asked the last time he had seen so many people ontrack responded with his trademarked brassiness: "Santa Anita".

Considerably more than this stated ~11k were on hand, however, as kids are admitted free and the track also experienced a marked increase in attendance of non-paying horsemen and their guests.

The weather couldn't have been better and a freshly conceived promotion also attracted much new blood. The Dachshund Derby, a race for qualifying wiener dogs, seemed to be a much bigger draw than the horses. While my hat is off to the marketing department for putting it together with such unprecedented success, I was initially embarrassed at the prospect of people's canine pets racing to an unfurled toilet paper roll finish line is a greater draw than the actual equine athletes competing for purse money well in excess of a hundred grand.

That was when i noticed the Hawthorne Park feed on the monitors. Weiner dog racing didn't seem so farcical any longer as i watched jockeys in Chicago mount ostriches and spring from the starting gate in a racing spectacle worthy of PT Barnum. The cheers heard via simulcast seemed much louder during the ostrich races than they did during the actual horse races.

I still found this disheartening that fans would have far more appreciation for such silliness than the grandness of the game in itself. Solving the puzzle of a race through analytical handicapping is not so enticing nor is the pageantry of this sport of kings nor the powerful athletic performances nor the split second jockey descions made on the back of an animal traveling at 40mph. I understand horse racing has a much steeper learning curve than most other sports, and learning to decipher the hieroglyphics in a racing form is a daunting task for many neophytes of the game. Nonetheless, I felt humanity had slipped yet another notch toward complete Paris Hiltonization.

Then I remembered another sport facing declining attendance and nearing obscurity. Baseball. Yes, the great American pastime itself stared down a similar fate after World War II when changing preferences marginalized the sport in much of the country. Even in the great baseball town of St. Louis, things were so bad, Browns owner Bill Veeck (and later Suffolk Downs frontman) resorted to legendary promotions intended to put butts in seats when the sporting product did not.

The most famous of these was adding a dwarf to the teams roster who was summarily walked on four straight pitches to the delight of the St. Louis fans. Veeck's coup caused an immediate rule change requiring commissioner approval of new contracts, so to preserve the integrity of the game.

He was giving the fans what the wanted, and racing should not be ashamed to do the same. Baseball is a top tier sport now. When Veeck sent 3'7" Eddie Gaedel to the plate in 1951, horse racing was America's most popular sport by far, and boxing was a solid second. If a few wiener dogs and ostrich races help foment a resurgence in our great game, we should all set our snooty purity ideals aside and give the fans what they want.

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