Racinos: Delivering the Big Horse for the Little Guy?

Courtesy Quinella Queen of Turf Luck

Fresh off a trip up I-35 to Canterbury Park's fine presentation of the Claiming Crown, where the kind and courteous Ted Grevelis took time from his preparations for live blogging of the day to show a few out-of-towners the best seats in the house, I'm trying to catch up on the racing world news I missed while dodging deadlines at work.

As far as I can tell, the only things worth mentioning this week are: Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra, Saratoga, Del Mar, some podunk race in WV, Saratoga, racing is dying, Saratoga, Rachel Alexandra, never-ending NYRA saga, Rachel, Saratoga, Rachel, Saratoga...

This glut of East Coast-centric coverage is mildly irksome since out here in the Iowa cornfields, we are far, far from the likes of Rachel Alexandra or the Saratoga crowd of big-name trainers, owners, and jockeys. I'll not get a chance to visit the Spa this year, and every bit of Saratoga coverage serves to remind me that trying to follow along from home is vastly inferior to being there. (You might recall William Murray has an apt metaphor for viewing races on a screen.)

To add to my chagrin, quite a bit of the racing world seems to fault Mine That Bird's connections for depriving the racing public of a showdown at the Monmouth Corral. It seems like every journalist on earth is now asking Chip Woolley, "Why West Virginia?" Bloggers whine that a win in the WV Derby means nothing, and that the move detracts from the Kentucky Derby winner's already dubious stature. An underlying tone in much of the Mine That Bird coverage seems to imply that running in a G-2 at a racino with slots-inflated purses is not really racing.

To which, I say: Pshaw! Or, in modern terms: Give me a break!  Mine That Bird's visit to West Virginia might be the best thing that could happen to the racing industry this year.

While the Internet, advance deposit wagering, and off-track betting parlors have allowed track handle to defy geography, I suspect that true fans -- committed, wagering fans -- are most often created at the track, where the oft-majestic presence of the horses, the roaring cheers of the crowd as the runners head down the stretch, the high-fives of victory and even the crumpled tickets of defeat result in an impression that lasts much longer than the experience of listening to a tinny race call on a laptop or clicking the TV remote.

While Saratoga and Del Mar (and, yes, Keeneland) are heaven on earth for a racing fan, those of us living far away from such divine tracks often have little choice but to frequent racing's limbo land of racino racing. Limbo land covers some pretty big acreage in horse racing nation, and many of these second and third tier tracks are located near substantial metropolitan areas.

While the racing industry bemoans its continued irrelevancy to the general public and longtime horseplayers focus on relatively obscure issues of little interest to the man on the street, it's been purses at racinos that have actually helped to draw big-name horses to the small-time venues. And big horses at little tracks get attention. The mainstream media comes to call. Folks learn that something special might be happening over at that strange oval off Route 2. They mosey over on race day, they place a wager, they catch the fever.

And it's easy to return to a racino: no admission charges or parking fees stand in the way of a return visit. There's much I dislike about racinos, and there's certainly much to criticize about how seldom racino management pays attention to its racing product, but one must admit they offer a largely untapped opportunity for the growth of the sport. A Kentucky Derby winner who barnstorms the racinos of the land just might attract the fans, attention, and handle the industry so desperately needs.

Meanwhile, this Saturday, race fans in western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, and the West Virginia panhandle can rejoice in the gift those slot machines have wrought: a big horse is in town!

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