Life in the Bubble - by Evan Hammonds

Blessed with beautiful weather and an indigenous, knowledgeable fan base, Keeneland Race Course broke in stride during its Fall Stars weekend Oct. 7-9. More than 19,000 turned out on a blue-sky Friday afternoon for some fun and frolic, and despite a local power outage that delayed the racing action a half-hour more than 28,000 were on hand Saturday. A young crowd with plenty of gingham shirts, bow ties, and sundresses poured into the track by the busload or tailgated on the “Hill.”

The track’s three grade I races provided as much, if not more, excitement than the Kentucky-Vanderbilt football tilt across town. Racing fans nationwide apparently agreed with the locals as a fall meet record $15,926,396 was bet on Keeneland’s Saturday program. An additional 18,000-plus took in the Sunday card, featuring I’m a Chatterbox winning the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I).

Attendance at Belmont Park, where they ran four grade I races on its Super Saturday card, was not announced but was considerably less, at least from our vantage point of watching via simulcast. Keeneland even out-handled the New York Racing Association on the day as $15 million was wagered on Belmont’s program featuring the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (gr. I). While there is obviously more competition for leisure time and the leisure dollar in the New York metropolitan area, one would think the quality of racing and the remarkable venue that is  Belmont Park could prove to be more of a draw. The visual of empty box and grandstand areas speaks volumes about the challenges facing Thoroughbred racing outside the “bubble” of Central Kentucky.

Keeneland, and Lexington’s love affair with racing is a small pocket of popularity for the sport in October. It is a one-off affair, much like Saratoga and Del Mar in August…and a handful of other racing venues on singular days.

Either on television or simulcast, backdrops of empty seats and winner’s circles do nothing to sell our sport. The thrill and excitement of the game are met with a collective yawn. Where’s all the fun if there is no one else there enjoying the ride? Unappetizing weekday cards at most tracks are run before only a handful of patrons. Even last weekend in Louisville, graded stakes and a meeting of two grade I winners brought a paltry crowd to the expanse of Churchill Downs.

Other sports and sporting venues are also experiencing declines in live attendance.

Ironically, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a special section celebrating the 40th anniversary of the city’s 23,000-plus seat Rupp Arena Oct. 9. In a commentary, Bill Owen, president of the Lexington Center Corp., which runs the facility, opined about potential upgrades that would shrink the number of seats. He said:

“Every time the topic comes up, you get people who are unhappy with the idea of reducing capacity. Arenas anymore for sporting events in particular have become giant television studios with a live audience, and how big a live audience must you have?”

Reducing capacity for racing clearly isn’t an issue. With stagnant handle and purses over the last few seasons—save those with gaming revenues as a feeder—we need some new ideas to sell the sport.

Keeneland remains a shrine to the Thoroughbred and is the center of a marvelous “bubble,” as witnessed over the weekend. What we need to concentrate on is what’s outside.

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