Sport, or Circus? Horse Racing, Pick a Mission, and Stick with it.

Marion_TalkoftheTracKThe sport of horse racing is at a critical juncture:  here in the U.S., we have to make firm decisions on many factors, the  results of which will either make or break our sport.

First, and most critical, of course, is the issue of doping.  We must decide whether we’ll continue to drag our feet and slap offenders on the wrist, or we’ll strive to grow American horse racing into a sport of which we can be proud.  Of course, the only reason why we should be proud of ourselves is when we know that, in our hearts, we’re doing all we can to protect the safety and health of our horses.

And that, my friends, takes integrity.  When everyone who has power in horse racing grows a proverbial set and starts putting down our collective feet–when the welfare of all horses comes first, and ONLY–then, and only then, will horse racing have a chance of surviving in this country.  I fear that America still is perceived by other racing nations of the world as being wishy-washy–but worst-yet, I believe that many individuals and international racing organizations see Americans as not caring about the horses who race on our tracks.

So we’ve got to make The Decision–establish UNIVERSAL drug rules–stick with them–and kick out offenders, once-and-for-all.

End of story.

Well, end of THAT part of the story.  We still have to deal with a little matter of horse racing and its inability–or is it, lack of desire?–actually to perceive itself as a SPORT.

Is horse racing a SPORT?  Or is horse racing merely an EVENT?

One of the major problems with horse racing, as I see it,  is that, to the outside world, it looks like we’re trying to be All Things to All People.

Now, I have NO problem with horse racing being an Event during actual EVENTS.   There’s an international precedent for big racing days to become gigantic events.  (Like, say, the Triple Crown races.  The Breeders’ Cup, Dubai World Cup, Japan Cup, Melbourne Cup, Royal Ascot, etc.)

And next weekend, we’ll be bombarded with images of rock stars and chicklet actresses who suddenly LOVE horse racing.  Or so they’d have us believe, because they’re queued up at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup.

You know that they’ll be there for the photo opps.  I know it.  Everyone knows it–and yet, somehow that nonsense becomes the focus of the non-horse racing media.  “OOH!  LOOK!  Jay-Z and Beyonce love horse racing!”

No, they don’t.  They love the camera, and publicity.

But enough of me whining about the events, themselves.   I get hives when I think about rock stars being paid to attend horse races, when really, it’s the Average Joe who could really benefit from a free meal; limousine ride and extraordinary seats.

But the thing that gets me all a-flustered is the fact that, across the country (of the U.S., that is),  sometimes it’s hard to tell horse racing from a carnival.

Now, I do understand, also, that Saratoga is unique in that, for six weeks, NYRA has to entertain people from all over the world and keep them on the property long enough to watch the races and wager.  And–now, I blame the Internet for this–American culture has become a culture of individuals who have the attention span of fruit flies.

And we’ve become a very “bored” society:  “Entertain Me!” is the mantra of every child who’s being reared in the U.S., it seems.  So of course they grow up to be adults who must be entertained every-single-minute-of-every-single-day.

So NYRA, and any other race meet that exceeds three weeks has to kick it into overdrive in order to get humans to stick around the track long enough to catch on that This is Really About Horse Racing.

But I’m seeing way too much of this lately, in many racing jurisdictions.  Think of it this way:  if you landed on this planet from outer space, and you landed outside a race track in America, no doubt you would be confused.

“What’s this about?” you’d inquire.

You’d see bouncie-bounce houses; face painting and other distractions for children.  Yes, and I will say that, when I was a child–50+ years ago–and my Mother took me to the track–I was there to see the horsies.

Mommy took me to the races so that I could experience–check this OUT–the RACES.

It never crossed my Mother’s mind for one minute that the administrators of the track were responsible for keeping me from melting down into a whining, spoiled puddle of “Entertain Me!”

I was there to see horsies, and of course I got an eyeful–and a heart-full.

But tracks today lapse too easily into babysitting mode.  Instead of providing bouncie houses and face painting, we need to see more access to horses for children and other new fans.  (NYRA did a great job of this this past summer, as I wrote in a previous blog.)

Why are race track administrators running around like beheaded chickens, trying to find ways to lure people to the races?

The NFL doesn’t do it.

Professional baseball doesn’t do it.

I know, because I called both of these entities this week.   And when I asked the office at the NFL if they have face painting in the parking lots at football stadiathey responded with silence.  It took them a minute for them to understand what I was asking.    The person on  the other end of the line wasn’t an idiot–she just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a sporting event featuring anything but, oh, the SPORT.

If you go to Giants’ Stadium–or whatever it is that they call it these days–for a football game, here’s what you do:

*  Park your car.
*  Enter the stadium.
*  Watch a football game.

The parking lot in East Rutherford isn’t filled with circus tents.  No fashion shows.  The NFL makes NO effort, whatsoever, to seduce people to part with their hard-earned money for a ticket to the game by luring them in off the streets with the promise of cotton candy.   (And GOD KNOWS,  a ticket to a pro football game costs only about 800% more than Clubhouse admission to any horse race track in the country.)

No.  The NFL is in the business of football.  That’s all the do:  football. They charge insane amounts of money to watch a game, and they don’t apologize for it.   Buy a ticket.  Don’t buy a ticket.  We’ll be doing football, and if you want to be here–buy a ticket.  Either way, the game goes on.

Now, the interesting thing is that this summer, Brian Rolapp, Executive Vice President, NFL Media and President and CEO, NFL Network, was the special speaker at the Jockey Club Round Table.  I know, because I was there.  And he was fascinating–he did a great PowerPoint presentation and video of how the NFL uses media to market the NFL.

I wish he’d addressed the idea that, in order for horse racing to grow our numbers of fans and bettors–we don’t need to be anything BUT horse racing.

Is that an astonishing concept?  It shouldn’t be.  

Horse racing is a SPORT, folks, not a three-ring circus.

What we don’t need is a sport that’s so diluted by distractions that fans and potential fans forget that there’s a horse race going on.

What we DO need is a sport that acknowledges that This is Horse Racing, and this IS a Sport.

More promotions of our great horses.

More promotions of our extraordinary jockeys.

More in-depth stories about horses’ connections–and backstretch traditions–and everything that has anything to do with the sport, itself.

We need to stop trying to be Disney–to stop catering to Everyone on Planet Earth–and to concentrate on our glorious, beautiful Sport, AS a sport.

This is Horse Racing, not an afternoon at the mall.  Make people fall in love with horses, jockeys and the other human interest stories that make our sport absolutely unique, and we’ll have to turn people away at the gates.

But if we keep on this trajectory of trying to please EVERYone,  while our sport becomes a sideshow to the circus in the parking lot–horse racing can expect to continue to struggle.  We don’t need to find out identity–we have a sport.  Let’s start acting like it.