Horse Racing and Youth: But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

Marion Altieri,New York writer

Marion Altieri,New York writer

This article serves as Part 2 of a two-part piece.  My observations on one facet of marketing horse racing–to youths–based on things I observed at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes/Triple Crown Saturday, June 6, 2015.  Part 1 can be found on  “Marketing Horse Racing: Still Must Start with One Horse, One (Human) Heart.”

So.  We’ve established in Part 1, that exposure to virtual horses doesn’t cut it as a valid marketing strategy.  That is, only if we’re really interested in growing the sport of horse racing.

But something that concerns me greatly, which I hear often, is that horse racing “just needs” to get bodies into the gates.  That getting people to pay admission to a race track is all that’s needed to grow the sport.

Ummm, no.  Getting people into the track will get them into the track–for that day.  New bodies might even spend a few shekels to bet, even though they have no idea what they’re doing.

But unless someone teaches them about the sport–everything from The Horse (in this case, The Thoroughbred, and how it was developed)–through reading the program and wagering–we continue to live on a planet that’s intimidating to even the most-brave of hearts.  We speak our own language, including shorthand and nicknames.  We all just sort-of “know,” and when you “know”–it’s difficult to realize that others who don’t have your knowledge need a lot of time and attention in order to catch up.

And, like learning tennis or chess from someone who’s participated for years–too often, race fans don’t have time–or won’t make time–to teach newly-interested (or possibly-interested) folks.

IN other words:  old hands can’t be bothered, so it’s the responsibility of race tracks and racing organizations to teach the newly-initiated and the curious, everything they need to know before they get to the track for the first time.  After someone loses fifty bucks on a bet that you knew they shouldn’t make–is the wrong time to tell them that they’re a chump.

Just getting warm bodies onto the grounds of a race track won’t do a damned thing for the sport.  I write this today because there’s been a ton of talk and writing about American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory, and how it will grow the sport.  American horse racing will take its rightful place again, as America’s Sport, simply because now we have a hero.  New fans will flock to tracks–coffers will be full to overflowing–and all will prosper.  And all because 90,000 people saw American Pharoah win the Triple Crown, live, and a few million watched on TV.

It’s not going to happen that way.  I’ll tell you how I know, and this is the single-most unscientific thing I could have done:  spontaneously, I asked 11 groups of young people at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day a single question.  I’ll get back to that question in a few minutes.  First, to set the scene for you:

I had an extraordinary seat at the Belmont Stakes, thanks to Trainer, Gary Contessa.  I sat in the second floor, Clubhouse.  Third row from the bottom, aisle seat.  I was 30 yards at most from the starting gate and finish line.

When first I sat in my seat, my neighbors to the left–who subsequently became friends–warned me that, if I stayed all day–I’d get a second-hand high.  (Not because they were smoking, but it seemed that everyone else in the section was, heavily.)  The air was thick with the smell of pot:  for a second, I thought I was in a Cheech and Chong movie.  Clearly, someone–or a lot of someones–was/were smoking dope, thinking of course that this would enhance their experience of watching history as it was made.

I looked around–and was shocked, actually–to see that many of the seats in my section and that next to us were filled with young people, in their early 20s.  This, to many, would be an encouraging sign.  A sign, perhaps, that horse racing IS growing in popularity with “the young people,” and that the next generation of fans, administrators, trainers, owners and other participants in The Sport of Kings was assured.

But, as a friend observed this week, the section where I sat sounded to her like the third floor at Keeneland.  We laughed in recognition, because apparently the third floor at Keeneland is something of a joke:  either you know about it, or you don’t.

What?  You don’t?!?  Well, in a nutshell:  the third floor at Keeneland features at least one bar that’s frequented by 20-somethings.  Young Biffs and Muffies, some of whom probably attended deb balls.  But the difference between their parents’ summers on Martha’s Vineyard and their own Septembers in the third floor bars at Keeneland is vast: Biffs wear (that which they believe to be) the obligatory Madras Bermuda shorts; deck shoes; navy blazers with Oxford-collared shirts and bowties–and Trilbies (small fedora-esque hats).  It’s their uniform, and yet each young man thinks that he’s an individual.  Almost to-a-man, they smoke big, fat stogies even as they cough their brains out because they don’t know how to smoke a cigar.

The young women are not the Junior League set as in yesteryear:  skirts short enough to show, well, everything. They teeter high above Earth on 6″ stilettoes–so high that they run out of oxygen. That must be the case, because clearly, their choices in fashion or men aren’t dictated by reason.  Showing miles of cleavage and fascinators, these young women are on the hunt.

In 2008, Clay Robinson took me to the third floor at Keeneland, specifically to see my reaction to the mating ritual that took place up there.  Lots of alcohol consumption.  Lots of young women, playing with their hair, and giving The Look to The Biffs.  Both genders, thinking that they are the predator, the other–the prey.

Clay didn’t have to say a thing, in order for me to Get It.  These people were not at Keeneland to watch horses race.  They were there to catch a husband–or at least a one-night stand.  It was all about seeing and being seen–but not by anyone but others involved in their strange, tribal mating dance.

So when my friend mentioned the third floor at Keeneland--and that it sounded like the entire crew had been transported to Belmont–I was almost astounded, to realize that, no doubt, Third Floor at Keeneland isn’t a group of people who jump onto luxury buses with disco balls, and go from track-to-track–but rather, it is a Look, and an Attitude.   Jung might even posit that it’s an Archetype.

It’s probably also a unisex perfume by Calvin Klein, loaded with pheremones.

It’s what too many racing officials mistake for fandom, yet isn’t.

Too many young people all over America are caught up in this Look, in this Attitude.  And, dare I put forth–this shallow way to do the races.

I wrote, “shallow,” because, after a while–I got sick of hearing the young women’s high-pitched, flirting giggles–I know it well, I was young once, you know.  The young men’s voices got on my last nerve, as their braggadocio grew with every toke of the joints, every minute that went by.

It seemed that we were surrounded by them.  Some may have seen this as being a Good Thing, but, after observing and talking with many of them during the course of the day and evening–it cements further my cry for education in order to grow horse racing.

The reason is this:  My friend, Carol, posed a simple question, and that is the only question I used for my unscientific experiment:  “Do you think they’ll come back tomorrow?”

Carol took off for a while, and I began the experiment:  were these young people here to witness history (or at least possibly-so)–to be at The Coolest Place on Earth, on That Day–or had they paid good money for seats at Belmont so that they could dress up; smoke dope and cigars; pick up a temporary lover and take selfies?

There could be no middle ground.  It’s very unlikely that, being so distracted by selfie-taking, re-applying lipstick and bragging about everything–I mean, everythingcould share space with the unbridled passion for horse racing that we true fans know in our souls. 

During the course of the day, and into the evening as I waited for the crowds to disperse before leaving with Bill and Georgia, I asked 11 individuals or groups of young people,

“So!  Will you be back tomorrow?”

…to which every single person responded,


I explained that there would be beautiful horses racing on Sunday, as well–and would they come back tomorrow, when it’s more calm yet also promised to be a great day, full of exciting races.

Without exception, the answer was, NO.  (In fact, as you can imagine–most looked at me as if I was insane.)

Most implied that they probably wouldn’t be back even next YEAR, because, well, this year was a “…big deal.”

So there you have it, my unscientific experiment.  But, unscientific as it was–given the fact that the responses were universal–I have to conclude, still, that just getting warm bodies into seats at race tracks will not grow the sport as it’s needed in order to secure a healthy future for horse racing.

Don’t jump in my stuff, and tell me that I’m anti-youth:  I am not anti-youth.  I know a boatload of 20-somethings who are fans of horse racing–photographers, trainers, grooms, hotwalkers, owners–people who are emotionally involved with our sport.

I am anti-short-sightedness.  Too many horse racing administrators have been tricked into thinking that just getting young people’s hot bodies into seats will help grow the sport.   I’m not against young people at the races–I’m against hit-and-run, one-night stand racing attendance as a cheap replacement for genuine growth.

Oh, yes it is like the difference between having a one-night stand, and getting married.
There’s no comparison:
One relationship involves perhaps the exchange of names.
The other involves commitment, diligence, love and care.

If horse racing is to become healthy again, we must acknowledge that a one-night stand–even a Triple Crown one-night stand–isn’t going to fix it.

We’ve got to remember our own vows, and teach younger generations about the sport so that they, too, will want to marry it.  

Don’t just get them to the track:  educate them when they get there.  

Don’t get them hooked on horse racing games until after they’ve become educated fans.    

Without education and serious commitment to reaching hearts when they’re young–horse racing has…virtually no chamce.


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