Growing Horse Racing, sans Fantasy: What it Isn’t, is Football.

Artic Storm Cat and MeIn 1953, the beloved actor, Andy Griffith, did a routine on the radio which captivated and charmed his audience.  The name of this bit was, “What it Was, Was Football.”  I recommend highly that you got to YouTube and check out any of several pieces there, but the best is the recreation of the story, with Griffith’s narrative.

I’m the first person to confess that, like Andy Griffith’s protagonist–I don’t know anything about football.

Nor do I care.  No, really.  Not one iota.

But I do love horses, and I love horse sports.  Horse racing is #1 in my book, as you probably know if you know me at all.  And, after 56 years of being a fan of the sport–and of observing the behaviors of my ancestors (who introduced me to the sport, because they were hardcore fans)–I’m still confused, about why American horse racing has gone so far afield from the original intent, of…wait for it…simply…racing horses.

Stands There are many of us Out Here who know that that merely “getting people to the track” is not growing the sport of horse racing. (But no one’s asking us…)  It is not growing the public’s interest in the sport, a single bit.  It is not educating anyone about horses, racing or the confusing art of wagering.

All it is, is putting money in the cash box, and getting fannies into the seats.

But that is not growing horse racing.

Think about this, please:  any of the many activities that now take place at an American race track–could just as easily take place at a local city center, or other totally use-neutral space.  From fashion shows and beer-tastings to concerts by wannabees and used-to-bees and cancer screenings–none of these things has anything to do with watching horses run a mile, as they capture hearts and imaginations.

Here’s the key reason, I believe, why we keep seeing a decline in horse racing attendance numbers:  because racing keeps hiring corporate wonks who don’t know anything about horses or racing–but know how to sell hamburgers or run a circus.

This ain’t no circus, fella, and surely it isn’t a beer garten.

What it Is, Is Horse Racing.Ex Ex Ex Wins Cab Callowan Stakes 2015 Ronnie Betor 2

It’s also not football...or skeet-shooting…or badminton.  It is a sport in its own right…so when I see horse racing officials and official organization trying to marry two sports like horse racing and football…all I see is frantic people, running around like so-many beheaded chickens, clucking the same song, over-and-over:

Insanity Einstein“Let’s do this!  No, let’s do that!  No, let’s bring in music!  No, more beer!  No, bigger hats, for “the ladies”!  No!  A Health Fair for Females!  Petting zoos, that feature every animal but horses!  More face painting for the kiddies!  Cheese shows–the Blue Angels–Wine Nights–disco dancing demonstrations and outdated beauty contests, complete with sleazy contest-watchers who drink-til-they-barf…”

And on…and on…and on, until racing organizations have forgotten the only real reason why we’re all here:

To watch horses race in ovals.  (In the UK and other places, to race straight, as well.)

One reason:  Horse.Racing.

So football is the latest distraction from racing, that’s supposed to bring new fans to racing.  And, even more-narrowly, the supposed link between fantasy football and fantasy horse racing.

Emphasis on the word, “fantasy.”

Psychologically and practically-speaking, the whole “fantasy” thing is that which has the most potential to douse any flames of hope that horse racing in America has for growth in the future.  If we bring up a generation of people who associate horses only as existing in the realm of fantasy–of being 1″ long on a smartphone screen, maybe 5″ long on a computer screen–then those young people we’re supposedly grooming are missing the only reason to stick around this sport:

Because, unlike a living, breathing football player, Thoroughbreds weigh in around 1,100 pounds.  Eleven-hundred pounds of pulsating, sweating, heavy-breathing, buff, otherworldly powerful–flesh.  No fantasy game can give a player that.  None.  All a fantasy game can do is take you away from the Real Deal.IMG_6850

But, rather than insisting that potential fans Meet a Horse, and fall in love–then follow that horse to the track, and bet on her–no, rather than actually doing The Simple, Practical Thing--racing organizations court the fruitfly part of the brain.  The part that can pay attention for only, perhaps, six seconds.  (Shorter than that of a goldfish.  Proven.)

Somehow, American racing wonks think that affiliating horse racing with football will bring all those football fans to the races, and keep them in those seats for the next 30 years.  And all beause of the Magic of Fantasy Football.

Reality Check:  being distracted is a bad thing.  It is not a good thing.  I know, I know:  horse racing foolishly is trying to grow the fanbase by sucking up to those who are the Embodiment of Distraction:  “Millennials,” meaning (to the marketing wonks), the young people who have iPhones microchipped right into their arms, because they’re so dependent on them.  The generation of The Terminally-Distracted, people who started out normally, in normal homes–but because of the technology that runs their lives–they now have the attention spans of fruit flies.

You know them:  the young womyn who wear dresses so short that their gynecologists recognize them in passing.  Young men (many of whom don’t even know the legacy of Malcolm X), wearing his signature hat and bow tie, because they think they look cool.  Most racing organizations think that, having representatives who fit these descriptions–rather than, oh, you know–people who’ve loved the sport for years, but who may not necessarily meet current rigid rules about  What is Beautiful.  Racing admins actually think that having the “beautiful faces” represent the sport will bring new fans in, in droves.  Wrong.

SO, you can imagine my surprise and angst last night when I opened the email from America’s Best Racing and saw that they have an entire section titled, “Pigskins and Ponies.”  (Now, my intention is not to bash the passions of the young man who writes this column–he’s most certainly entitled to love as many sports as he wants!)  All I’m asking here is, why-why-why, instead of teaching young people about actual horses–introducing them to real, live, spirit-breathing horses, so that they become obsessed as was my Grandmother, and my friend, Claire Conmee–WHY are racing organizations  instead bringing other sports into the mix?

Let me tell you a brief story, a true tale:   I had a friend, who owned a men’s salon.  A beautiful salon–all mahogany; dark-red leather barber chairs; hot towels before even a haircut; men’s products for the skin, hair, etc.;  gourmet coffees and even two shoeshine chairs out in front.  Her shop was in a horse racing town in the U.S., so most of the “big trainers” were her clients: Mott, Lukas and Pletcher all frequented my friend’s shop.

Then.  Then one day I was in her town, and walked up to her shop.

I was confused at first, then horrified.  Instead of the men’s shampoos and aftershave balms that usually dressed the windows–there hung ladies’ purses.  Womyn’s pocketbooks–not manbags.   In all sorts of pretty colors:  I noticed in particular the oranges, dark pinks and sky-blues.  I noticed, also, that–adding insult to injury–they were knockoffs.

Ouch.  I was embarrassed for my friend, first, for thinking that she’d lost her mind.  Second, because I knew that, just like a pharmacy that decides to start selling shoes–her shop was doomed to go straight down the drain.

You cannot–no business can–successfully bring in another business or concept, unless that concept is directly connected to the first product or mission.  Per my initial fear, my friend’s business did go down the tubes.  Because, like a pharmacy that decides to start selling shoes–you can’t mix two things in business unless they’re already naturally connected.  Can’t be done–and horse racing won’t be the first business to fail if it keeps trying.

The NFL’s website doesn’t feature pictures of “today’s feature races from Monmouth,” does it?
(Answer:  NO.  I spent hours looking through their ‘site.  No mention of Seabiscuit or Secretariat.)

Giants Stadium doesn’t offer free tickets to the New York City Ballet for the first 1,000 people through their turnstiles, do they?
(Of course not.)

So, this isn’t a two-way marriage:  clearly, football doesn’t need horse racing in order to thrive.  But racing officials–being desperate, like a spouse who sees The End coming–is grasping at The Straw of False Hope.  Maybe, they reason, hooking up to football will save us.  Like pilot fish on a shark.

But horse racing is a beautiful, elegant sport–the oldest sport on Earth.  Now, here’s the question:  if our sport has been thriving for FIVE millennia–what might it be that people pre-technology knew that we don’t?  In pre-technology Egypt, Rome, Iraq, Mongolia, India and Europe–somehow, without the help of smartphones and fantasy–without hooking their rig to anyone else–for 5,000 years, using Arabian horses for most of those years–horse racing thrived. Without tech.  Without our help.  Without the NFL.

I’m sure that I’ll get beaucoup criticism for this–that I’m an old lady who doesn’t know what I’m talking about–I’m a curmudgeon, etc.  But Here’s The Thing:  Instead of tossing aside the opinions of the millions of horse racing fans who’ve stuck around this sport through thick and thin for 30+ years (and there are boatloads of us)–how about listening to our Wisdom, our insights?  We’ve been fans since childhood–many learned how to handicap at Mom’s and Dad’s knees–we’ve seen the ups and downs–and we just may have some ideas to keep this show on the road.

And this show, for those of you who missed the point, is Horse Racing.  Simply, only–the moving-forward of horses in a contest to see who’s faster.  Done.  The only sport that’s had something so compelling, that it’s been around for 5,000 years.  And simply, again–that singularly-compelling feature is The Horse.

So!  Racing organizations:  get your heads out of yer endzones, and into a barn.  The life or death of this sport rests solely and only on the withers of those magnificent, statuesque creatures right there, in your own barns.  Yes, the four-legged ones, who run like the wind, and talk directly to God.

Photo Credits:

*  “Ex Ex Ex Wins the Cab Calloway Stakes 2015” by Ronnie Betor.
*  “The Savage,” by Bob Coglianese

Thank you!