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Can Horse Racing Catch Up?

Little Mike’s convincing wire-to-wire victory in the Arlington Million on Saturday brought back memories of my friend George, an old-fashioned, two-fisted bettor who never met a front-runner he didn’t like.

When he spotted a speed horse with a chance and right price, George would put down $200 each to win and place. His logic was impeccable. Front-runners never get caught in traffic. In the 1 ¼ mile turf race, Little Mike rewarded his supporters among 34,002 fans with a $2 payoff of $9.80 to win and $5.60 to place—or a nice $1,540 for a hypothetical George bet.

As Little Mike approached the winner’s circle, another loud cheer went up for Big Mike (Ditka) as he was interviewed about the wonderful time he was having at the races. Who wouldn’t on a day when the weather sparkled as much as the high-quality racing?

If only the forecast for horse racing were so sunny.

Little Mike steered by Ramon Dominguez to win the Arlington Million. (Four Footed Fotos)

Problems include fragile and overly medicated horses, illegal drugs, a declining and aging fan base, too many racetracks and racing dates, debates over the pros and cons of “racinos,” and the lack of a strong, centralized regulatory body to oversee the sport.

Then there’s the issue of betting, a big problem often overlooked. Racing needs more Georges—or even Little Georges—who understand the nuances enough to make it fun and occasionally profitable. Horse racing became popular, in part, because it was the dominant legal place to wager before the advent of casinos in many states outside Nevada. The problem now is that many people aren’t familiar with the basics of horse racing, let alone handicapping.

Long ago, three signs of a misspent youth were the ability to play poker, shoot pool, and read the Daily Racing Form (DRF). Now it’s playing poker (probably online), video games, and fantasy football.

For the uninitiated, the DRF looks like a final exam in Cuneiform. Then there’s the actual betting, where there are enough options to wear down a Chicago commodities trader—exactas, trifectas, superfectas, super high fives, pick threes, pick fours, pick fives, pick sixes, and so on.

When I asked a regular patron what he thought the biggest obstacle racing faced in attracting new fans, he replied:

“Three words: attention deficit disorder.”

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In the early 1990s, when I was the religion editor of the Dallas Morning News, I stopped our racing writer Randy Moss (now a television racing analyst) in the hallway and asked if he wanted to have lunch. “I know a little about horse racing,” I said. He was skeptical but we went to a local barbeque joint and talked horses.

“I know a little about horse racing,” I said. He was skeptical but we went to a local barbeque joint and talked horses. I told him I started betting at Agricultural Park in Columbus, Neb., when I was only eight (my 13-year-old cousin placed the bets for me).

When I contacted Moss, for this story, he said few people today grow up around horses. “With each passing generation, we get more removed from our rural roots and fewer young people are being exposed to horses in general and have that natural attachment,” he wrote in an email from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“My older horse racing friends tell me that the belief that the sport needs to attract more younger fans has been around for a half-century or even longer,” he wrote. Moss added that, in times past, younger fans were introduced to the sport by elders who were “around in the glory years when racing had a virtual gambling monopoly. But as the sport has become ‘uncool’ in the eyes of young people, it has become a hard sell even to those who are exposed to it.”

Moss is referring to those who consider horse racing “cruel and inhumane” and to the well-publicized breakdowns and deaths of such stars as Ruffian, Go for Wand, Barbaro, and Eight Belles.

More promising is a national effort to attract new fans through “Racing 101” seminars, online “Night Schools,” and the use of social media. Joe Kristufek, who serves as the Arlington Park morning-line odds maker and the Daily Herald handicapper, is a self-proclaimed “ambassador of racing.”

He thinks that even newcomers can be taught the intricacies of handicapping, but he still gets frustrated at times.

“You know what really bugs me?” he wrote on the Arlington website.

“When people come to the racetrack and wager against themselves. Sometimes they bet three different horses to win. Other times they bet one horse to win, another one to place, and yet another to show.

“AGGGGHHHHH!”

The Jockey Club, the Breeders Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing association among others are promoting something called America’s Best Racing (ABR) to attract newcomers. “We want to show new fans that, while the races are still at the center of the sport, there is a whole lifestyle surrounding racing,” said Penelope Miller, ABR’s senior manager for digital media. “The races can be whatever a fan wants them to be, and there are very few sports like that in this country.”

In addition to Kristufek’s work, Miller mentioned Racing 101 videos on the ABR website and an ABR Fan Hub that travels from track to track to teach new fans about the sport.

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“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill ; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” — Ecclesiastes 9:11

When I was an undergraduate at a small Northeast liberal arts college, I always stopped at Saratoga Springs for a few days of racing before starting school or until my money ran out. Once, I was down to my last $10 in the 9th race and put it to win on a 9-2 shot. The horse won and the trip lasted two more days.

What many don’t understand about horse racing is that there are lessons to be learned well beyond the track. I’m always a bit surprised to see people yell and scream at the track or at the horses and jockeys.

Win or lose, never get too high or low.

Baseball writers said that, after a game, it was impossible to tell whether Brooks Robinson (Hall of Fame third baseman, Baltimore Orioles), had just hit two homers or committed two errors.

As I was talking to Joe Kristufek near the paddock, it occurred to me that what he was saying about racing fans also applied to life. Some like to “have a go” while others simply like to watch the horses, drink, and socialize. It’s a question of temperament.

A few years ago, my son Sam was a freshman at a large suburban high school and was having a terrible time. He had poor grades and didn’t make either the freshman baseball or basketball teams. We decided to “have a go,” to gamble, and switched him to a small, multiracial parochial school where he flourished.

This fall he’ll be a sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he plays baseball.

After all, there’s always the 9th race, in life as well as at the track.

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DANIEL CATTAU is a freelance writer who has written for the Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine and the Polk, Neb., Progress (population 400).

STORY ART: Photos from Arlington courtesy Four Legged Fotos.

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