And They're Off, but Are They Coming Back?
Horse racing had something of a banner year in 2020 when it was the only game in town for the early stretches of the pandemic. Damn near the only sport on TV, and the only thing you could bet on.
So what did racing do with this absolute windfall? Squander it, of course. Shooting itself in the horse-dick is what the racing industry does best.
The complaints from people who hate the game (horse deaths, whip cruelty, trainers doping up innocent animals within an inch of their lives) are almost as loud and never-ending as the ones coming from people who love the game (short fields, huge takeout, trainers doping up innocent animals within an inch of their lives).
I just spent two weeks at Saratoga Race Course, the crown jewel of horse racing, and the Friday before the signature Travers Stakes — what should have been an anticipatory buzzing hive of greed, whiskey, cigar smoke and hay — felt like a ho-hum nine-race Monday in the mid ‘90s. Rising gate prices, the increasing commodification of access to parts of the track, the ubiquity of betting by phone, general pandemic fatigue and people’s increasing unwillingness to leave the house have seasoned a toxic stew.
The Sport of Kings, we’re told over and over again, is dying. Dead. A relic of a past best confined to the dustbin of history with the raccoon coats and straw boaters that were popular when the sport was in bloom. And judging by things like Las Vegas’ most gigantic sportsbook opening without any racing, or high-profile track closures like Hollywood Park and Arlington Park, it’s hard to argue too much with that.
Then again, the 2019 edition of the Kentucky Derby drew more than 150,000 people, so maybe there’s some life left in the old girl yet.
Then again again, the 2021 edition ended with its winner being retroactively disqualified thanks to drug cheating by trainer Bob Baffert. Some life, but some serious issues.
But let’s start with where things stand.
The industry sort of has a central body, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, but that organization has as much power and effectiveness as your average Reddit moderator. Backstopped by The Jockey Club, itself a sort of vestigial apparatus of racing powers that be, the NTRA is emblematic of the pinnacle of what racing stakeholders can achieve: a loose coalition that couldn’t agree on what to get on half of a pizza let alone on how to move racing forward.
Sometimes, these entities have done OK. The NTRA’s “Go baby go” campaign did fine 15-plus years ago. The Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing is a nice site that hits some of the right content notes and has a solid mix that hits on different ingredients in the soup that make a day at the track so great. And it is great. Sling around cocktails, mix with rich snobs and the hoi-polloi, bet for peanuts or for mortgage money, sip canned Millers from your own cooler or drop G's on magnums of bubbly. Even in the casino you don't get the high rollers and dirtbag gamblers waging a low-key lifestyle war with each other like you do at the track.
But a lot of the material out there is already preaching to the choir. For people disinclined to horse racing, how do you overcome an easily accepted narrative around cruelty? For those indifferent, how do you convince the degenerates of today to get into a game with a steep learning curve when it’s so much easier to bet on football? How do you get people who’ve never even thought about coming to the track to swing out for the day? Here are three things this beautiful, dysfunctional disaster of a sport could try:
Lean into the atavism. Racing is old. It’s byzantine and bizarre from the outside. Ask some non-fan to read the Daily Racing Form and they will punch you, repeatedly, and with good reason. We’re becoming a flat society. Racing is from a decidedly un-flat era. Take a page from Conan O’Brien and hire a solid comedian to start pumping out videos like his old-timey baseball bit to both make racing approachable and emphasize its roots in the past. If the New York Racing Association wanted to really embrace this, they could supplement a throwback content flex with dedicated experiential marketing. Have Form-reading actors hanging out on street corners talking up the races next to handbills advertising a ‘30s-style bar-car train. $200 gets you unlimited drinks on a vintage car, a ride up from Brooklyn to Saratoga, take a trolley ride to the track, and get a $20 voucher to bet with. Let the geriatric millennials with a couple of nickels to rub together Instagram their way through their very own The Sting cosplay for a day and Instagram racing back into hipness.
Ride with what influencers you have. Look, the whole idea around “influencers” will make you grind your teeth to dust. Dave Portnoy is insuffrable (I'm sure deliberately to juice his public persona, but still.) But stull, Barstool Sports has a cult, so use it. Portnoy already tweets about racing and is a regular at Saratoga, Racing don’t have Spike Lee sitting at the finish line at Belmont. Portnoy and his massive following are already in place. Finding a way to directly partner with a guy like that and translate why the ponies are more, fun to gamble on as a college basketball game (Hint: it's more fun to collect at 10-1 than laying 11-10). This is one human being who could do more to directly deliver a generation of new racing fans than anyone else. Win the hearts-and-minds battle with the bro crowd, if nothing else. Tom Brady is a blank-faced pigskin golem with the charisma of an armadillo being ground under the tires of an F-350 on a Texas highway, but he shows up at the Kentucky Derby every year. You dance with the one whut brung you.
Showcase the backstretch stories. Content can’t solve drug cheats taking liberties with horse health. But it can put a human face on the hundreds of people who deeply care about horse welfare who work the backstretch and horse-related charities. Grooms, exercise riders, hotwalkers, good-guy trainers like Nick Zito, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Old Friends Equine. There’s no shortage of people doing good things with and around horses. The industry shouldn’t let animal-rights groups claim some kind of moral high ground and erase decades of dedicated service to these animals when your average PETA member is just some keyboard warrior who’s never mucked out a stall in their life. Keep pushing these stories front-and-center, use paid campaigns to get them into the feeds of people otherwise inclined to uncritically buy the animal-rights party line. Hire a savvy PR firm that can get pieces placed in outlets other than The Blood Horse or on Fox Sports broadcasts. Show potential customers the full story of horse racing is rich, deep, sometimes complicated, and still more compassionate than not.