In its halycon days from about 1900 to 1960, horse racing was a leading spectator sport in the United States, following only Major League Baseball in total attendance. Sports fans knew of and many followed the exploits of equine stars like Seabiscuit and War Admiral, Citation and Stymie, Nashua and Swaps, and Greyhound and Adios. Some of the best sportswriters covered horse racing and their prose was often elegant.

Now, except for premier events, the on-track crowds are sparse and the television audiences are small. Newspapers in general have fallen on hard times, owing to the Internet, and few of them have the economic strength to employ a dedicated racing writer. The number of racing fans in the United States may be less than 3 million out of a country of 302 million people. Among the overall population, the name recognition of even top Thoroughbred racehorses is low (with the occasional and brief exception of a Smarty Jones) and the situation is much worse for Standardbreds and Quarter Horses.

Following are some of the major factors that account for this deterioration:

1. Urbanization. As the United States evolved from an agrarian society to one based on manufacturing and services, the percentage of the population with ties to farm life dwindled markedly. The vast majority of people today know little about livestock of any kind. Most folks have never lived on a farm and do not have relatives who do. Thus the rural culture that once fostered an affinity for “a good horse” gradually gave way to one in which there was no such widespread interest. Today, NASCAR drivers are much better known among the general public than leading jockeys.

2.  Population Expansion in the Sunbelt. The Sunbelt states have been rapidly growing as compared to the Northeast and Midwest.   This trend is not in racing’s favor. While racing has a foothold in Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, high growth states like Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and some others do not permit racetracks to operate and have a culture that has no recent history with horse racing and one that generally opposes gambling.

3. Blue-Collar Blues.  These kinds of jobs have increasingly moved to low-cost offshore nations. Moreover, the loss of blue-collar employment is likely to be permanent. The only sector where unions are gaining members in the United  States is government. I have never heard this reason offered as a cause for racing’s travails, but I am convinced that it is a prominent one.

Thoroughbred horse racing is often referred to as the “Sport of Kings.” Yet the sport, along with harness racing, has traditionally been heavily supported by automobile workers, electricians, and other people who work with their hands. Northfield Park in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb is located adjacent to a Ford plant. Current and bygone racetracks in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and similar cities with concentrations of blue-collar workers have suffered as the United States economy has moved away from high-paying blue-collar jobs to a service base. The problems at “working people’s” racetracks have been exacerbated by the current recession.

4. Communication and Information Technologies. Old-timers often correctly cite racing’s tepid reception to the popularization of television in the 1950s as a prime cause of decline. Unlike the National Football League, which embraced TV, racing executives were fearful that it would steal their on-track audiences. However, in recent times, racing has exploited telephone and Internet wagering to great effect; so much so, that the off-track business model has eviscerated the on-track model. But racing had no choice. In the fast-paced milieu of the 21st century, if it were not for remote wagering, betting handle would be a fraction of what it is today. The 2008 contentious dispute between advance deposit wagering companies and horsemen, over the equitable division of takeout, badly damaged handle because races at some tracks were inaccessible to bettors.

5. Competition. Horse racing, for many years, was one of the few legal wagers available in the United States. This quasi-monopoly encouraged a hubris that led to a “take it or leave it” attitude toward customers. Undoubtedly, the legendary poor treatment of customers at racetracks has its origins in this former era. With the proliferation of state lotteries and casinos in various parts of the country (and lately illegal but easily accessible offshore Internet gaming sites), horse racing did not abandon its old ways of doing business…and the result was predictable. In fact, most tracks did not know how to compete for customers. Even today, what racetracks offer to customers in the way of amenities and conveniences is lacking, as compared to casinos.

6. Eroding Leisure Time. Studies have documented what Americans already know firsthand– that they are working more than ever. Vacations are shorter and cell phones and wireless handheld devices keep people tied to work even when they are supposedly off duty. Thus Americans have less time for leisure pursuits than they once did and lazy afternoons at a racetrack during the week are incompatible with this reality.

7. Fading Attention Span. Today’s society, particularly for the young, revolves around almost instantaneous communications made possible by cell phones, computers, and instant messaging services like Twitter, and social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. People once were satisfied to attend horse races to socialize and handicap in the 30-40 minutes between races, while spending four or five hours at a racetrack. Except on racing’s biggest days, or at a few lifestyle racetracks like Saratoga , Keeneland, and Del Mar, the 21st century American finds a day at the races too slow to suit his or her tastes. Simulcasting has stepped up the action, but people can also bet on a variety of races from off-track locations.

Racing cannot undo any of these societal transformations to bring back the “good old days.”  The most brilliant strategist cannot reverse the irreversible.  The issue is whether the sport can continue at a critical-mass level in the United States for other reasons, such as attracting more young fans and additional patrons from the fast-growing Hispanic population.

The inescapable conclusion is that horse racing will never again become a major sport to rival football, basketball, and baseball, mainly because the average sports fan is too far removed from the rural culture that appreciated a fast horse and because the window of opportunity is long past. Still, horse racing can be a viable niche sport–or it can fade into oblivion. The March 28, 2009 Horse Racing Business explores this subject in the article “In Search of a Future.”

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business


Bob Costas of NBC Sports is a 19-time Emmy Award winner who covers the Kentucky Derby for the network. His real passion is baseball.  Costas was one of the earliest critics of steroids in Major League Baseball. Recently, he has been speaking out about whether players who have been steroid users should be elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  The same question can be asked about racehorse athletes that raced mostly or entirely with the assistance of medication and who are plausible candidates for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame can come about in two ways–by vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America or by vote of the Veterans Committee. The latter group deals with players who have been out of the game for at least 21 years.

The criteria for selection are specified in a sentence: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose unquestionably meet the performance criteria but are not even allowed on the ballot because of integrity and character issues, albeit some players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame were pretty unsavory characters. The standards seem to be flexible and open to interpretation.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be absolute locks for election were it not for the steroid accusations surrounding them and Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez would be strong candidates for admission. Will they get in and should they get in?

Costas says that steroid-aided performances have “distorted the game’s history” and “stained” the sport and “poisoned” the record book. His solution is to let voters decide whether Bonds, Clemens, and others should be elected, rather than to ban them from the ballot, as with Rose for betting on games. However, he suggests that the Hall of Fame acknowledge on the plaques of players from the steroid era that their achievements came under unusual conditions.

This plaque recommendation is virtually certain not to be implemented but, regardless, Costas says that “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire (steroid) era (even though) that will be unfair to a lot of players.”

Do the preeminent racehorses of today and the recent past deserve election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame if they ran most or all of their races with permissible medication of some kind? Phenylbutazone and furosemide are legal in prescribed doses on race days in most jurisdictions in the United States but so were steroids in baseball when some all-time records were set.

Consider the criteria for selection to the Racing Hall of Fame: “The mission of the Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame is to honor the achievements of those horses, jockeys, and trainers whose records and reputations have withstood the difficult test of time.” Like baseball, this is a general statement that leaves lots of wiggle room. Would it preclude Dancer’s Image, who won the 1968 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after he tested positive for phenylbutazone, which is legal today in Kentucky but was illegal in 1968?

The sad reality is that if medication-aided racing were to be a disqualifier for Hall of Fame selection, there would be a dearth of inductees from the last quarter century. Suppose horses that raced on permitted medication get a pass. What about a Hall of Fame worthy racehorse that was disqualified once for a forbidden drug-should it be eligible?  (To digress, should a trainer with flagrant medication violations be put before the voters?)

As the rules are presently constituted, election to the Hall of Fame is a two-step process. Initially, a candidate must receive the majority of the votes of a 16-person nominating committee to become a finalist. Subsequently, approximately 180 members of a voting panel cast their ballots for all of the nominees. The racehorse with the most votes is elected.

Costas, in my view, has the right approach. Leave it up to the nominating committee and to the voting panel to decide whether a racehorse’s total record of accomplishments is such that the animal is Hall of Fame quality. Under this policy, the equine equivalent of a Pete Rose situation, whereby a would-be candidate is banned from consideration, could not occur. This is essentially the procedure followed by the Hall of Fame now.

It would be highly controversial if the Hall of Fame were to put up a sign stating that performance records from the modern era were achieved with the assistance of medication? This is not likely to happen. Yet, to reiterate what Costas said about the steroid era in baseball, “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire era.”

The average person who visits the racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, will not know the difference between a record achieved in 1909, 1959, or 2009. But the informed racing fan will know.

Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Aaron…the names leap into one’s consciousness when the phrase Hall of Fame is mentioned. Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens also come to mind as probably great players, but players whose records were tainted by chemical use. Costas is dead on correct:  rightly or wrongly, these modern players will forever have a figurative asterisk associated with their names and a plaque in Cooperstown won’t eradicate it.  They dominated the game, but the doubts are indelible.

Regret, Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat…these names echo down through history and epitomize Hall of Famer. On the other hand,  _____, _____, _____, (fill in the blanks)  may be great horses from the contemporary era, but their records are chemically suspect. Fairly or unfairly, these modern racehorses will have a figurative asterisk associated with each of their names and a plaque in the Hall of Fame won’t erase it.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business