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Tuesday, April 29, 2003
When I was a kid, my parents used to take me out on occasion to Santa Anita Park, which was a 20 minute drive from our house in Burbank. My mom was and is a huge horse racing fan; my dad likes the sport too, though not quite as much as my mom. Both of them are and were good handicappers, astute bettors, and a great example for anyone who would want to pursue a life of investing one's money on speculation as to what a 1,000 animal might do in the course of a minute and 40 seconds.

I still try and make it out to the track on occasion, but when I do, it is a lamentable experience. You see, when I was a kid, Santa Anita on a weekend was filled with people; 35,000 for an ordinary stakes race, 45,000 to 65,000 for a big race. You needed to purchase a reserved seat or you would end up sitting all the way down at the top of the stretch, more than 900 feet from the finish line. If you wanted to bet, you had to go down 15 minutes or so before post time; the lines were long, as were the lines to cash your tickets after the race. Local sportscasters used to go out to the racetrack and report live for their segments on the news. The best horses were very well known; quite a large segment of America knew who Forego, Seattle Slew, Exceller, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, and John Henry were. Jockeys such as Willie Shoemaker and Angel Cordero, and trainers such as Laz Barrera and Charlie Wittingham also became famous.

Now, it's all gone. The only time you need a reserved seat is if you go to the Triple Crown, the Breeders' Cup championship day at the end of the year, or some busy days at summer vacation tracks such as Del Mar, on the beach near San Diego, Monmouth, near the Jersey Shore, or Saratoga, with its quaint grandstands at the famous spa in upstate New York. Usually, there are less than 15,000 people at the track on weekends, less than 7,000 on weekdays. And those that are there aren't even sitting in the stands; they are down in the bowels of the track, sitting at tables near the betting windows and watching television. And every year it gets worse, probably because the empty grandstands don't provide any ambience and don't attract new fans.

What happened? Everyone in racing has a theory. Some blame state lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling, which broke up what once was a legal monopoly held by racetracks. (There is some evidence for this hypothesis in Hong Kong, where people are still crazy about horse racing, 70,000 show up at the track and bet $20 million a race, and no other gambling is allowed.) Some blame the simulcasting craze, whereby bettors are permitted to bet on races from other tracks; this drew the fans out of the seats and into the interiors of the grandstands, leaving the seats above empty. Some blame year-round racing, or medication rules, or all sorts of other things that have gone wrong with the sport since the glory days of the 1970's.

All these hypotheses have something to them, but the biggest cause of horse racing's problems today is probably a much simpler explanation. Tastes change. Horse racing thrived in an era with very few major sports. Americans fell in love with horse racing early in the 20th Century, at a time when baseball and boxing were the only other major sports. Races dominated the headlines. The best horses were known throughout the country. Radio and newsreel coverage of major races increased the popularity of the sport. The totalisator (an adding machine writ large, and hooked up to a large digital display in the infield of the racetrack) was invented in the 1930's, displacing bookies and making the game more honest by assuring that everyone bet against each other, not the disintrested house, and that everyone at the track received the same odds. Many states legalized betting on the races, and the sport expanded. (This is the climate in which Seabiscuit thrived; his story gripped the nation and will be the subject of a major motion picture this summer.)

Horse racing survived the transition to television, the rise of professional football and basketball, and the increasing popularity of the Olympic Games. But eventually, the competition became too tough. It was bound to happen. There are so many professional sports now that some of the longer-established sports were foreordained to lose ground. Indeed, even baseball, America's pastime, has suffered declining attendance and grossly declining television ratings. Meanwhile, NASCAR, professional beach volleyball, men's golf, men's and women's tennis, professional wrestling, soccer, and various "extreme" sports have gained in popularity. Since Americans don't have enough additional free time to pay attention to all these new sports while still following the old ones, there's been a decline. And horse racing is one of those sports that Americans have lost interest in.

Of course, this Saturday, for two glorious minutes, many Americans will care again about racing, as they run the Kentucky Derby. 150,000 will be at the track, and millions will watch on television. But those two minutes are never able to arrest the decline of the sport, because horse racing relies on the folks who show up at America's racetracks for the bread and butter product of the sport.

There's no moral in this. I wish it were different. I long for the days when I was a child, and we would sit among the crowds at Santa Anita, who would scream and yell for their selections as the horses turned for home in each race. I still understand the visceral thrill of thoroughbred racing. But those screams and those crowds are no more, and I know perfectly well that they aren't coming back, even if all the problems of the sport were magically fixed.

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