The sport of thoroughbred horse racing will never be as popular in American culture as it once was. In the first half of the last century, horse racing was one of the big ones, holding its place among the most popular sports in the United States. For a multitude of reasons, ranging from our society transforming from horse power to horsepower, to scandals and questionable practices, to economic downturn, to disjointed factions seeming to work alone and completely independent of what is best for the big picture of the sport, and finally just having so many more other outlets competing for our entertainment, gambling, and recreational time and money than we used to, horse racing simply had to decline in national popularity. And it has, but to say that horse racing is on its last legs, is a notion that I’m not willing to believe.
While the thrilling sport of horse racing currently resides somewhere between the 10th and 20th most popular of American sports, it has been the NFL that has been the number one rated sport over the past few decades. A fact clearly illustrated this week as even the most mundane news coming from Glendale, Arizona is trumpeted ad nauseum through every media vehicle possible, as we march ever closer to Super Bowl XLIX. Because of all this, it would be hard to imagine a headline such as the following:
For the fifth straight year the NFL reported double digit declines in revenue and attendance and announced two more teams shuttering operations at the end of 2015.
A seemingly impossible headline, but imagine if a few decades ago, the rapidly growing NFL announced an expansion of ten teams or more. The first few years would have been full of excitement, as revenues and attendance spiked up with enthusiasm for new teams and new venues. Of course, it would not last. After years of losing records and lopsided games, fans would stop watching and stop attending games in many of the less attractive, losing markets.
Even with a unified body running things, the NFL would have suffered after the early benefits of the over-expansion. Yet the key cities and marquee teams would still draw in the crowds, and revenues, but overall, the business of the NFL would appear to be in dire straights. You can see where I am going with this as it relates to racing.
Obviously, the powers that be in the NFL never let this happen, but the great sport of horse racing has not been so fortunate.
Much like the example of the NFL illustrated above, tracks in smaller cities or saturated markets do struggle and are closing. Handle is down, but keep in mind, total races run are down at a greater rate. Meanwhile, the marquee venues, and key events, are seeing either attendance or handle growth, if not both. Considering this, it would seem less than the whole story to describe horse racing as dying. Rather, I believe it to be a still strong industry … a multi-billion dollar industry.
In the past year alone, I had the great fortune to attend events like the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, Arlington Million, and the Breeders’ Cup. The houses were packed. I also had the pleasure of visiting places like Keeneland, Saratoga, Oaklawn Park, Gulfstream Park and Del Mar. I assure you, attendance problems were not an issue, nor was handle.
Where will racing go from here? It has to learn from its mistakes. It also needs to learn from its successes. Too many tracks and too many races does not work, but done right, just like the thriving examples above, horse racing can thrive. Maybe not like the NFL, or maybe not like fifty or a hundred years ago, but so what, those days are long gone, and racing only needs to smartly carve out its niche in the 21st century.
Perhaps I am a bit biased, but to me, there is no more exhilarating sport than thoroughbred horse racing. Betting on the game or not, its perpetual moving parts, new storylines, and cast of interesting characters is always there to provide excitement. And of course, we can never forget the wonderful athletes. There is nothing quite like watching the majestic thoroughbred in action and competition.
Is horse racing a dying sport? Not by a long shot.