Thursday, June 25, 2009

Take me out to the racetrack...

There's been a lot of talk (maybe too much talk as Bono would say) the last few days about many aspects of the horse racing industry. I'm educating myself as I go here, trying to see all sides and understand why the opponents oppose, etc.

As I've said, I'm not ever going to be the one going to a racetrack to play video poker, or the slot machines. I'm there for the horses, the people, the characters, the atmosphere. I do, however, understand the need to add slot machines or other gaming devices to help make tracks more profitable. The "Racino" as I've seen these called isn't an inherently bad idea. I'm not a prude when it comes to wagering, obviously, and I regularly wager with my boyfriend on just about anything, so clearly I'm not the choir that the anti-slot/Racino lot is preaching to. It seems in many states, Minnesota and Kentucky are the ones I've read most about, it is a partisan issue as opposed to an economic issue. I've got to dig a little deeper to see what the horse industry brings in cash flow-wise, but at some point don't you want to keep this industry and it's workers employed? Don't you want to keep breeders breeding, trainers training, etc? How is this not just as important as keeping studios or other industries in your state? There are seemingly endless tax incentives for other industries (coal, tobacco, film, big-pharma) to stay afloat in their states, why is it different for the horse and racing industry?

Certainly part of the issue is that America has changed and going to the races isn't a part of many people's lives. Where I grew up there were no racetracks to visit, in fact, my first actual race was at a harness track in Montreal (by the way, I won enough on my wagers to buy an adorable stuffed squirrel that I still have...) when I was about 9 years old. Granted, I'd already been utterly infected by horses at that point, but still to be at the racetrack and watch it all happen was wonderful.

I didn't attend any horse races again until I was in my early thirties. I'd just moved to New York City and my boyfriend had scored tickets to the Belmont Stakes. We arrived at Belmont Park and it was magic. Even with the sea of people and the less than perfect weather, it was a great day. After that I often took the Belmont Special out to Jamaica and frequented Suffolk Downs in Boston. Racing had become part of my life again.

It amazed me the first time I went to Belmont Park on a slow day with no big stakes races to see how few people were there. Sure, it was nice not to have a line for the restroom, but it was a rude awakening. How then, to get more people out to the races?

I wish I knew. I think exciting horses and compelling stories like Mine That Bird or Rachel Alexandra certainly help. It's human nature to cheer for underdogs and those who have humble roots like our own, perhaps. We need and want heroes and distractions, as I've said before. I'm not a marketing guru (obviously) but I have to think that there are viable ways to get people out to the track, and I'm hoping I'll see a good crowd out at Belmont on Saturday. The NYRA has stepped up their marketing for the (G1) Mother Goose Stakes and we'll see if it pays off. And night racing at Churchill Downs had a successful first effort, so maybe that's a good option.

I'd welcome comments or a guest blogger to share their thoughts, too, as to how we can make horse racing more viable and more vital in the US. Or if you are one of the opponents of "Racinos" drop me a line and we can have a point/counterpoint discussion. I think good things can come from any productive discussions and ideas cost nothing, right?

In the meantime, I'm headed to NYRA's website to look at the undercard races for Saturday so I can start to plan my little wagers. (And I do mean little...)

And here for a transcript of Thursday's press conference with Jess Jackson and Calvin Borel. (Is there a better grin anywhere than that of Calvin Borel??? I think not!)

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