On December 4, 2010, a grim headline read:  “Louisville Orchestra Files for Bankruptcy.”  Days later, on the very same night, a pair of college basketball games at separate arenas in Louisville, Kentucky, together drew nearly 40,000 people.

Symphony orchestras, like racetracks, were hugely popular long before James Naismith invented basketball in 1891.  Now the two former entertainment top dogs are battling for attention and patronage in a mass and social media era where star-player names from major sports teams are immediately recognizable to the public, just as the names of leading classical-music composers and legendary racehorses once were.

Even the premier symphony orchestras and the most famous racetracks have had hard times.  In the past few years, for example, the New York Philharmonic posted record deficits, the Philadelphia Orchestra edged close to bankruptcy, and the Cleveland Orchestra instituted deep budget cuts.  Similarly, the prominent racetrack companies have had steep declines in handle and one went broke.

Whether classical music and horse racing, after hundreds of years, have finally reached the end of their lifecycles and will become increasingly irrelevant is yet to be determined.  The answer to this question depends on whether they can be made attractive enough to current and successive generations, by a combination of persuading more people to appreciate the centuries-old forms of entertainment as they are and simultaneously adapting to modern tastes and lifestyles.

Racetracks have reacted to their dilemma by downsizing and diversifying.  Robert Evans, CEO of Churchill Downs, told the 2010 University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming that the North American racing industry may see half as many major racetracks in the future, but ones offering higher purses.  Judging from the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corporation, the deep problems in New Jersey and Maryland racing, and the promising results of Monmouth Park with a curtailed calendar, what Evans projects is not a long-term proposition.

A perilous fact of life shared by classical music and horse racing is that they are subsidized.  Much of the revenue of the former comes from donations by patrons, foundations, and governments, whereas support for the latter ever more derives from slots contributions and various state breeder-incentive programs. 

While it would be tempting to lament a society in which relatively Johnny-come-lately sports are all the rage, while more intellectual historic icons like classical music and horse racing are tepidly supported, it would be a waste of time to do so.  A person running a business must approach things as they are, rather than as he or she wishes they were. 

Productive time needs to be spent on figuring out how to present such icons in the 21st century in order to compete in the new reality.  The pari-mutuel aspect of horse racing, in particular, is ideally suited for an era of proliferating mobile communications devices, the Internet, and contracted consumer leisure time.  The overriding structural issues that plague horse racing are inordinately high takeout–a turn-off to well-informed large-scale bettors–and too many races.  These are solvable problems, which is sweet music.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse.   Used with permission.


  1. ratherrapid says

    if that is how you look at it. business only–let’s eliminate all but 3 or 4 tracks. if you want a “sport” that will support racers, breeders, owners, trainers and provide the excitement of competition and owing your own small scale sports franchise–different thing, altogether.

  2. Bill Shanklin says

    Three or four tracks would not be nearly enough to support off-track wagering. The free market–supply and demand–will determine the right number of racetracks.