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