WHY HORSE RACING DECLINED

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

Comments

  1. D. Masters says:

    Factor in what frequently happens to the racehorses (breakdowns and slaughter) and watching the trainwrecks live on TV (Eight Belles, Barbaro), a potential fan can get turned off or tune out real quick.

    Also, I think the disorganized gambling situation and disconnected regulatory authorities and enforcement make the game confusing. The “perfect storm”, if you will.

  2. Picksburg Phil says:

    You forgot to mention the cost of going to the track, including the confiscatory takeout. Horseracing is my favorite avocation but I never go to the track and rarely bet because of the cost and outrageous takeout. Casinos give you complimentary first class accomodations, along with complimentary food and drinks. Del Mar wants $8 to park your car. Where would you rather go?

  3. Mr. Shanklin, you forgot something: equine welfare. Racing is a pariah because of its ruthless exploitation of horses and shockingly high kill rate. The racing industry seems to be oblivious to how poorly it is being judged by society especially among its educated, mentally healthy, urban people.

    Many teenagers are becoming vegetarians for ethical, “green” and health reasons after watching videos of abusive factory animal practices and horrors at slaughterhouses on YouTube or hearing about it from friends. Racing needs to wake up and make equine welfare its top priority because YouTube has its share of catastrophic spills as well ready to be viewed by Generation Y!

  4. D. Masters says:

    Phil:

    $8 bucks at Del Mar and you’re complaining????

    I don’t think the fees are any more troublesome than going to a concert. I think the problem is the “rip-off” mentality that is running amuk in the US across all venues or enterprises. But I get your point. You’d think the tracks would comp parking. But I suspect your biggest bitch is that you don’t get enough perks because you bet. Which supports my contention that the bet game is a mess too. I pay $8+ to get into point-to-point’s. Not a problem for my day of entertainment and pleasure. Just one non-whale, non-betting fan’s opinion.

  5. sydney nignog says:

    you have your years mixed up. secretariat, seattle slew, dahlia, allez france were some of the best horses to ever race in the 70’s and early 80’s. handles rose dramatically with the advent of simulcasting. horseracing is very strong in GB, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia all of which have no claiming. Greed thru the exessive use of cheap claiming horses in additional gimmick races (pic6) are problems peculiar to north america only!

  6. Picksburg Phil,
    Perhaps you’re in California, but Keeneland still offers free parking, and you can buy an admission ticket for the whole spring meet for $10.
    I’m not a casino goer, but I believe you’re mistaken about the casinos giving complimentary first class accomodations, along with complimentary food and drinks anymore, unless you’re a high roller.
    Perhaps I’m wrong. I’d still prefer a day at the races to a day inside pushing buttons and playing games.

  7. I agree that horse welfare must be up there as one of the reasons for the decline. But Sydney is right that U.S. (and European) racing should look to the Asian models as how to do things right and keep the gambler happy. In Hong Kong, there’s plenty of competition just across the water in Macau, but the tracks are packed.

    And on another note, I would really like to know which casino in America will comp me with first-class accommodations and free food…

  8. It’s funny/sad, that you write an article about what is ailing horse racing, and then all you give us is a laundry list of the “outside” factors, as if nothing has gone wrong with our sport internally! Let’s blame it all on factors beyond what we have done to ruin OURSELVES. How irresponsible.

    You mention: Urbanization, Population Expansion in the Sunbelt, Competition, Eroding Leisure Time, why, according to YOUR list… racing is being besieged upon by outside forces beyond our control. You probably simply forgot to mention the medication abuses, slaughter, lack of horseman interest or integrity, rampant cheating, weaker horses built through greed, poor breeding practices, lack of vet or chemical regulation, greater take-out, signal legalities, etc. You have read the articles about how people within our own industry don’t trust the industry any longer, right? Hello? Are we seeing the same playing field? What type of callous disregard for responsibility are you peddling?

    Trust me our industry is suffering from the “reaping” season. It’s all coming home to roost. Cheater, abusers and takers have risen to power, and three decades of unlimited reign has left us licking the wounds you are blaming on others. EVERY one of your “reasons” could have been addressed in some fashion if we only had leaders with integrity and foresight.

    Three decades of lack of integrity has killed the sport.

  9. The professor is right. Horse racing was slipping way, way before slaughter and medication became issues. These only contributed after the sport had lost much of its fan base.

  10. D. Masters says:

    I’m not sure had say everything is great for the horse racing in Asia, especially if one is talking about horse welfare…..don’t they eat Kentucky Derby winners? In fact, don’t they eat all of them, eventually?

  11. Bob Caito says:

    Number 5 above should rank first. Racetrack management still treats it’s customers like excess baggage, even in the face of growing competition from casinos. Racetrack management would appear to lack the desire or the imagination to make horse racing successful again. Unless or until horse racing gets some bold leadership the future is no real future at all.

  12. The problem as i see it, is that horse racing is not “really” about horses. It is about gambling.

    So, the efforts should not go into creating a fan base for horses. You’ll get people that show up to watch the horses, but as noted they do not gamble.

    Bottom line is that gamblers are your customer: the basis of the horse racing industry.

    It is an industry based on a faulty, or at least shifting foundation: horse racing is not the only gambling option in town any longer and the pace is too slow (no pun intended for those harness racing fans).

  13. CHARLIE says:

    THE BIGGEST CONTRIBUTOR TO THE DECLINE OF HORSE RACING IS THE INDUSTRY IT SELF.THE BUSINESS IS NOT SHORT OF THIEVES,CON MEN AND HAS A LARGE AMOUNT OF PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY WHO ARE NOT VERY SMART AT EVERY LEVEL.THE INDUSTRY HAS NEVER INVESTED IN IT SELF.TRAINING THE PEOPLE WHO DO THE JOBS AND THEIR IS A SLEW OF JOB TITLES.ONLY NEW JERSEY AS A STATE A WHILE BACK MADE STRIDES IN THAT DIRECTION. THE BIGGEST JOKE ANY WHERE IS OF COURSE CALIFORNIA WITH IT’S MORATORIUM ON SYNTHYDIC TRACKS AND INSURANCE WOES THAT WENT IGNORED FOR MANY YEARS.THIS STATE IS THE ROLL MODEL OF REPUBLICAN THINKING REAGAN,DUKEMAJIAN.WILSON AND ARNOLD LESS TAX LESS REGULATING LEADS TO DISASTER.THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA STEWARDS DON’T APPLY RULES OF RACING,THEY MAKE UP THEIR OWN AS THEY GO.[Edited out because of an allegation against a specific person]. I COULD GO ON FOR EVER.THERE IS A SCANT CHANCE HORSE RACING IN CALIFORNIA LIVES ON MUCH LONGER.WHEN YOUR OWN REGULATING FORCE IS AS INEPT AS OURS OUT HERE YOU MUST FIND A HOLE FOR YOU HAVE BURIED YOURSELF.

  14. Bob Burnitt says:

    I agree with virtually ALL of the comments AND the article, there is not ONE erroneous point made. How often does THAT happen?? About the ONLY thing I can think of adding IS, in the late 70’s the double digit inflation and the inflation of everything SINCE really tore it a NEW ONE. When I started at the track in the 60’s a bag of Jockey Oats was about $3 bucks, by the middle to late 70’s they were $13 Bucks. A new pick up truck in 1969 a GOOD ONE was about $3.000 Drive out price, by the end of the decade they were $10,000 and I used to wear one out every two to three years. The ECONOMIC PRESSURE on Horsemen has a LOT to do with the “hard nose” or callous attitude I have seen develop. As a young person I held just about every badge on the Race Track. I have walked hots, Groomed, galloped horses, and eventually Trained and owned some horses. The above statements are all true to some extent. It can be a grand sport done IF it is done well. The two things I hated MOST when I was around the track was the terrible way the TRACK MANAGEMENT treated EVERYONE at MOST TRACKS. they treated the “customers” badly and the horsemen even WORSE. Most especially if you were not in the little clique of “privileged characters” that was around at every one of them. You know, even though I was “thrown” in to that sport in my teens, it is STILL the best years of my life. But it has gone downhill so much since I quit in the late 70’s. It is REALLY TERRIBLE now. The Trainers now are just “PROMOTERS” that have hundreds of horses in training and it is an “assembly line” “livery stable” type of training. Just a few, a very few people have all of the really expensive CLASS horses all sewed up. Never before in the sport have you seen a trainer have 5 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness or any other big stake race. Ridiculous. And the small tracks that were sometimes the most pleasurable to be around, at least they would treat the horsemen like human beings, these are all just about gone now. In the late 70’s it was very obvious to me it was beginning to go downhill Quickly. Amazing, It was so HIGH and it fell so low, in MY LIFETIME. I watched it all. Bob Burnitt

  15. markinsac says:

    I agree with the guy that griped about $8 parking. Going to a baseball game and going to the races are two different entities. At the track, WE GAMBLE; WE TRY TO BEAT THE GAME. In Los Angeles, the Indian Casinos give me $15 in free slot play every day if I ride a bus that picks me up near my house. So I don’t pay for parking, or admission or a racing form (which costs a total of $16 at Santa Anita). And I don’t for gas either.

    I feel much better being up $15 before I reach into my pocket unlike the track where I’m down $16. Now $16 doesn’t seem like much–if you go to the races only once or twice a year. But many die-hards go every day. As an example, let’s just say I go to the races twice a week. That’s $32 multiplied by 52 weeks for a total of $1,664 a year! And then you have to battle a 20% takeout!

    Those fees make beating the game almost impossible. I retired from the races when Zenyatta retired. I was tired of being a sucker.

    When racing lowers it’s cost to the customer, I might come back. But I’m not holding my breath.

  16. Hello,

    I am from NYC and during the 1960’s worked at local racetracks walking hots and grooming horses. I was taken to racetrack by my father, this was when I was 7 years old. I was already learning how to handicap. Here in NYC OTB went under and I used to go daily to check out races. However, I think the use of drugs to try and enhance horses abiloity has hurt the sport. I recall the sublimaze scandal during the 1970’s and many trainers got in trouble. Bute was forbidden years ago, and dancer’s Image, who won KY Derby in 68′ was disqualified for using the drug. Tofday folks like casino gambling, it’s fast action, where racing takes time ,
    half – hour between races. Today’s young folks, were not brought up with racing, like I was . Most are not able to read the form[ Telly]. Maybe if another Secretariat came along it would give the sport a boost, but now it’s dying.

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