By Robert McNair
Much has been written about the need to attract more fans to horse racing. As a newcomer to the sport, perhaps my perspective is more in line with the casual fan than that of the longtime owner or breeder who is more familiar with the complexities of racing than I.
Racing used to be a major sport in the 1930s along with baseball and college football, but has since become a minor one. This concerns me, and I'd like to see the sport regain its popularity. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association reports we have about three-million dedicated fans and 19-million casual ones. If those casual followers can be converted into dedicated fans, racing would be a dynamic industry with bigger purses, stronger sale prices, and healthier racetracks.
I believe the core issue is: Are we a gaming industry with a sport element, or are we a sport with a gaming element? That issue has not been addressed, but once it is, many of the other questions before us can be more easily answered.
If we wish to be a gaming enterprise first and a sport second, then we should continue with business as usual. However, that course will not produce the increase in fan interest and television ratings that we say we want. That is because the casual fan does not understand our sport with all its complexities, and will not spend the time necessary to become knowledgeable about it when there are so many other sports he can follow without going through the learning curve.
If, on the other hand, we say we want to expand our fan base, we must look at racing from a sportsman's perspective and ask how we can simplify it so the casual fan can understand the game.
The first requirement is to have a season with a beginning and ending as other sports do, with a championship and standings published during the season that show the positions occupied by each top horse. The NTRA and Breeders' Cup have accomplished this with the Road to the Breeders' Cup and the BC World Thoroughbred Championships.
We also need to examine the handicap system. Our horses are the true heroes, but the better the horse, the more we penalize him to bring his performance down. No other sport does this, and fans don't understand it. What would we say if NFL running back Emmett Smith had to carry an extra 10 pounds because he's faster than the other backs; or if Mark McGwire only got two strikes instead of three; or if Michael Jordan had to have weight added because he jumps higher than other basketball players. We'd say that's absurd, but that's what we do with our equine athletes by handicapping them.
We must also have uniform rules that are clear, easily understood, and enforceable. Imagine if my NFL Houston Texans go to New York and play under one set of rules, and then go to Miami and compete under a different set of rules. We would all agree that makes no sense, yet that's what we do in horse racing.
It is crucial that our industry have more heroes. Every popular sport has its heroes who are supported by that sport. They are protected as valuable assets and not deprecated. Yet we have situations where trainers may or may not have violated medication rules, and these incidents are publicized as "drug violations." This hurts not just the trainer, but the whole industry.
If I take Advil before I play golf, no one would suggest I'm using drugs. Yet if the same therapeutic medication is given to a horse on race day, it's a "drug violation." The public relates drug violations to illegal drugs, not anti-inflammatories. We need to refer to violations in a fashion that the public understands. Once we have uniform rules with performance-altering thresholds established, we should have random testing with a three-strikes-and-you're-out policy.
Some observers say that you can't get the various states to agree on uniform standards. If that were the case, I'd be in favor of banning all drugs. You'd certainly have a level playing field until uniform standards could be established.
I don't suggest these comments represent perfect answers for our industry. They are merely thoughts that hopefully will provoke constructive discussion. We, as an industry, are moving in the right direction, but can do even better. ROBERT McNAIR owns Stonerside Farm near Paris, Ky., and has raced such outstanding horses as Chilukki, Congaree, Tout Charmant, Coronado's Quest, and Touch Gold.