By Nan Mooney
Change is difficult, and our world is changing at an ungodly rate. Sometimes it seems easiest to just bow out. My 70-year-old father has yet to set his fingers on a computer keyboard and my guess is he never will.
My guess is he'll just nestle a little deeper into a previous era, one in which highways were paved with concrete instead of information. One that's already fading like the colors in an old painting, replaced by neon and fast-cuts, DSLs, MSNs, dotcoms, and iMacs. The gap between tradition and technology is stretching daily, getting grander and grander until soon it will be impossible to negotiate with a single leap. You'll be stuck on one side or the other. I don't mind leaving my father behind; he's happy there.
But racing doesn't have that luxury. It's got to jump and it's got to do it soon.
The Internet alone is crawling with potential opportunities. There's the chance to provide fans with floods of easy-to-access, well-linked, user-friendly, and free information. There's a forum for Internet auctions offering everything from yearlings to stallion shares to Breeders' Cup tickets. There's the ability to form partnerships that snake around the world, collecting enthusiasts from Hong Kong, Australia, and Brazil in one virtual marketplace. And of course there are the megabytes worth of income and intrigue that might be generated through Internet betting. The industry is moving forward in all these areas, but slowly, more akin to my father's pace than that of a high-speed modem. Things aren't moving faster, looking flashier, or arriving first every time. And in today's competitive sports arena, you simply can't afford to get trapped mid-pack.
So how does a sport which has spent thousands of years grounded in tendons, muscles, flesh, and bone morph itself into wires and servers and microchips?
It seems to me there are two options: it can grind away steadily, observing other businesses, accumulating knowledge, and hiring outside sources to boost its technological insight. Or it can wish like hell for a high-tech fairy godmother to transform everything with a wave of her server-secured wand. In an ideal fantasy world, we just might call her IBM.
When I read about IBM's interest in the racing industry (and this is IBM mind you; if it isn't extremely interested, it doesn't bother), I nearly started turning cartwheels down the hallway. It would take the sport years, decades, or most likely forever to gain the computer savvy IBM can pass on in a few nanoseconds. I'm paraphrasing here -- IBM stated it far more diplomatically -- but when the company went public about a possible agreement with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, it said the Thoroughbred industry is more technologically backwards than any company it has ever seen. Ever. If today is racing's spring of computer enhancement, the sport clearly hasn't wintered well. But talk about an instant makeover. IBM could take us out of the 19th Century and plug us straight into the 21st. We'd be putting in bullet works and running grade I's in no time.
Unfortunately, my brush with delirium didn't last. A few weeks later, I read about the newest high-tech development. Not contracts getting pounded out, tote companies actively analyzed, or IBM CEOs having lunch in turf clubs across the land. I read that the racing industry has some serious doubts about too much change too quickly, that it's actually considering turning IBM down. I have only one question:
Are you crazy?
When Cinderella's fairy godmother appeared, did she decide to keep sweeping the fireplace just because the dress didn't fit quite right? No. She wanted to go to the ball. She knew what racing can't seem to digest. Chances like this don't come along very often. For most people, they don't come along at all. If the industry waffles too long, I can pretty much guarantee that, when and if it comes to its senses and decides this IBM thing could be profitable after all, IBM will be long, long gone.
I like to think I'm an optimist. I like to think that Thoroughbreds are eternal and a sport born when the Olympics were still held in Greece will survive no matter what. But I'm also a realist. Real enough to know that this is no time to start riding scared. This is it, racing, your golden opportunity.
Let's get out of the gate and see if we can fly.Nan Mooney is a freelance writer based in New York.