By Nan Mooney
Most racetrack insiders have their own peculiar way of viewing the world. Officials see daily handles and unfilled races. Trainers see purses and stall space. Jockeys see purses and future mounts. Owners just see purses.
But there is a problem in all this, a crucial viewpoint that appears to be getting lost. Everyone on the inside is so busy looking sideways, they seem to have forgotten about all of us on the outside looking in. They've forgotten what the racetrack looks like through the eyes of a fan.
The late great racing columnist Joe Palmer once claimed horseplayers require only two items for happiness: dim corridors and drinking fountains, and that to provide anything ritzier is nothing short of a waste. Though I can appreciate Palmer's reasoning, I think perhaps today's tracks have taken his point a little too much to heart. For what it's worth, looking through the eyes of a fan, this is what I see:
1) I see dim corridors and drinking fountains, or at least the modern equivalent. I see kiosks selling pretzels and beer, hot dogs and beer, ice cream and beer, then packing up to go home just after the seventh race. I see a little bit of landscaping and a lot of concrete. Fans come for a full day at the races. We want to eat, drink, spread out, and be entertained. And, in the interest of entertaining more of us, racetracks need to do some serious sprucing up. They need classy, modern restaurants (Santa Anita gets points for this), not the equivalent of Denny's on the homestretch. They need gift shops selling penny candy, disposable cameras, and fun, quirky, horsey stuff. They need brighter colors and more comfortable chairs. They need to start drawing people because of the atmosphere, not in spite of it.
2) I see betting windows flanked by signs with basic instructions in small print. I see tiny TVs showing races I can barely see from tracks I've never heard of. Betting is racing's golden egg. Some officials seem to have gotten the idea the sport should market itself as a family activity instead of a gambling concern. Why not think like Las Vegas and let everyone know racing's so big it's got room for both? We are a country of gamblers, living and dying by the stock market. And most small-time bettors like to up the risk as they go along. Today's $20 wagerers are tomorrow's $1,000 players. And you can be pretty damn sure they're bringing their friends.
Here's one idea on how to get people started: beginner's windows. We first-timers don't need to understand everything. I've watched plenty of Yankees games without knowing a single RBI. We just need to feel relaxed enough to try. Opting for a beginner's line could mean accepting you'll wait while the clerk explains simulcasting or an exacta wheel. Or it could mean peering over the shoulder in front of you in case you want to try that wheel thing the next time around.
3) I see focus on daily intake -- handle, simulcast, attendance -- and not on the bigger picture. For all the controversy surrounding Frank Stronach, it seems to me he's got some ideas that are extremely right on. He's not just applying Band-Aids, but investing in serious changes in the hopes of attracting a fresh generation of fans. It's called long-term strategy. There is one basic law everyone at the racetrack should know by heart. The fastest horse doesn't necessarily win the race.
I know it's easy enough for me to sit here and call out for improvements. I know that, despite continually rising handles, there never seems to be enough extra money for anything at all. And I don't have an easy answer to this. All I can say is that, in an industry in which people pay $60-plus million for a single horse, I find it difficult to believe there aren't a few spare bucks to be found.
Lest you think I've decided to high-tail it from the nearest ugly racetrack never to return, I do have to mention the last thing I see. And the first. And the thing that keeps popping up in between.
I see racehorses -- splendid, fine-boned, flowing like water racehorses. Looking through the eyes of a fan, I see one thing that should never, ever change.NAN MOONEY is a freelance writer based in New York City.