Commentary: Group Therapy

By Bruce Greene

I have been to the racetrack thousands of times. From Churchill Downs on Derby day, to the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale on Marathon day. I have memories of tracks and champions that no longer exist.

Longacres, John Henry, and a muddy set of goggles worn in a major Derby prep all figure prominently in my personal set of souvenirs. I’ve seen the fog roll in at the old Jefferson Downs, and I’ve seen Lost in the Fog roll on at Golden Gate Fields.

Like the crustiest old hardboot, I know that just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes something else. It’s either a psychotic standing in front of Artax in deep stretch, or cobra venom, or even a stalled tractor leaving a starting gate sitting like an enormous hurdle across the track as a full field rounds the far turn. But the one thing I’m not prepared for is the current malaise our beloved sport seems to be battling. I’m not ready for the death of horse racing as a spectator sport.

Being a witness to the technological advancements that are daily changing the perception and popularity of horse racing, I decided to do something about it. To borrow a phrase from noble American Steven Colbert, “I am a live horse racing fan, and so should you.” What I did was simple. I took a group of young people to the races. They ranged in age from their mid 20s to late 30s.

Last year, in the midst of Street Sense’s Triple Crown quest, Calvin Borel was asked about riding at Pimlico for the first time “It’s a racetrack,” he said deadpan. “It’s an oval; it looks just like the others I’ve ridden on.” Similarly, you could probably take any young, eager, yet uninitiated group to any track and have an experience similar to mine.

As a new resident of Portland, Ore., I miss the quality and pageantry of California racing. I thought I could rely on cable TV or simulcasting to get by, but seeing the crowds at Keene­land last year, I have to confess I miss being there. Given the way many tracks handle the maze of TV screens, the overlapping post parades and post times, any emotionally sane person eventually succumbs to the confusion and distraction. How were my young friends going to handle their experience?

After a short tutorial, they focused only on the live racing. They particularly enjoyed following the runners from saddling paddock to post parade to warm-up to the gate. They listened. When I was right, they thought I really knew my stuff. When I was wrong, they realized the inexact science of it all. They were not ready for Beyer Speed Figures or track bias yet. But they paid attention to percentages, body language, and past performances. All cashed some tickets.

Here’s what I learned: the horse still comes first.

I was almost apologetic for the fact they wouldn’t see too many future stakes winners or Hall of Famers in our neck of the woods. That didn’t matter. They marveled at the beauty of a Thoroughbred, any Thoroughbred.

There are millions like my 30-­something friends. They will never see the inside of a paddock, or wait for the gate to open with their hearts in their throats. If any do happen to wander into a racetrack, they’ll no doubt be intimidated by the dueling TV screens, the impatience of many, and the daunting menu of bets available. They may wonder why so few take time to walk outside and watch a race as it is being run.

It would seem to be fourth and long, but I wouldn’t punt just yet. Like that race with a stalled tractor trying to pull the gate off the course, tragedy can be avoided. Those jocks, with a heads up from the track announcer, helped each other out that day. They organized themselves single file, scooted through a narrow opening by the rail, and pulled up their mounts with no injuries. The starting gate, like a dead dinosaur, never moved. The will to make things happen can surmount catastrophe.

I know that technology is probably the key to bringing in a young fan base. The Generation Xers are comfortable with self-service terminals and can easily navigate racing-oriented Web sites. It’s getting them to the track that’s going to be the ticket, and that’s where you come in. Take someone half your age to the racetrack. You’ll both learn a lot.

Bruce Greene is a former correspondent for The Blood-Horse and associate member of the National Turf Writers Association