Commentary: Get the Door, Please

I was intrigued when I read in Daily Racing Form that of the top 30 finishers in a recent million-dollar handicapping contest in Las Vegas sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, six were women. Twenty-five women took part in the event, which had some 278 participants who had qualified in tournaments held around the country.

The gross numbers are not mentioned to suggest that women are not intellectually competent to compete with men handicapping horse races. Far from it. I’ve been married to the same woman for nearly 42 years and she is smarter than I am on every level. Reminds me of it from time to time, too.

But she, like so many others of her gender, could care less about handicapping a horse race other than during the few times a year she travels with me to major events.

Why is that, I wonder? Is it because we raise our daughters—I have two who are just like their mother—to be interested in other, more important things? Or could it be that horse racing in this country does not go out of its way to make women feel comfortable at the track or the local simulcasting facility?

My mother, great lady that she was, enjoyed a trip to the track now and then or playing the Kentucky Derby, her wagers mostly involving grays. It is a simple fact—women love gray horses. Looking at the Form was never part of her selection process.

My father was a horse player all his adult life (he lived to the ripe old age of 97 and still was playing the horses into his 90s) when racing was the only game in town, state governments in dire need of funds having turned to the sport to provide a much-needed cash infusion into their coffers. Those really were the days when horses and jockeys became national heroes in America.

So it was natural, then, that I would take an interest in racing, given the exposure to it he provided. Ellis Park was my track as a child, and I still love going there all these years later.

Illegal bookmaking sites served as my father’s off-track wagering facility. When I was a child, he took me into a couple of them, with blackboards filled with entries and ticker-tape machines providing results. And, of course, the audience was invariably all male.

Even more so today than in those days, one has no need to travel to a racetrack to get some action. Simulcasting facilities abound. Trouble is, we all have been in some such facilities unfit for men, let alone women. There is nothing more unappealing than a smoke-filled room of unshaven men playing the ponies. Certainly, no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in many of these places.

I remember reading some time back how popular horse racing was with women in Japan. The track was the in-place to be. Jockeys and horses there indeed were national heroes, and the tracks were friendly confines for women as well as men. And tracks should know: where the young women are, young men follow.

Our tracks do have some racedays with live entertainment designed to attract a younger crowd, but I don’t recall any attempt to specifically involve women in the handicapping of the races.
The sport must be willing to educate young female players, then give them desirable surroundings in which to hone their newly-learned skills, be they on- or off-track.

There can be no doubt now, given the results of the handicapping contest I spoke of, that there clearly is a target audience among women for the sport to embrace.

If 25 women qualified for a million-dollar event, one can only wonder how many took part in at least attempting to qualify.

Will the tracks follow that lead? That remains to be seen. I sometimes wonder about those who run our game. I’ve been watching them for nearly 40 years as a member of the racing media, and often fear for the future because of the fractured nature of racing in the U.S. that has been prevalent for so long.

But I’m not yet ready to throw in the towel, especially now that I know that there still is a large pool of potential new players out there just waiting to be asked to the party.

Will some kind gentleman get the door, please?

Dan Farley, former editor of The Thoroughbred Record, is the U.S. correspondent for the Racing Post.