06/28/2007 11:00PM

Confusing business with nostalgia

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NEW YORK - It has been refreshing to see the issue of early retirements and abbreviated careers generate the amount of public discussion that it has in recent weeks. Fans were widely dismayed by the rapid sale of breeding rights to Street Sense and Hard Spun, which virtually guaranteed they would be departing for stud within six months after their one-two finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Then this past week there was further disappointment over the retirements of Invasor and Scat Daddy. Commentators and online posters have been furiously debating whether Invasor can be compared to the great horses of yesteryear off a 12-race career, and wondering if there's something fundamentally wrong with a game where it makes more economic sense to retire Scat Daddy rather than giving him 90 days to recover from an injury and race him again.

The discussion is healthy and appropriate, especially if it ends up influencing a few borderline decision about other horses in the future. The announcement that Rags to Riches will probably race next year, while economically easier since a broodmare can drop just one foal a year instead of siring 200, seemed in part a nod to the issue on the part of her connections, who have been criticized on two continents for hastily whisking classic colts to stud. Ric Waldman, a prominent bloodstock agent, suggested in a recent interview with Daily Racing Form's Glenye Cain Oakford that buyers and breeders are becoming "sensitive to the public outcry against early retirement."

The discussion, however, invariably ends up going one step too far. It is becoming accepted as gospel that racing's biggest problem is the lack of star horses who would allegedly attract vast crowds and barrels of betting dollars if only they could return to race year after year. The premise is unsupported by any evidence, serves to distract from what the industry's priorities should be, and is typical of a sport that too often substitutes hopeless nostalgia for realistic goals.

On a recent Friday afternoon at Belmont, there was a race that, under the star-power theory, should have drawn throngs: Funny Cide, America's darling when he won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and Evening Attire, hero of that year's Jockey Club Gold Cup, squaring off at 1 1/2 miles at the scene of their greatest triumphs. Now respectively 7 and 9 years old and with a combined 91 career starts under their girths, the two gallant old geldings still enjoy what they do. Their surprising appearance in a $65,000 overnight stakes was genuinely heartwarming to the sentimentalists among the 2,271 people in attendance - 500 fewer than had shown up at Belmont the day before. The betting pools on the race were no larger than they were for the forgettable turf-sprint allowance race a half-hour earlier.

Keeping horses in training longer has no downside, and the extended careers of Funny Cide and Evening Attire, or Lava Man and The Tin Man in California, make existing customers feel a little warmer and fuzzier about the game. It does not, however, capture the imagination of the general public, attract novices to the game, or begin to address racing's fundamental business problem: its inability to put on a sufficiently compelling daily product in an inviting environment, or to explain and promote the joys of handicapping and wagering.

Instead of addressing issues of lagging technology, aging facilities, a lack of new wagering products, and primitive customer service in a businesslike fashion, racing prefers to long wistfully for its monopoly days of packed grandstands on weekday afternoons, and to pretend that some magical slogan or superhorse will turn back the clock on a half-century of seismic changes in the worlds of entertainment and gambling.

Between 1990 and 2000, the North American parimutuel handle increased from $10 billion to $15 billion, due not to some emergence of star horses with long careers but to the convenience of full-card simulcasting and an explosion of new betting opportunities. Since then, the figure has not budged, despite all the feel-good stories and relentless promotion of Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and the "Seabiscuit" phenomenon. Instead of thinking like 21st century business operators competing for market share, racing prefers to imagine that some old-style publicity, perhaps an extra daily paragraph of coverage buried in the sports section of the local newspaper, will suddenly make it become 1957 again.

There are things like longer careers that racing fans would like to see happen for the sake of their beloved sport, and things the industry needs to do to grow - but they are not necessarily the same things.