Updated on 09/15/2011 12:26PM

It's alive! Racing shows strong pulse

Michael J. Marten
The Belmont Stakes drew more than 70,000 fans and that was without a Triple Crown on the line.

WASHINGTON - Perhaps Thoroughbred racing isn't dead.

Popular response to the Belmont Stakes amazed even the dwindling number of optimists within the sport. Although no horse was in position to sweep the Triple Crown, 73,857 turned out at Belmont Park and television ratings were up 44 percent from last year. The Belmont came amid other positive signs: booming business and television ratings for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, as well as the presence of a horse racing book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," atop the bestseller lists.

The uplifting day in New York contrasts with the gloom-and-doom depictions of the sport that abound in the media. It is, of course, easy to spot the negative signs in modern horse racing. All you have to do is look around the grandstand of any American racetrack on an ordinary day. When The Washington Post analyzed the state of Maryland racing in a recent front-page article, it demonstrated the sport's dismal health this way: "Pimlico is a virtual West Baltimore ghost town, drawing a dwindling crowd of fans." AOL columnist Norman Chad visited some racing centers, and observed: "Here is what I saw at each one: Dozens of men, none under 40, with pasty complexion, a hot-dog-and-nachos diet, and a pack of Marlboros. It was the demographic Sloan-Kettering seeks. The betting windows look like lines headed to purgatory. If this is the future of horse

racing, suddenly I like soccer's chances."

These descriptions aren't too exaggerated; I get depressed when I see a few thousand people rattling around a grand facility like Belmont Park. But it is misleading to look at one measurement of the racing's business - attendance at live races - and conclude that it defines the state of the sport.

The racing industry made a decision in the last decade to change the traditional nature of its operations. Even purists recognized that, in the modern world, it was not a great business plan to ask customers to drive to a remote location, spend a weekday afternoon there and sit for 30 minutes between races. Horse racing began to offer a more interesting product and bring it closer to the consumers. The new era features interstate simulcasts, live racing on home television, telephone betting, and online wagering. Despite the popular belief that the sport is in decline, these changes have fueled sharp growth in the industry.

During the early 1990's, the annual wagering total in the United States was basically flat. Slightly less than $10 billion was wagered in 1994, and since then the trend has been steadily upward. Betting on Thoroughbred races last year exceeded $14 billion. Purse money - a crucial indicator of the sport's health - grew steadily, too, easily outpacing the inflation rate.

The growth came precisely because racetracks ceased to be dependent on the traditional live product, accounting for the big empty grandstands that appall everybody who surveys them. The customers who once were there are now sitting before banks of television monitors in simulcast theaters, where they may pay little attention to the live racing product. Or they have stayed at home to wager. Traditional racetracks are as anachronistic as big, imposing marble-floored downtown banks in an era when most people patronize branches in neighborhoods and shopping centers. But this change doesn't mean that the American banking industry is dead, and neither is horse racing.

One might expect that the racing industry would be trying to put the best face on its own health, yet many people within the business encourage pessimistic views. "Our image has become something of a self-inflicted wound," said Chip Tuttle, communications consultant to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "We have people who think that threatening to close their racetracks is an effective public relations strategy."

Because the sport is so heavily regulated, industry leaders often emphasize the negative in a bid to get legislative help. This is true in Maryland, where the sport's leaders believe that bad news will increase the chances of reaping a windfall from the legalization of slot machines.

"We'd be better off portraying all the good things that are happening," Tuttle said. "We really think that the sport has turned a corner."

Optimists within the industry believe they can build upon the sport's improved exposure on television and the success of the Triple Crown series.

"We're making headway," said Barry Schwartz, chairman of the New York Racing Association, "and I don't think anybody at Belmont would think otherwise. We had a great representation of young people and everybody had a good time. Of course I read all the moribund stories, but we're far from being on our last legs when the Derby can get 150,000 people and the Preakness 100,000. The challenge for us is to put on a great show so we can get 20,000 people on [an ordinary] Saturday."

Even if such a resurgence of live attendance never occurs (and it probably won't), a realistic assessment of horse racing's health isn't necessarily a dire one. The sport has certain events that generate popular enthusiasm and big crowds: the Triple Crown races, the Breeders' Cup, and the Saratoga and Del Mar meetings.

Otherwise, racing has transformed itself to generate wagering totals that would have been unimaginable in the good old days. An era that emphasizes simulcasts and telephone wagers may not be as appealing as the days when 40,000 people showed up to watch a workout by Seabiscuit, but it's not gloom and doom, either.

(c) 2001 The Washington Post