03/22/2005 1:00AM

Let's dial up some new fans


TUCSON, Ariz. - Wow! Gee! Golly!

ESPN reports that fan interest in racing is up 5.1 percent, from 35.6 percent to 37.4 percent of the U.S. adult population. That means a total fan base of 78.5 million, the highest registered by any sport in 2004. Thoroughbred racing, ESPN says, is the only sport whose fan base has increased in each of the last five years.

Holy cow! We've surpassed golf, boxing, and fishing, ESPN says.

I'm reminded of the late, great New York turf writer Clyde Hirt, who used to have a column feature called "Impertinent Questions."

I have one now.

Where are all these people?

They certainly are not at the racetrack, where attendance figures are down almost uniformly nationwide.

ESPN's poll asked if the fan "was a little bit interested, somewhat interested, or very interested," and those glowing numbers for racing's increase reflected those who were "a little bit interested."

I have a hunch that the wildly popular Funny Cide and Smarty Jones had a lot to do with skewing the figures.

While ESPN was getting ready to announce these wonderfully optimistic figures in Connecticut, on the opposite coast were two racing veterans, racing commissioner Richard Shapiro of the California Horse Racing Board and Bill Hoge, a former influential California legislator who was chairman of the committee that had oversight of racing in the state. They were debating the subject "Returning Fans to the Racetrack, and Solving Problems That Have Driven Them Away" at the joint Thoroughbred Racing Associations/Harness Tracks of America meeting.

Hoge identified himself as "a former degenerate politician who has risen above that to be a professional gambler." He said he had a lifelong passion for racing and loved the game, that he had attended 80 percent of the live races at Santa Anita in 2002 and 70 percent in 2003. Last year, he said, he went four times. He complained bitterly that no one from the track had called to ask him if he had died, was okay, or what the track might do to get him back. He said he was reasonably sure a casino would have done that if he were one of their better players who suddenly stopped attending.

I asked him why he was there only four times, thinking perhaps he had been ill or had major surgery or some personal problem.

He said the reason was that it was much more convenient to bet from home. Richard Shapiro touched on this, saying tracks had better find a way to make it easy for fans to understand the sport. He said that tracks hadn't done much to promote the game, and that regulators had done a terrible job of policing it.

Not by coincidence, two other speakers on the TRA/HTA program were Annie Allman of Harrah's Entertainment and Atique Shah of Churchill Downs, discussing customer relationship databases - essentially what Bill Hoge was complaining about.

Also featured on the program was Bob Rapp, group product manager of Strategic Enterprise Planning for mobile and embedded devices at Microsoft, discussing "Wireless: The Realities of Where It Is, Where It Is Going, and What Racing Can Expect."

He told the track operators that by 2009 they would be looking at 2.3 billion people using wireless devices, either cell phones or more sophisticated handheld computers. He said that in Europe, which he called 24 to 36 months ahead of North America in wireless use, 14 percent of those people paid money to gamble using their devices, and he said research showed that if they risked money for one form of gambling, they would risk it for all forms, including horse racing.

He said there were huge opportunities out there - and technology available today - to personalize and customize those devices for horseplayers, sending them fast and vast amounts of information on the races and providing them with data so they could play the horses when they wanted to and from wherever they happened to be.

Rapp's remarks and the Shapiro-Hoge debate, and all the other discussions from the TRA/HTA meeting, can be seen and heard on streaming video at www.harnesstracks.com.

Bill Hoge's laments and Bob Rapp's vision of a wireless world close at hand may not contribute as much to happy PR chatter as the ESPN report on the increasing number of people who may be "a little bit interested" in horse racing.

They mean vastly more, however, to the future of racing.