05/20/2010 11:00PM

U.S. racing struggling without TV presence


NEW YORK - The headlines are depressing, at least to anyone who still reads newspapers. Belmont and Saratoga to close. Oak Tree booted out of Santa Anita. The Breeders' Cup homeless. Hollywood Park to become a housing development.

Maybe all of this can be avoided, but the fact that people are discussing the possibilities is very bad news. Can anything be done about it? A more pointed question might be: Why wasn't anything done in the last 25 years to prevent it?

This is the American racing industry in its latest, most extreme form of panic mode. Attendance is down. Handle is down. The quality of racing is down. And, most horrible of all, there will be no Triple Crown winner this year! Perhaps it might be of some value to take a few steps back and take a look at the bigger picture and compare the way racing is run in some foreign countries as opposed to the way it is run -- or not run -- here.

Perhaps the biggest difference between American racing and the products in Europe and Asia is the lack of a central American authority. Being small nations, Britain, France, and Ireland, or Japan, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates have strong jockey clubs that can -- and have -- put the kibosh on many of the negative influences that have run American racing aground. They include an effective ban on raceday medication and an ability to prevent too much racing from clogging the arteries of horse, horseman, and player alike. A strong central authority also can prevent too many racecourses from being built, and it can more effectively influence government policy toward racing. Countries like Britain, Ireland, and France mete out their meetings judiciously throughout the year. Year-round racing in a single jurisdiction like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Miami is unheard of in Europe or Asia, where federal governments have learned that racing is best conducted as a seasonal endeavor, something state governments in America have failed to understand.

Would an all-powerful American racing czar help? Perhaps, as long as he isn't a graduate of NYRA Tech, Magna U., or NTRA A&M.

In countries like Britain, Ireland, Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia, racing is marketed as a three-prong attraction: as an equine sport, a social outing, and as a venue for gambling. The marketing models of virtually all American racetracks over the last quarter-century have been geared toward attracting not merely the gambler, but the big gambler. But with year-round racing and dozens of tracks and exotic wagers from which to choose, that type of character will tap out sooner rather than later under the onus of a parimutuel system that necessarily subtracts between 15 and 25 cents from every dollar he bets. The result are aging tribes of disheveled, lone wolves prowling increasingly empty grandstands, creating an atmosphere hardly conducive to attracting young people, women, or families to the track.

And then there are the American television networks, which collectively disdain racing as if it was the leading cause of eye cancer. NBC and ABC, the only major networks that televise any horse racing, limit their annual schedules to a few programs per year. The networks can't even manage to show all 14 Breeders' Cup races.

Contrast that with Britain, where Channel 4, a traditional terrestrial network like NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox, presented 82 racing programs in 2009 and will do so again this year. Generally, these are two-hour programs with a total of six races from two different tracks. In 2009, Channel 4 televised 495 races live. Moreover, BBC-TV offers the Oaks and Derby meetings from Epsom, complete coverage of the five-day Royal Ascot meeting, Ascot's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes Day, and the same track's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes Day, plus Aintree's three-day Grand National Meeting.

In this day and age, a sport doesn't exist unless it is seen regularly on national network television. The decades-long presence of baseball, pro and college football, golf, and Nascar on network TV is the underlying reason for the success of those sports. The absence of horse racing from the networks is the underlying reason why our sport is struggling.

Racetracks can talk all they want about simulcast wagering, new exotic wagers, and T-shirt giveaways. They can promote ever new ways to attract Internet players. They can go down on bended knee before their state governments. They can threaten closure and bankruptcy. But until they bring their product to the American public en masse, they will continue to strangle themselves.

Last Friday, there was a crowd of 41,369 at Arlington Park, but they weren't there for the racing. They had come to see Lee DeWyze, an American Idol finalist who has been performing regularly on Fox Network.

Do the lords of American racing see the connection?