Horse racing is not about social frivolity

Jim Donovan

Del Mar

I have been offering my many decades of racing and marketing experience to the cause of racing’s alarming decline, primarily in the industry’s weekly newsmagazine, ever since it became the industry’s No. 1 problem, which in many ways is a different situation than at a major beach resort during the tourist season, that being Del Mar. Although I have given up on my efforts at the national level, I must comment on your lead stories of July 14, addressed to opening day and the season to follow, because what they said and didn’t say are reflective of the problem at its root.

Your stories totalled approximately 1,000 words, yet only about 100 directly concerned horse racing, with most of those of little value to the knowledgeable racing fan. Dominating the stories was the annual hat contest that, combined with other social attractions, accounts for an attendance of approximately 45,000 because, as one of the story’s subheads says, “Opening Day is the place to be.”

Yes, the place to be, to see and be seen, to socialize and dine and drink and virtually everything that people in search of social frivolity do. Plus, on 10 days during the season a live concert by groups such as Ziggy Marley, the Weezer and the Tantrums (schedule was prominently featured on page 1). Such non-racing attractions have been producing annual increases while other racetracks have gone into bankruptcy and more are on the verge unless their state allows them other forms of gaming, meaning mindless games like slot machines. Churchill Downs, the legendary home of the Kentucky Derby, has made it clear that it cannot survive with horse racing alone.

But does football, basketball and baseball need contests, concerts and after-the-game beer and taco parties to survive? Can you imagine a story in the New York Times preceding opening day at Yankee Stadium devoted to a long list of social attractions because there is no other way to induce attendance at a Yankee game? What would that tell you about the viability and future of baseball?

The vast majority who attend other major sports are fans who know their game and virtually everything about the players. How many on opening day or any day at Del Mar are fans who know racing and its players? I can answer that because I’ve been monitoring the question ever since management decided to “have a party” rather than to continue trying to market racing as its product. The answer is relatively few, overwhelmingly so compared to the days when eight races a day was the only attraction needed to pack the house.

But in the always-honest words of CEO Joe Harper: “I’m not sure we’re making any new fans for racing...” a statement that should speak for itself so I’ll resist saying the obvious, except that neither is anyone else and that, precisely, is the problem. Meantime, party goers and those with no interest in the state of racing, here or elsewhere, should know that racing here is totally dependent upon racing elsewhere.

What better way to end this than to quote the last page of your story, stated as an afterthought to the long list of irrelevant attractions: “And of course there are the horses.” Of course?

Such is the story of what the Sport of Kings has become, since the days when it was all about the horses and the most popular of all sports.

There is an old business axiom that says it all: “Nothing happens until something is sold.” As borne out by all of the above.