Attracting new fans to horse racing - and keeping existing ones - is one of the sport’s biggest challenges. I started thinking about this more when I reported on the attendance at this year’s Saratoga meet. Despite heavy promotion of the Saratoga 150 celebration and summer weather that was as close to perfect as we are ever going to see, attendance for this year was down almost four per cent below that of last year.
Most discussions about increasing interest in the sport center on the role of drugs. While I do not discount the significance of that as a potential impediment, I am more interested for the moment in how you got into racing. Perhaps a more difficult question is why you got hooked. At the end, I will describe how you can respond to this question (with your privacy guaranteed). But first, here is my story.
Growing up, my only contact with racing was being in the house when my father was watching one of the Triple Crown races. He was not a racing fan and I suspect he was watching because of the limited menu of sports on TV. I have a distinct recollection - for reasons that escape me - of Tim Tam’s Derby. It may have been the name, or perhaps the call of Fred Capossela.
Other than watching the occasional Triple Crown race, I had no interest in racing until the woman with whom I was living got tickets for the Kentucky Derby. She had watched the Derby the previous year with another man and they decided to each write for tickets. When she got them, he was no longer in the picture, and we decided that even though we were buying a house, how could we miss the “greatest two minutes in sport?”
When we arrived in Kentucky that year, we heard that Churchill Downs actually ran races on days other than the first Saturday in May, and went to the track. Kentucky Oaks day was the first time either of us had ever been to a race track. The next day I actually had the winner and the woman who would become my wife had the second horse. We had never heard of the term “exacta.” We had a great time. Someone told us that if we wrote to Churchill saying what a wonderful experience it was, they would continue to send us tickets. We thought it would be a great thing to give to others, never thinking that we would actually want to go each year.
In August, a work colleague suggested getting a group together to go to Saratoga. To me, “Saratoga” was a place on that page in the sports section where the baseball statistics resided. We went on a day a race called the Travers was run. Neither of us had either part of the exacta this time, but we were hooked.
On the following Saturday, we went to a wedding in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. On the way, we had to catch the Hopeful. So there we were, in the Penn Station OTB, dressed for a wedding. I would guess we kind of stood out in a venue that was probably as far from the Saratoga experience as you could get, but we absolutely had to see that race. (Gulch won.)
So that’s how we got hooked. The why is a much more difficult question. It turns out that we both loved to handicap, and we both loved nothing more than being at a racetrack, especially for the morning workouts. We would go to Suffolk Downs in the morning (when we had horses there), and then go back through the tunnel to go to our jobs in Boston. Nothing compares to the experience of having a horse nicker when she recognizes you. Or, for that matter, nothing compares with winning a nice bet through some good handicapping.
So that’s my story. What’s yours? You can respond in two ways. If you are willing to be public, you can click on “comments” under the heading. If you do not wish to be public, please respond by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are willing to be contacted for follow-up, please let me know that by stating so in your email. If I do contact you by email, it will only be sent to you and not to a broader group so as to guarantee your confidentiality.
I hope you respond. I think this could represent an opportunity to inform the discussion about increasing the appeal of our sport. And, if it doesn’t, it should provide some great stories.