Mar 12, 2010

Diary of a lonely horse racing fan

With Saratoga's racing now at risk, does anyone REALLY care?

Although it was decades ago, I recall my very first visit as a young boy to the race track in Saratoga. My father took a weekday afternoon off from work, picked me up from the front porch where I had been waiting in eager anticipation and off to “the bank on Union Avenue” we went.

As a precursor to my permanent future, I went right to work, handing over my hard earned two dollars for a show bet on the first race; a mile long affair from the old Wilson chute and on a CV Whitney runner. I know this level of detail today because I still have the program from that day. And yes, it was a $2.80 winner.

I was hooked. August became the highlight of my year, and the racing form became my summer reading. When I got a bit older, my friends and I would ride over to the action ourselves, dropping our bicycles along the Oklahoma track fence (no lock needed) and sneaking through a gap in the iron fence at the top of the stretch as a way of funding an extra wager. Ah, the benefits of being a skinny little junior high school runt.

Before heading over each day, I'd stop by my grandfather's house. Born in 1900, here was a guy who came of age at just the time where he witnessed the early heroes of the sport, long claiming that if the photographer had used a slightly wider angle, the famous photo of Man O War losing to Upset would have included a 19-year old lad in the infield that was none other than him. He followed the local meet right up to the last day of his life, and I'd run his $2 daily double wager over with me. His 'tip' to me for that valued service was to underwrite my own similar investment.

Most of my buddies were in the same boat, having inherited this love for the sport of kings in the same manner; from the prior generation or two. We could all read the Form by the time we hit double digits, and a copy of such would often make its way around study hall on any given day, even during the off season. Come high school, we'd gather daily, thirty to fifty at a time, at that part of the grandstand where the original section meets the 60's addition, back when they permitted such a gathering in the aisle way. One needn't bother even finding someone to go to the track with; you just showed up and found them all there.

Together, we witnessed our own versions of Man O War. I recall Secretariat's Hopeful, when the huge chestnut, his coat glistening in the sun, swallowed up Stop the Music on the far turn and my friend Stevie Boy tossing his as good-as-dead ticket into the air in front of me, saying “I just lost my last $2 , but I think I lost it to the next Derby winner.” He was right, of course.

The next year, Secretariat returned as the conquering savior of the sport, having won the Triple Crown during the interim, in breathtaking fashion. The Whitney was marked as his prep for the Travers, and he was matched up against a field of seemingly over-matched high level allowance horses. But one of those was a horse named Onion, who by fluke was a family favorite because of his gutty reputation as a hard knocking sprinter that had rewarded our backing in past years. My mother sent a bet over on our old friend from her Broadway workplace, and lo and behold, she was one of the few that can honestly say “I beat Secretariat with Onion” – although she was disappointed that she only got 9/2 on him.

Summer jobs and that eventual scattering to all points called college started the long process of dimming the old gang's enthusiasm to a more reasonable level. As the majority of us moved away from the hometown, we realized that Saratoga is a very unique island; a fluke of a place where people actually care deeply about this old relic of an activity called horse racing. The rest of the world certainly doesn't.

Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, the Big Three sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing, the latter two are today nothing more than niche sports, with racing now ranking alongside bull riding, skiing or judo in general popularity. Certainly, part of that is due to the disconnect between the average American and the equine species; after all, how many of us have a horse in the barn out back? Plus, the gambling monopoly once afforded to racing is now gone and the new competitive environment is having the expected negative consequences.

Horse racing is in trouble; on the verge of irrelevance. If not for its ability to generate cash flow into state treasuries, there might not be more than a dozen operating tracks in the nation. New York horse racing is in DEEP trouble, for reasons that have been exhausted in previous columns here on this forum. The Saratoga meet --- the crown jewel of NYRA's three-track / year-round circus --- is even now part of the panic, with some observers raising the prospect of the '10 +/or '11 meets being endangered. The effects of such a turn of events on the local and regional economies can be summarized in one word: disastrous. Now is the time to put all hands on deck, to unite the local forces in an effort to prevent such a calamity.

Certainly, we see local officials rallying to the cause and mobilizing certain forces. Other vested parties – local business groups, real estate interests, tourist bureaus – are pressing the flesh and making the case. All of this is worthy, all of it is necessary.

But missing from the equation is passion. It's one thing to be rallying around a breadbasket issue, it's another to be rallying around an issue that is felt from the heart. To a certain degree that passion is absent from the modern day Saratoga Springs collective body. When one does not have the long family and social ties to something – the way in which I described my own connection to this particular matter – can one be truly passionate about a cause? And if one is not passionate about it, is the fight itself winnable?

The dynamics of today's Saratoga is dominated by fresh blood; newcomers to the community that have chosen to live there as opposed to being born into it. But precious few know the rich and glorious history of the sport of horse racing, or even of the local race course. They're certainly not alone: 98% of the nation doesn't! There is no legacy of childhood memories, family ties or personal experience involved as there would have been for someone that grew up here as a multi-generation resident like myself or my old (and absent) pals.

This hit home the other day, when I was dining with a small goup of people, all of whom have a keen interest in local city affairs. When the topic at hand was brought up, it became apparent to me that these good people knew precious little about the sport, the industry or that local history. None made more than a token visit to the track annually; none ever attended a race at an out of town facility. When I (politely and strategically) brought this fact to the table, I even became brave enough to ask if any of the group could name a single winner of the Travers Stakes? None could.

More troubling was a subtle, yet unspoken and underlying vibe that I got from my more recent fellow Spa City residents: a negative opinion of the sport itself. Comments were made that included such phrases as “animal cruelty,” “problem gambling,” “negative social effects on families” and “backstretch undesirables.” Yes, even the PETA name was even brought up, with one lady telling of of both her organizational support and its stance on racing (the goal: to ban it).

Unfortunately, I don't think that this small sample of “new Saratogians” is an aberration of the whole community's mindset. Conversely, I fear that it might be the new norm. That is troubling, given the current plight and the need for action. So here we are, needing to go to battle but with draftees not quite understanding what the war is all about.

It has long been suggested that the horse racing industry needs to better market itself, to engage in outreach programs that draw new fans into the game. The fact that such an effort may now have to include many of the residents in the very town that hosts the premier racing meet in the world shows just how big a problem we now have on front of us.


JP said...


The TechValleyTimes Group: said...

Futher proof:

Look at the feature story in today's Saratogian, where city businesses are asked for their predictions on the economic effects of a cancelled racing meet.

The consensus from these people seems to be that it really doesn't matter; that the city's economy can stand on its own two feet without racing.

The working title of my next post: "City's drinking water supply suspected of containing LSD."

Anonymous said...

Lonely? Sometimes I get lonely also. But then I just go down to Caroline Street, tie a beer buzz on and drag some drunk chick over my shoulder and out the door. Then I feel better.

Fan said...

NY OTB is an outdated business model that is totally at odds with today's reality. It must be changed.

Anonymous said...

You're 100% right. Half theese carpetbaggers couldn't find their way to the track let alone figure out what to do when they got there.

Anonymous said...


Broadway Billy said...

This is the best op-ed I've seen on this situation. As a life long resident, I can confirm your view of our neighbors not giving a shit about horse racing. As long as the tourists keep tossing their nickles and dimes into our beggar's hat, they are content. I will try your Travers quiz myself at my next neighborhood bbq.