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By Mike Dorr
The 139th running of the Kentucky Derby is just a month away, a two-minute thoroughbred horse race that is the crowning celebration of the best six weeks of sport that America has to offer. The first half of spring brings March Madness and the Masters, baseball’s Opening Day, and the NFL draft. The NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs begin. And in Louisville, Kentucky, twenty three-year-olds will line up with 2500 pounds of jockeys, $120 million in legal wagers, and the hopes and dreams of thousands riding on their backs.
Yet the first Saturday in May is no longer circled on the sports calendar in as bright a pen as it once was. The American sporting landscape that was once dominated by baseball, boxing, and horse racing has been replaced with professional football, college football, and whatever makes SportsCenter. Thoroughbred racing began its disappearing act in the mid-90s when it lost its de facto monopoly on gambling across most of North America with the rise of Indian casinos and state lotteries and an exceptionally well-marketed city in the Nevada desert.
Still, a business that handles $12 billion in wagers, hands out $1 billion in winnings, and trades over $2-3 billion of the world’s fastest domesticated animals every year never really goes away. It just gets crowded out for other loyalties of the many, but horse racing is sustained by the tremendous, unwavering loyalty of a few. I have only been a dedicated fan of the sport of thoroughbred racing for less than a decade. Here are five reasons that thoroughbred racing is the best sport that you’re not watching.
1. The Kentucky Derby is an event like no other, arguably the best sporting event to attend live in the US, if not the world. Yet for all its spectacle and excitement, its essence is a “day at the races”, an event that plays on a smaller scale hundreds of times a year across the country.
What makes a day at the races great is what, for the most part, has driven TV away from the sport. Ten races typically run over the course of four hours but the time between allows for what it always has: gambling and socializing. The 30 minutes between races is easily divided between picking out a horse for the next race, discussing with your friends, cashing and placing bets, getting a beer or a cocktail, checking out the paddock, and returning to watch the next race. Our smartphones lessen the time cost of a few hours at the races – it’s easy to keep up with other Saturday afternoon sports via Twitter or the ESPN app. For these reasons too, live racing has as many women in attendance as men – for most, the connection is not to a specific horse or race, but to the environment of sport and the people within it.
2. You and I will never be able to own a major-league sports team but we may one day have enough to own a winning racehorse. A little bit of luck can have the smallest stable competing on the same stage as tycoons, celebrities and sheiks.
Owning a major professional sports franchise these days requires a minimum investment of $200 million. If I set a goal of winning a horse race in the next 3 months as an owner, I could reasonably do so for under $20,000. Of course, to play at the higher levels of the sport requires larger outlays – more expensive horses or more horses – but champions do not always cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, I’ll Have Another, was purchased as an auction yearling (~18 months after he was born) for $11,000 and sold a year later for $35,000. Several horses running behind him sold for more than 20x that. Is luck involved? Certainly, but not many pro sports allow you to start your own team and play for a championship a year later.
It’s telling that so many former athletes get involved with the sport – they have some free capital, love the competition, and love the atmosphere of the sport. Current and former competitors like Paul Hornung, Wes Welker, Michael Phelps and Bode Miller have had stakes in horses on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail. Their own sports would rarely allow them a major stake in the team, and racing provides a fantastic outlet for continued involvement
3. The tradition of horse racing is centuries old. Serious sports journalism is about 150 years old, and the early names in sports writing all covered horse racing. The language we use to talk about sports, politics and life generally is peppered with idioms that come from horse racing. Yet the turf writing tradition that became the sports writing tradition has evaporated with the game. Remarkably, social media is filling that void.
The match race between President Obama and Mitt Romney was expected to come down to the wire in November. But the nose victory that most observers anticipated ended with Romney finishing up the track after stumbling down the stretch. Romney’s decisive primary wins and edge in fundraising gave him a strong start out of the gate and the summer months indicated a neck-and-neck contest into the fall. Yet the president’s poll numbers rarely trailed the challenger’s, and former President Clinton’s appearance at the August convention gave the current commander-in-chief a leg up in the contest. Verbal gaffes late in the campaign caused Romney to lose stride, and Obama’s wire-to-wire victory was assured.
Is that paragraph a total non sequitur? Nope, just a demonstration that I used no fewer than ten phrases that come from horse racing in a paragraph that could have easily been found on the Huffington Post. Journalists 80, 60, 40 years ago were never far removed from the horse racing beat, so the language became pervasive. Still, you will be awfully hard-pressed to find a dedicated horse racing journalist on a major news staff. Even the dedicated racing trades have declined in size over the years and there are simply fewer turf writers out there covering not only the largest events, but the day-to-day racing that makes up 95% of the business.
That’s where social media and blogs come in – horse racing is designed for social media. The time between races is excellent for Twitter as handicappers frequently share picks and betting strategies. Racing blogs discuss several aspects of the sport, mostly figuring out who to play, while filling in gaps left by the absence of mainstream sports media coverage. It also means that it’s much easier for non-traditional voices to be heard above the din. An interested fan can contribute to the conversation today with hopes of being heard. And who knows – perhaps a new voice will write the next “Pure Heart” 17 years from now.
4. Racing has its problems, many of them traced to a broad inability to unify in response to changing sports and gambling markets. It also means those problems can be fixed; the lack of an industry-wide structure allows individual organizations to innovate, and racing’s fans and customers have a larger relative voice than other sports.
This is more of an encouragement than a reason. Following thoroughbreds for a little more than five years has been a wonder for me as a sports fan, but as I’ve grown to understand the game, I can identify many areas for improvement. There is potential for tremendous growth if problems are addressed and the sport becomes more unified. Not every person who will shape the future of horse racing even cares about it today, and that’s actually very exciting.
5. You can legally (in most states) bet on horse racing online.
The federal laws that allow patrons at one track to bet on races at another (simulcasting) allowed for the creation of Advance Deposit Wagering services (ADWs) that operate exactly like online poker sites used to. You fund your account and then use the software on the web site to place your bets, which are mingled with the bets coming from all other outlets. I don’t understand why the industry does not promote this more. During the heyday of poker’s popularity, 18-30 year old men everywhere were buying books, reading websites, and watching TV about poker. Horse racing handicapping rewards the efforts at getting better, just like poker. And frankly, winning is fun, and the low cost minimum bets in racing are often safer for a bankroll than a $25 blackjack table. Unlike most sports bets, payouts are almost always better than even money. 100-1 payouts happen every race for different bets. And, for now, it’s the most convenient game in town and the best way to learn about the sport. Most large ADWs will provide data and historical video for handicapping. If you’re going to watch the Derby in a month, make it interesting and have something on the line.