Apr 7 2014

Horse Racing Has An Image Problem – What Can I Do To Help?

Neal Pondering Future

As I begin my second year with Getting Out Of The Gate, I decided to answer the question most often posed to me, “Why exactly are you doing this website?”  When I began this adventure, my answer was “to give something back to a sport that has given me so much.”  But, recently I’ve come to realize that it runs much deeper than that.  Now, my response is: Because Thoroughbred Horse Racing has an image problem.  And, I believe that I can do something to help.

This leads to the question, “Why does horse racing have an image problem?”  There are many people and organizations that will offer a long diatribe of issues.  Unfortunately, as an individual, some of these problems I simply can’t fix.  However, I will list three issues included in a recent Jockey Club Consumer Research report that I believe I can do something about.

  1. The complexity of the sport is seen as a major issue, even among existing fans.
  2. There are insufficient efforts to reach out to new fans.
  3. There is a perceived lack of integrity of the people involved in the sport.

Related to these problems, I recently asked an acquaintance why he only attends the races once a year, despite living less than thirty minutes from Saratoga racetrack.  He replied, “It’s too damn hard, and it’s filled with crooks.”

It’s Too Damn Hard

There has never been an effective industry wide effort to educate potential new horse racing fans.  On the contrary, there is a prevailing denial of the degree of difficulty in horse racing.  Maybe the racing industry believes; we can’t say it’s complicated, that will scare new fans away.  If that’s the case, I don’t agree.

Listen, if fans buy into a sport, they can learn anything.  Ask a veteran Red Sox fan to explain a Passed Ball, Balk, Sacrifice Fly, or a Suicide Squeeze play.  Ask a diehard Steelers fan to describe the difference between a Safety, Punt, Field Goal, or an Onside Kick.  Fans wouldn’t sit through 81 home Yankee games, subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, or wear Cheese-heads in Green Bay at -10 degrees if they didn’t fully understand what’s going on down on the field.

Yet, the racing industry somehow thinks you can create dedicated fans that don’t realize a maiden race involves horses that have never won a race, that horses are “for sale” in a claiming race, that six furlongs is less than a mile, or that some horses prefer a turf surface over a dirt one.

Horse racing chronically emphasizes gambling – e.g. get rich dreams of winning a Rainbow Pick6 for umpteen million dollars.  Other major sports emphasize the athletes, coaches, tactics of the game, and nuances of the rules.  Of course they know there is a gambling component involved in their sport. They are fully aware of point spreads, football pools, fantasy leagues, and tournament brackets.  But they don’t feature them in their coverage.  For example, an NFL pre-game show is dominated by discussion of players, coaches, play-calling, strengths, weaknesses, and strategies.  And during the broadcast of a game, they provide explanations of what happened on the field, penalties committed, choices and decisions made by players and coaches.  The NFL gets it … an educated fan is a dedicated fan.

Contrast that to a typical “pre-game” show in horse racing, where one or two public handicappers run through the races, talk about things that only experienced fans understand, and offer up their gambling selections.  Generally, the same act is repeated in between races.  Then the track announcer calls the actual race, with little or no commentary before or after the race.  Payouts are announced.  Turn the page and 30 minutes later they repeat the exact same thing all over again.

Now please, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not criticizing track announcers and public handicappers. They have their job assignment, and most of them do it extremely well.  But, who is there to help the new fan?  Where are the Howie Longs, Terry Bradshaws, Chris Collinsworths, Joe Bucks, and Tim McCarvers of horse racing?  I wish I had a $1 for every time I’ve heard “I love the whole experience at the racetrack, but I have no idea what is going on!”  No one, and I mean no one, is helping the beginning-learning fan.

What if one day a week, or one race a day, tracks offered a program  focused on education, rather than touting picks?  What if there was a supplement to racing programs explaining topics like class, distance, and surface?  What if there was a “game-day” audio feed (available to anyone with a smartphone) that allowed fans to listen to color commentary that included NFL style education and explanations?

It’s Filled With Crooks

There is a gigantic chasm between the front and backside of the racetrack, leaving patrons to wonder – “What goes on back there?”  This leads to skepticism and distrust.  Unlike other sports, in horse racing the fans have very little connection with the athletes (jockeys and horses), coaches (trainers), and owners.  Ask a New England Patriots fan to describe the personnel involved in that organization.  You WILL get an answer.  Ask a fan the same question about a horse, and see what you get.  Who trained Zenyatta, Orb, or Mucho Macho Man?  Now try, Golden Ticket, Oxbow, or Alpha.  Who are Tom Morley, Buzzy Tenney, Michelle Nihei, and T.C. Stevens?  Even experienced fans won’t know much about these people (unless they’ve been following this website).

Clement Exercise Rider

This lack of a connection is the principal reason I started the “Meet the People” series on this website.  To humanize the participants and to help fans learn about what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.  There are thousands of amazing people on the backside of tracks across this country.  Collectively, day in and day out, they put on one of the greatest shows on earth – often with great sacrifice and very little recognition.

Does that mean that everyone on the backside is eligible for sainthood?  Of course not.  Unscrupulous people can be found in every walk of life.  It just means that horse racing is susceptible to the same vagaries of personal conduct that you find in business, politics, or other sports.

Unfortunately, with the emphasis on gambling, fans can lose sight of the nobler aspects of this sport.  And what can be nobler than the horse itself?  Surely, even the most skeptical of the skeptics cannot question the heart and soul of the horse.  I can’t possibly say it any better than trainer Michelle Nihei said it to me:

“Racing is about horses, and the stories behind the faces of the horses are really cool.  I really think that ultimately the interest is about the fascination that we have from a much, much deeper level about what it is that drives a horse.  Because really … truly great trainers and great jockeys aside … if you’ve got a great horse, that great horse will overcome everything that you do wrong.  Every wrong ride, bad groom, mistake a trainer makes … great horses make great trainers.  And that’s the end of the story.”

So, all of this comes back to what can I do to help improve horse racing’s image problem?  In preparing future materials for this website and related activities, I promise to place special emphasis on the following.

  1. To reach out and respond to potential fans through this website, in print, and in person.
  2. To promote the heart and soul of horses; and the dedication, caring, and humility of the people who ride and care for these majestic animals.
  3. To demystify the sport by providing quality education in new and creative ways.

Because, I firmly believe that an educated fan will become a dedicated fan.

Finally, if you are a participant (owner, trainer, breeder, jockey, exercise rider, etc.) in this sport … don’t get discouraged, throw up your arms and lament over what can possibly be done to fix everything that is wrong.  If you do, you will become impotent and do nothing.  Instead, ask yourself this simple question.  “What can I do to help?”  To that there is an answer.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

7 comments on “Horse Racing Has An Image Problem – What Can I Do To Help?

  1. As always, Neal, you present well-taken, thought-provoking and positive ideas. I especially like your suggestion that more needs to be done in the way of post-race analysis than turning the page to the next race. As you suggest, much of the learning in other sports occurs during replays and interviews that reflect on the just-passed event. As an owner, I get that kind of education from the trainer and the jockey immediately following the race but for the fan there is no real insight about what just happened. Way to go Neal. Keep us thinking!

  2. Great article.I have been involved in racing for 50 years as bettor and owner and it is time to remove the dishonest trainers and sometimes owners.new people will not get involved when all you hear is racing is fixed.Suspend them for life and racing will improve its image.

  3. Neal:
    I couldn’t agree with you more on all three counts.

    To address the simplification and education issues, based on my management experience, I created a job description for a “Racing Simplification & Education Coordinator” and promoted the concept to some high profile racing leaders. My proposal suggested that this be a unique position on each racing circuit, or be added responsibilities to an existing position, and that those having the responsibilities work with counterparts across the country to accomplish the defined objectives.

    The proposed job description can be downloaded from the link below:


    As usual, there has not been any interest or feedback on my proposal from the racing leaders I contacted. Nonetheless, I will keep trying because I am convinced of the necessity of what I proposed to the survival of the racing industry, and because of the encouragement from others like you who have similar affections for the sport and serious concerns for its survival.


  4. Raceday medications must be eliminated. The injection of racehorses with Lasix, a performance enhancing drug, shortly before they race in an unacceptable practice. A generation of horsemen have been taught that it is legal to enhance performance with drugs, and herein lies the problem. Lasix encourages and facilitates doping, and is in fact doping, and therein lies the trouble. Lasix horses breakdown at 4X the rate of non-medicated horses racing in raceday-drug free jurisdictions in Asia, Australia, and Europe. A Lasix ban is necessary for progress to occur.
    Sid Gustafson DVM
    Equine Behaviour educator

    • This would be one of those “problems” that I personally can do very little about and I lack the expertise to comment on intelligently. With that said, I know it is a major topic of discussion in the industry and I thank you for taking the time to comment.

  5. First timer reader. Very well written. I am In The horse racing industry, have been all my life and I’m not ready to quit! We do need to get new fans and they do need to be educated about the sport. My husband and I give our numbers to people we meet all the time and tell them to come to the races on us. People like ‘free’ stuff. Once they are there we need seminars etc for them to learn. We need to go up to them and suggest ways for them to have a good experience at the track. Most people wont come up and ask questions. I love to bring new people in the paddock with me and make them feel special when standing with owners and trainers. It’s an ‘inside’ experience and they love it. We are a customer based service we need to embrace the people that come to the races. Too bad the newspapers and internet stories are always focused on the negative stories about horse racing. There are so many wonderful stories that could be told instead. We need to put the pagentry and customer service back into horse racing. Ask me a question, if I don’t know the answer I’ll go the extra mile to find someone who does. The horses are beautiful, (most) of the people are fascinating and it’s a great way to spend a day, and MAYBE make a few bucks!

  6. Horse racing is the greatest sport of them all. The mathematical gymnastics of handicapping require incredible thought and probability analysis. Once you understand and experience it, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

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