Horseplayers are made, not born and the making takes time measured in years, work that lasts long into many nights and the methodical accumulation of knowledge is never enough. But there is more to the making of a horseplayer. Or, at least there was, once upon a time.
The early experience of those drawn to racing was invariably fed by the social aspect of a day at the track, a place where friends were made, opinions exchanged, lessons learned, lies told and tales of both victory and defeat embellished almost gleefully. The track was where neophytes found mentors and life-long relationships bound by racing and betting cemented.
Horseplayers gathered at the paddock rail and the in bars. They stood in long betting lines and watched races through binoculars from seats in the grandstand. They shared tough beats, bad trips and longshot winners. They theorized about insider conspiracies and imagined huge betting coups. They rooted for one another and against one another. There was interaction, energy and adrenaline.
It was that way no matter where you were. Nowadays, racing is an avocation of solitude and it is so no matter where you are.
An afternoon at most American racetracks can be lonely or worse. Aqueduct in winter can look like the Star Wars cantina on a slow day. A few thousand people can be lost at Belmont Park. Maryland, New Jersey and even those places with thriving casinos see only a handful of aging diehards who are there for the races. Halfway around the world, there is an eerie familiarity to the observations of those who remember when racing was something to be shared and celebrated.
Adrian Dunn, writing in the Australian newspaper, The Herald-Sun, reported this week:
"Racing's bid to lure people to the track continues to struggle, apart from in the five-week window in spring, when it's viewed as an event not to be missed. Just 6,300 and 5,500 attended the recent Orr Stakes and William Reid Stakes meetings, and Saturday was just the second time Diamond day attracted fewer than 10,000.
"The meeting drew 30,835 in 1973, more than 26,000 saw Rancher win in 1982 and 14,189 were there to see Road To Success score 10 years ago."
While we embark again on the Road to the Derby and the five not-to-be-missed weeks that follow the first Saturday of May, the hollow echo of empty racetracks is never far away.
Racinos have helped the bottom line in some places but have done nothing to expand the audience. Demographic studies have shown that the average slot machine player at a racetrack-based casino is a female over age 60, not exactly fertile ground for audience expansion. The interested audience is overwhelmingly off-site in the age of advanced deposit account wagering. Even brick-and-mortar off-track betting facilities are no longer sustainable, New York being the prime example, followed closely by California's fairgrounds-based satellite sites.
Meanwhile, the elusive "young" audience is up to its ears in "new media," which only fosters isolation and, it appears, is more inclined toward video games and text messaging than an intellectual commitment of the magnitude required to traverse the years-long learning curve that results in a horseplayer.
Bill Shanklin, who owns a doctorate in business from the University of Maryland, an MBA from the University of Kentucky, an impressive curriculum vitae and appreciation of the thoroughbred, noted recently on his "Horse Racing Business" blog that the ever-evolving personal technology, which has made terms like Twitter, I-Pod, Smartphone and FaceBook park of the vernacular, has also diminished the attention span and lowered the boredom level of contemporary youth.
"Colleges and universities retain professionally educated staff whose job it is to assist students with learning disabilities like Dyslexia and also with test anxiety," Shanklin writes.
"These kinds of issues have been commonplace for years. Only in the last decade have I seen and heard of so many students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In layman's terms, this is basically a problem of having trouble focusing or concentrating for long. In earlier times, educators and others called it a wandering mind. The pharmaceutical industry offers drugs for its treatment.
"In my university career I have been a professor, an associate dean, a department head, and a committee member evaluating professors for promotion and retention. Consequently, I have read countless student teaching evaluations of instructors. Compared to a decade or two ago, the word "boring" or a close equivalent crops up much more frequently to describe a classroom experience. Many contemporary students expect to be entertained, which, of course, is not the same as learning. Ipso facto, by the nature of the coursework, professors teaching the most intellectually challenging material and majors are disadvantaged in this regard, as compared to someone conveying less rigorous subjects.
"If racing is to make inroads with the younger generation," Shanklin concludes, "it will have to continue to adapt the sport to the contemporary lifestyle, as with remote wagering. On the one hand, a certain segment of the young will be attracted to horse racing by the intellectual challenge of handicapping, just as people in generations before have been intrigued by the intricacies of figuring out who is going to win. But that won't deliver enough fans to keep horse racing at a critical mass into the future. To survive, tracks will have to develop pari-mutuel products that do not require a detailed knowledge of handicapping and not much of a time commitment. Racetrack offerings will have to extend beyond the core pari-mutuel product. In short, the whole experience will have to be more compelling."
In other words, in order to survive, the industry's leaders must dumb-down the sport; create an experience that can be explained in 140-word tweets for people who would find Richard Eng's book, "Horse Racing for Dummies," beyond their attention spans slot machine players.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.