Commentary

Animal instincts

Updated: May 10, 2011, 12:14 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Once more, the condition of horse racing appears to have been misdiagnosed.

Here's what transpired at the Kentucky Derby.

An attendance record was set at Churchill.

And the TV ratings were good, almost a 10, which means that nearly a tenth of all TV sets in the country were tuned to the race. Here's what makes that figure more amazing. A considerable number of the people who support the sport were at the various race tracks across the country, at fund-raiser parties, at simulcast and off-track joints, not at home being a couch rose. No other rated TV activity has a possible minority of its fans watching in individual homes. As group gatherings are not rated, a more appropriate rating for the Derby would be double the number that shows up. By comparison, the NBA game of the century, Dallas versus the LA Puddles, drew a number in the 6's. What percentage of horse race fans were elsewhere than home, watching, half?

Here's what the recently completed Derby suggests.

Outside of the majors, the Triple Crown races and the Breeder's Cup, horse racing has become a simulcast sport, a gambling endeavor. Beyond spa or scenic or vacation locations, few people go to the live races. You want a road trip to Delta Downs from an adjoining state? Thanks, anyhow, but I have some dental work scheduled. But would I enjoy watching a Delta card from the simulcast joint two miles from my home? Where the beer is frequently cool, where the cheese product is plentiful on the chips, where way more than half the betting machines respond to a hand heel? Love to.

If you took all the people watching from home or from a simulcast venue, and put them at the live races, the industry would be pleased with the turnout.

Slot machine profits fund racing in the sticks. Plugs from Mom and Pop Stables routinely run for $30,000 allowance money. What better place for somebody on the government dole to invest money in than the slots.

True, the industry-wide handle is down.

What business isn't, again, rhetorical.

Racing is down mostly in the east. We in the heartland are moved by that. But it's almost post time at Will Rogers Downs, where horses that you and I could contest on foot to the first turn are getting ready to run for $20,000, the majority of which can't win. Native Americans own this facility, slots provide purse loot.

The sport is older. It's like a rite of retirement, seniors moving from the putting green to the simulcast venue. Seniors have money, punks don't, so much for demographic studies. I spent much of Derby Saturday with an 11-year old named Lily. The individual mystery of each horse race appealed to her, as did the importance of avoiding the obvious, the public's emotional connections with the woman jockey and the male who stayed on the rail. After I explained to her that the prices would have been much better on both horses had the riders been different, she went elsewhere with her picks and cleared 20 units; being but 11 years of age and all.

The end of this Derby pretty much sums up the charm of the sport.

One moment, Nehro had to win, the next, it was lucky to hang second.

Horse racing is pretty much what it always has been, thanks to the animals.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.