Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hey Dad, Have You Ever Taken Your Kid to the Races?

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, when horses still had a presence in everyday life, there was a lot more advertising about bringing dad out to the track on Father’s Day. But that’s not really the case anymore.

Back in the day, dads and uncles took their sons and nephews to the track on a Saturday, providing a fascinating wide-eyed introduction to the spectacle of Thoroughbred racing.

This, of course, was prologue. Betting off-track did not exist, neither did simulcasting, the Internet, or even cable TV as we know it today. In the minds of youngsters, the racetrack was an exciting wide-eyed spectacle of sights, sounds and colors, and it still can be.

But the advertising we see today is left to in-house invitations via a closed simulcasting loop because racing coverage, right down to entries-and-results agate, no longer exists in mainstream media, special big events notwithstanding.

Ergo, it doesn’t make sense for local racetracks to market en masse because sports fans in the main are unaware of the sport beyond the Triple Crown and in places outside of Saratoga, Del Mar and Lexington. Consequently, young people never get the message.

Racing’s omni-presence went out with high-button shoes. And what’s left to promote is no less controversial. Are we selling a grand, colorful, upscale entertainment experience, or a gambling game played with expensive animals?

New fans can be created only by their live introduction to racing’s grand spectacle. If it is meant to be, it will happen only after seeing horse racing’s unique blend of color, excitement and chance.

A message must be sent that racing is a pastime worthy of immersion by some of the world’s most influential people; much more than simply a thinking man’s gambling vehicle.

I’ve written this often, so please indulge me once more. When I was 16, I was compelled to accompany my parents and aunt and uncle to Roosevelt Raceway one Saturday night.

It was the second International Trot and the mile-and-a-quarter event was won by Holland’s Hairos II, with Italian and American horses completing the trifecta. We were a family of five that summer night in 1960. There also was another 50,332 in attendance.

My father gave me $6 for three $2 wagers and so I picked out three names I liked, printed in the Daily Mirror’s bold type. I went 3-for-3: Count Pick, Speedy Pick and Garnet Queen. I turned $6 into $13. I was rich.

But this wasn’t meant to be a Father’s Day tale—I miss you, dad—rather as an expansive reply to a comment made by one of the HRI Faithful at the bottom of Indulto’s latest column, a man who goes by the handle of McDuff.

His surname is inconsequential in this regard and I barely can remember Dennis’ face but we had a thread in common, the late, great turf writer and dear friend, Paul Moran.

Moran was the conduit by which I met McDuff. First and foremost, it was clear he loved the game, a recreational bettor who enjoyed talking horses with a couple of Newsday guys at a local pub.

Horses and the racing was the thread that bound us all. No one was bigger than the game which unfortunately is not so much the case these days. Tangential but appropriate, incivility hurts the racing dynamic, too, a fact also pointed out in the comment section.

But there was for McDuff a more disturbing aspect, the result of Mark Berner’s column on veterinary reports in his Belmont Stakes Tuesday wrap-up.

Berner wrote on the veterinary report released by the New York State Gaming Commission regarding how many and which horses were treated with medication prior to competing in the high profile races run on the Belmont Day program. Wrote McDuff:

“Mark Berner's comments had me so annoyed regarding the lack of common sense within the industry, I just lashed out. When viewing runners in the paddock before a race, I always liked to view the field to see who looked clean, excessive sweating, bandages, etc., etc.

“To learn that every runner in the Belmont Stakes was on raceday meds just blew me away. What have they done to our sport? I gave up on baseball so many years past over the steroid issue…

“For the overseers of the sport, I guess it all comes down to the money to be made today…

“Trainers like Mack Miller and stewards like John Rotz are no more apparently. Just look at what the current day governance did for, or better yet, to Dutrow..?

“At times I suspect it must be difficult for you to prevail through all of it. Especially the personal swipes and attacks levied at you on the HRI comments board. So many old and angry…

“‘Somebody stole my passion, somebody stole my zeal’ [song lyrics] captures all of [racing’s] empty seats quite well. Berner’s Vet Transparency article was quite disturbing to me.

“As a small recreational player, I have not been so much concerned with issues like whales and takeout as I am with the lack of honesty, integrity and sincerity of stewardship of the sport.

“…The animosity, negativity and harshness of the commentaries, and lack of civility of late found at HRI, only further convince me that it is time to quietly walk away.

“I will continue to read John’s Feature Race Analysis and no doubt still wager a few bucks on the feature, but for the most part I will become more a member of the empty seats.

“Should same-day racing medications be eliminated, I will look to return but for now, ‘somebody along the way stole the passion’ indeed. Just not as much fun any longer. In closing I want to thank the featured bloggers and I hope for more positive change in the sport.”

When racing loses the passion of a lifetime fan, just as it had when Dr. Steven Roman, the father of Dosage theory, walked away completely and shuttered his chef-de-race website last year, the trouble for the sport is real and ongoing.

As for wagering, there is gambling game if this sport ceases to exist, even given its weakened status and standing.

With the exception of racing’s myriad problems, that always have existed in one form or another, modern big pharma and the emergence of the dominant “super trainer” have made the modern game less competitive in nature.

The irony is that the sport at its highest levels, on balance, never has been better in our view. Today’s breeding industry, in catering to the market, is cranking out more good horses.

The fact that most are not as durable is a multi-faceted issue, not the least of which is over-medication, legal and otherwise.

Good racing, coupled with fewer racing days, can be maintained at its present level, especially since the sport is becoming more international by the minute. This can only grow the sport in America by heightening interest worldwide.

But without the passion of the every-day fans, and even the game’s practitioners, mainstream media will remain indifferent and racing’s slow slide into an abyss is likely to continue unabated, slowly but inexorably.

The Triple Crown will be popular every year, as will places like Saratoga and Del Mar, and the Breeders’ Cup series of qualifying races, plus the events themselves, along with a handful of Super Saturdays, will keep the sport relevant to its true lovers.

Horses are no longer a part of America’s daily fabric; the price of progress. In the near future, automobiles will be driving themselves and online shopping will continue to be the bane of the big-box stores.

So dad and Uncle Joe, if your kids have not taken you to the track today that may be on you. But one sunny summer Saturday, introduce them to a racetrack near you. Two things will happen: They will get it about the racing experience, or they won’t.

The sin is in not knowing such a wondrous pastime even exists.

June 18, 2017

Written by John Pricci

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