Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

The Renaissance vis-a-vis the New Normal

(CHICAGO, IL – November 1, 2010) Pessimism rises when times are tough. Horse racing’s beset by myriad tribulations; the trend has been downhill for a decade. Complaining is implicit to losing money and the horseplayer that wins is unusual. These reasons combine to form the commonly-held conclusion that the sport has seen better days. Perhaps the days ahead are just going to be different.

Is horse racing really reeling or merely being re-defined by the culture? The “New Normal” has been described by several economists, academicians and social theorists as an existence where success and prosperity won’t come easily. Occasionally, consumers indulge like their parents in products and services that make them feel special. Regardless, those who have lived through the past 60 years, in which 30 were bountiful, may be the last to have experienced what it is to have what you want when you want.

Who’s to blame for the current slump? That’s a question without a clear answer. By and large, the sport’s in the doldrums because the people involved are no different from the population in general. A sense of entitlement, greed and neglect are themes that surface everywhere.

Still, a market correction appears to have started in which the number of horses foaled, the prices they bring and the race days available for them have thinned to the point of permission. The amount of money available for purses has fallen, and will fall even more. Once the level-set’s set, the sport should flourish again - at least on terms that compare well to the present. Here are the half-dozen reasons it should.

In the first place, horse racing seems blessed with a natural resilience. The pure sport of learning which of several horses is fastest must be possessed of a gene that won’t yield to deadly viruses. Despite everything that’s gone wrong in the last 25 years, since a satellite first subbed for a teller, people still find the simple premise on which horse racing’s based compelling. The upcoming Breeders’ Cup will prove that millions take notice, bet huge amounts and become emotionally involved when horses compete in a setting that’s rendered with spectacle.

Secondly, the emergence of a new ruling class creates hope that the old guard has run its course. Suddenly, as if a tornado struck, scores of young people with fresh ideas and some clout have emerged in the Breeders’ Cup Ltd., National Thoroughbred Racing Association and racetracks. If a Tea Party could sweep clean half the seats in the Clubhouse boxes of Saratoga and Keeneland and replace their inhabitants, those in waiting are ready to step in and take over. Whenever business enables optimism, innovation and experimentation, it flourishes. Wherever caution, status quo, personal politics and tradition lurk, it has stagnated. When obstructionists to horse racing’s progress pass away, evaporate or become drooling fools (a time that is closer than anyone thinks), their replacements will be an improvement.

There is no clearer example of the next generation at work than the realm of technology. The Web’s abuzz with horse racing sites, social networking opportunities and Internet newspapers. Hobbyists that have made horse racing writing an avocation have been good for the sport, widening the dialogue and giving voice to the unrepresented. Lacking money to advertise, the industry will concentrate its efforts for reaching new customers with exchange betting, tap and bet programs, smart phone applications and augmented reality. Although it is centuries old, the sport was designed for the 21st century.

The advance of technology will be helpful for leveraging one of the industry’s strengths – the popularity of horse racing in other countries. Sooner or later, all USA horse racing interests will stop being xenophobic. Horse racing in Australia, England, Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan and, to a certain extent, France, remain viable mainstream curiosities. Thoroughbred breeders have long understood the importance of foreign markets. But racetracks have remained provincial, acting as if their businesses are local. America is used to being first, biggest, best. But the new normal won’t permit that. The sport here is destined to become part of a greater, healthier whole instead of a struggling stand-alone.

For the first time in over a decade, the country’s number one market, New York, is prepared to behave like number one. When millions of Aqueduct casino dollars are added to NYRA’s revenue stream, horse racing’s largest wagering concession will raise purses to dizzying heights, creating, if you will, what would amount to a national horse racing center - its three courses the true place for champions. Bad government, unfriendly legislation, an untenable operating structure and a lack of financial resources have hampered business in the country’s financial capital. Having the Empire State strong in horse racing and breeding again relieves a worry that the product serves only small market interests.

Lastly, the sport’s number two attraction, the Breeders’ Cup, continues on a path of modernization. In recent years, after decades of hibernation, the Breeders’ Cup’s agenda has advanced to two days, 14 races, $185 million in wagering, a “Win and You’re In” qualifying strategy and primetime television viewing. Had the organization’s plan to appoint Santa Anita as a five-year site not been killed by a stubborn landlord, the end-of-year fixture would had a chance to blossom in the country’s entertainment center where the November weather is always perfect. Moreover, the move would have created an East, West and Kentucky approach to showcasing the sport in three distinct and important geographic areas. Talk continues that the possibility of the Breeders’ Cup buying a racecourse persists. Wouldn’t that be a grand development?

It may be that only a smattering of readers will believe that a renaissance is possible. That’s understandable. Few people can imagine something that doesn’t exist in their experience. The themes presented herein are seldom expressed in the open for fear that accountability will follow. But that doesn’t mean they’re not real.

Return to each morning Wednesday through Saturday as Vic Zast files daily reports from the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville. Go to the Vic Zast blog titled “FastWords.”

Written by Vic Zast

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