DEL MAR, Calif., August 31, 2010--On Pacific Classic day, my wife Pat and I sat in the Del Mar clubhouse next to a young girl and her grandparents. Pat said she was about 12, I said 10, so let's make her 11. Like the intrepid reporter I am, I never got her name, so let's call her Kelly. Had she been around 20 or more years ago, racing should have bottled her, and anyone like her, and saved them for the many rainy days ahead. The train has all but left the station for this once grand old game, but it is still a delight, watching someone getting awestruck by these wonderful animals while learning the sport at the knee of her elders.

"Kelly" has been a quick learner, believe me. Many girls her age see horses as pets, faithful riding companions, but Kelly's interest went beyond that. She had neatly folded her track program inside a smart blue wallet, and brought a large paper clip to mark her place as Del Mar's card moved along. As the numbers of the first four finishers went up on the tote board, and the payoffs were posted, she dutifully recorded them in her program. She looked like the kind of girl who would have brought a backup pen, had the first one gone dry.


Listening to the conversation out of one ear, I gathered that Kelly's grandparents were circumventing the minimum-age betting rules by agreeing to place two bets throughout the day on her behalf. I would like to think that Kelly's betting money came from lemonade sales, but only Norman Rockwell could play Norman Rockwell. "She's the only one winning," the grandmother said halfway through the card, and when she added that Kelly was $18 ahead, the girl nodded and beamed.

Kelly's other bet was going to be on the Pacific Classic. She volunteered that Temple City, trained by Carla Gaines, was her horse. Because the horse had a win over the track? No, that wasn't it. "A woman has never won the Pacific Classic before," Kelly said. "I think she's going to win today."

I told Kelly that that was only half-right. A female jockey, Julie Krone, rode the winner of the Pacific Classic (Candy Ride, 2003). "Oh," Kelly said. I just know she had committed that to memory as well.

Well, Temple City didn't win, and sweet young Kelly didn't win all of her bets. But by my calculations, she took home more money than what she started with. Her grandparents will be back, and so will she, which is the tonic that racing has so little of. When Alan Balch was the marketing genius at Santa Anita, a long time ago, he grouped fans into three categories: new, occasional and regular. "Our job," Balch said, "is to keep the regulars coming back for more, and upgrade the other two groups over time. Make the new fans into occasional, and the occasional into regular."

It wasn't calculus, but not many tracks gave ear to what Balch said then, and fewer do now. The first personnel cuts sometimes include the marketing department; when Kenny Noe ran Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct, he said: "Marketing is what my wife does when she goes shopping." Today's tracks are too busy scrambling just to find horses to fill tomorrow's race card. Balch looked to the Los Angeles Dodgers for some of his inspiration, and while baseball and racing are poles apart, there are analogies that can't be ignored. Baseball, like the horses, is played almost every day, and a typical game takes a long time to complete. For starters, the Dodgers aren't a bad model to build on. They draw three million people, more or less, just by opening the gates, but they still prowl the landscape for fresh bodies to put in the seats.

On a number of levels, racing still doesn't get it. The product still costs too much, from the takeout to the concession stands and all points in between. Twenty dollars for valet parking. At Del Mar, directly behind our section, was a popcorn stand, and Kelly's grandparents would have had to pay $3.50 for a cup of popcorn. If you sneezed with it in your hand, it would be all gone. Rita Rudner, the standup, once complained about movie-house concession prices, but she could just as well have been talking about the race track. "You could buy a silo of popcorn for what they charge at the movies," Rudner said. At Del Mar, a silo of popcorn would send Bill Gates to the poorhouse.

After Richard's Kid won the Pacific Classic for the second straight year, we said goodbye to Kelly and her grandparents, and walked out of Del Mar having been humbled at the windows once again. We took the shibboleth, "You can beat a race, but you can't beat the races," to the nth degree. A second box of popcorn would have left us destitute.