By Peter Applebee —
Golden Age (noun): The period when a specified art, skill, or activity is at its peak
In Absentia (adverb): While not present at the event being referred…
New York, March 21, 2021 — We don’t realize that the good old days are happening until they are over. Well, we are in a golden age right now and it will be remembered as the good old days at some point in the future.
We are living through an unprecedented golden era in thoroughbred racing. I know, I know…the takeout rates, post time drags, hyper-efficient pools, questions regarding the use of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise, animal activists, etc., etc.
I hear you but hear me out: It’s just not the golden age you might imagine, the kind that dad and mom lived through.
Behold, it’s the golden age of horseracing television coverage that is upon us. It’s been great , especially during the pandemic, and has provided a release for many of us.
Multiple channels covering a multitude of tracks all afternoon and into the night. Of course, there always has been racing on television – but not like this.
The Fox Sports coverage alone brings the production quality and talent to the level of a national network broadcast including a clear focus on the wagering angles.
But at this time of year you have to look carefully to see who has the coverage of the Derby prep du jour: “Let’s see, is it on the NBC Sports Network? Nope …FS1? No. FS2? I guess not… OK, I’ll flip over to TVG… Wait, it’s on the NBC network? Wow!”
The current shows includes traditional handicapping that peels back the past performances like a trained chef with a carving knife (see Matt Bernier and Jonathon Kinchen).
And those who can look at a horse and instantly tell how it is doing and more importantly whether that horse wants to run today (enter stage left, Maggie Wolfendale).
Heck, television coverage from Fonner Park last spring thrust that obscure bull-ring into the national horseracing spotlight. The handle went from $12 million for all of 2019 to $107 million during the first five months of 2020 alone.
And that’s for a track most horseplayers had never played and probably couldn’t identify which state it’s located: Grand Island, Nebraska, and I had to check, too.
But, and there is always a but…
While this was quite wonderful during the height of the pandemic when the world was in lockdown, it masks a serious underlying issue. Where are the fans and where is the push for fans to be trackside?
While great television coverage was a nice supplement to those days when you couldn’t get to the track, this has become the only method of engaging the sport for most everyone. This is a serious problem going forward, even now when things are starting to slowly loosen.
Both NYRA and Del Mar have recently announced purse increases, but why bother? People are playing remotely on their phones and the handle is good, so who cares about going to the track?
Yes, I understand that tracks make their money on live handle, but of course they make plenty from admissions, seats, food and parking, too.
There is substantial money to be made in running track facilities that already exist. I never thought I would say this, but track operators, please, take my money!
At its core, horse racing is an in-person event. No one falls in love with horse racing from watching it on their phone or on television.
Sure, we have all watched great and important races on TV but nothing replaces sitting in the grandstand with other horseplayers or being down at the rail, up close to the action.
If we want horseplayers going forward, racing needs to provide that live experience. Everyone has heard the cliché about people going to their first major league baseball stadium and standing in awe of it all. It’s a cliché because it is true.
Everyone remembers the big race days in person. No one has a sense of awe when checking Pick 4 will-pays on their phone – that’s the clinical view. Memories made on-track deepen our connection to the sport and inform other memories:
The 2004 Travers isn’t the Birdstone Travers in my family – it’s the day my in-laws found out their first granddaughter had been born right after first getting caught in a Saratoga late-summer deluge.
A favorite track memory occurred at Belmont Park on a cool clear October mid-week raceday.
There were very few people around and it was so quiet that even from high up on the third floor of the grandstand could one hear the hooves hitting the dirt and the sound of the breath flaring from the nostrils of horses turning for home.
The rhythm, power, and beauty of the horses on that crisp autumn day has remained with me. That experience could not have happened had I watched the race remotely.
Of course, health and safety issues remain. The pandemic is still with us and we need to be cognizant of that. But the good news is that tracks with fans in attendance have experienced no super spreader events because the gate has been limited.
Beginning in early July 2020, Monmouth Park ran at 25% capacity with temperatures checked upon entering and masks mandated for all. This allowed up to 15,000 fans onsite.
Just fifty miles up the road, Meadowlands ran harness races through summer and fall with fans onsite. That track also boasts a combination of inside and outside seating, but houses a sportsbook facility as well.
I spent a gorgeous September evening at the Big M last Fall at an outside table with friends who had a horse trotting in a stakes race that night – a nice second by the way.
The point is that it was safe and closely monitored by staff. At one point I forgot my mask as I entered the building – a guard politely but firmly told me to mask up – which I did gladly.
The Tampa Bay Downs webpage announces “We are open to the public,” along with patron requirements and safety measures that the track is undertaking.
I have seen good reports about the overall experience there this winter. It is certainly safe. If it were not, cases would have been reported and contact-traced back to the track.
Keeneland has announced that they will be allowing a limited number of fans to attend their spring meet. Churchill Downs, Del Mar, and Santa Anita have made similar announcements.
Although it is unclear exactly how many people can attend, these are positive developments. We hope all tracks will soon follow this same path.
Parenthetically, limited attendance was the plan for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup, too, but television cameras revealed that an inordinate number of “horsemen” were in attendance. Tracks need to set adequate safety measures and stick by them.
Tracks can operate safely with fans in a COVID environment. A number of tracks have and time has come to go back to the track. The lack of fans onsite will decrease interest in the sport over time, especially as more sports-betting options become available across the country.
It’s time for major tracks to create specific plans in all jurisdictions designed to get fans back on track, and I don’t mean just a handful.
If Monmouth Park could do it last summer in New Jersey’s heavily impacted COVID environment, there is no reason other racing jurisdictions can’t do the same this spring and summer.
We are enjoying a golden age of horse racing television coverage, but the sport is being conducted in absentia. Horseplayers make this game go. It’s our money that provides the resources to make the industry function. It’s time to stop asking and start demanding.
Peter Applebee is a lifelong resident of New York’s Capital Region and has been handicapping races for over 30 years since his first visit to Saratoga. A data analyst and researcher, Peter uses those analytical skills and passion for horseracing to examine all aspects of the game.