In the third installment of Having Their Say, we have Rob, a person involved in a harness racing organization yet predominantly a thoroughbred gambler. Here are his comments:
That's a complicated question, and the answers are obviously varied. But I'm familiar with thoroughbred racing, and I think it's in decline just as much as harness racing. This has been discussed before, but the 3 tracks that are still doing well- especially in terms of "fans"- are Saratoga, Keeneland, and Del Mar., and Churchill Downs for a few days a year. They each have a few things in common- relatively short meets, a location where racing has become part of the culture, unique and still interesting facilities, and a rich tradition. If I had to pick a harness track that enjoys somewhat similar advantages, and success I would have to say the Delaware County Fair. Outside of North America, however, I have to mention that there are several places that certainly qualify- I'd immediately think of Solvalla and Vincennes- both of which are thriving.
Your question is unusual because often I'm asked to think in terms of betting, but while ruminating about this, I thought of other sports that have struggled in recent decades, in particular, I thought of Greyhound racing. We in harness racing tend to ignore greyhound racing, but what's happened with it is scary. Think about this- people love dogs, and dog ownership and dog related products (including movies) have done very well in the past decades. But his has not translated to success of greyhound racing at all. Those who love dogs do not see an extension of their affection in spending a day at the dog races. They may or may not see dog racing as inhumane (some, like PETA members, certainly do) but even those not offended don't think of going. At a minimum, dog racing does not connect with dog lovers. So when various organizations found questionable activities at the dog tracks, there were few who would come to the defense of the industry, except those who made their livings in that world. Dog racing came to be seen as just a vehicle for gambling, and those involved in the activity were seen as, at least, people who took advantage of the dogs.
Now look at horse racing. Again we see huge popularity with horses as animals, but it clearly is not translating to the sport. Why? I'd suggest that the general public does not see those in horse racing as horse lovers. They see, or perceive, horses being mistreated, whipped, and given drugs. They see horses, like Greyhounds, being used only as vehicles for gambling....being taken care of for as long as they're useful and then thrown away. I'm in no way saying that this is an accurate portrait- but I do believe it is a big part of the perception, and a big part of the problem.
Finally, I have a personal story that made me think of this issue...a week ago I went to a doctor for the first time. He was curious that I was involved in horse racing, and said that for years he'd been thinking of taking his family to the track near where they vacation in the summer. He said they were planning on doing it the next summer when "the thing with Barbaro happened." Then, he continued, they were gearing up to do it the next summer, and "the thing with the filly in the Derby happened" (referring to Eight Belles). He said, sort of apologetically, that after that they just hadn't ever really got back the energy to get geared up again.
In contrast, I've noticed that other forms of horse activities seem to be doing well- there was an hour on NBC the other day devoted to the Rolex equine events from Kentucky. A beautiful new facility was built for the 2010 equestrian games in Lexington. The equine events at the Olympics in Beijing got extensive TV coverage.
I've already gone on too long, but here's the disconnect- many people like horses, but they don't like horse racing. They perceive horse jumping- a dangerous activity for horse and rider-as regal and lovely, but horse racing as, at least, mildly offensive. The challenge ahead, as I see it, is to show people that horse racing, particularly harness racing, is a celebration of the horse as a noble animal, and a sport that is composed of amazing equine athletes and people who care dearly for them.