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KAI RYSSDAL: He’s 3 years old, weighs about 1,200 pounds, can run a mile in something less than two minutes. And if all goes as expected, by this time tomorrow Big Brown will be the first horse to have won the Triple Crown in 30 years. The Triple Crown’s one of the most prestigious titles in sports in what used to be called the Sport of Kings. But away from the big crowds and the big money of marquee events like tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes, horse racing is a more difficult business.
CHRIS ATKINSON: My names is Chris. I’m the managing partner of Joy Ride Racing.
Early in the morning at the Santa Anita Racetrack outside Los Angeles Chris Atkinson’s walking us through the barns. Joy Ride Racing, the ownership group that he runs, has a couple of horses here — including one that almost made it to the Kentucky Derby last year.
ATKINSON: This is Noble Court, and he’s kind of our lead horse of the stable.
RYSSDAL: Does he know he’s the lead horse?
ATKINSON: Yeah, he knows. You can kind of tell by his attitude. You see the way he’s a little bit feisty and cocky.
Even though Noble didn’t quite make it to the big show — he got hurt right before the Derby — Atkinson says getting close was pretty good.
ATKINSON: That’s what we’re all hoping for. I mean, one day you run across a horse that’s good enough to get there.
And dreams are great, but thoroughbred racing’s not quite what it used to be. Trackside attendance is way down. In New York, home state of tomorrow’s Belmont, it’s off almost 20 percent since the beginning of the decade. What’s called the handle — that’s a fancy word for the amount of money bet — has dropped by a billion dollars nationwide since 2003. For most of us, the idea of a day at the track sounds something like this:
[Sounds of trumpet and bell signaling the start of a race.]
But Atkinson and others think the business side of the sport needs a new soundtrack.
[Sounds of race cars.]
ATKINSON: I’d literally study what NASCAR has done and go down that road. You know, the way that they integrate themselves into the everyday life of the general consumer and the sports fan and the racing fan is a real lesson for us to learn in this business. And I think we’ve got to take a step back and really look at how we can repackage this sport and remarket it.
If this makes you think of jockeys wearing corporate logos instead of silks, and horses with brand names stencilled on their sides, take it easy. That’s not going to happen. But Atkinson’s trainer John Sadler said what might work is something more organizational. A national horse racing league. One that could drive marketing and sales and get people back in the stands.
JOHN SADLER: We don’t have a central ruling body. Each state is their own jurisdiction. Each race track … you know, they may be competing with the other tracks. So, we need a central racing body, in my opinion.
Alex Waldrop: Do we have a league? Are we the NFL? No, we’re not the NFL.
Alex Waldrop runs racing’s main trade group, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Alex Waldrop: The primary difference between us and the NFL and most other league sports is that we are highly regulated at the state level.
Why? Because almost $15 billion was bet, and bet legally, on horse racing last year. Gambling’s really what drives the sport. It supplies an enormous pool of money. And in the absence of big corporate sponsorship, betting funds the purses that let owners afford to race their horses. It’s also the thing that’s hurting thoroughbred racing the most.
For one, gambling sorta makes the track a turn-off for a day out with the family. But also, the rise of off-track betting means people don’t have to show up to bet. They could do it almost wherever they want. Although, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how anybody makes money betting on horses.
RYSSDAL AT BETTING WINDOW: So, if I want to get really fancy, can I bet like Guts to finish first and Merekat to finish second?
RYSSDAL: Alright, now, how do I do that?
TELLER: OK, you want to spend $5, so you do a $2 box, 2 and 6. Now that would be $4 because it’s $2 each way. But what you can do also, you can say, “Let me have a $3 straight exacta, 2-6 and a $2 exacta, 6-2. How’s that sound?
Those bits where you heard me nodding and agreeing with the guy? I was making that up. I had no idea what he was talking about. But people who do know how to bet are gonna show up at race tracks all over the country tomorrow to watch a simulcast of the Belmont Stakes, and maybe plunk down a couple of bucks on Big Brown to win.
After the race, though, it’s gonna be right back to the grind of getting bodies in the seats. At Hollywood Park here in Los Angeles the sport of kings has been reduced to this: Offering dollar hot dogs and beer on Friday nights.