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KAI RYSSDAL: Some of the most promising thoroughbreds in the world are here in Los Angeles for the Breeders Cup this weekend. The prospect of a good race isn’t enough to fill the grandstands out at Santa Anita, though. So the track has had to cut ticket prices by as much as 50 percent, down to just $10 for general admission. Race tracks all around the country have been fighting declining attendance for years. Now they’re betting on the little guys to launch a comeback.
Andrea Gardner reports.
Andrea Gardner: In horseracing, the star athlete has long been the horse. Think War Admiral and Secretariat — legendary names in the sports world. The men and women riding the horses have generally been unknowns. But if jockeys have it their way, soon you’ll not only know their names, you’ll want to see them in person.
Cody Free: We got his autograph!
Cody’s mother: You’re excited, aren’t you?
Rachel Free: I asked him if he could sign it, and he said yes, and it was really cool.
Nine-year-old Rachel Free and her brother Coby are at the Santa Anita race track outside L.A. — and they’re downright giddy over meeting jockey Joe Talamo. The kids watch him on a reality show called “Jockeys.” The TV program airs on Animal Planet and offers a glimpse at the drama both on and off the track. In this moment, Joe is chosen to ride the Kentucky Derby favorite, and a friend tells him to watch his back.
From “Jockeys”: There isn’t one rider who wouldn’t want to be in your position. We’re all like vultures.
The reality show stands to change the public perception of jockeys — more than just little people in colorful silks. They’re what racing afficianados know them as — world-class athletes in a cut-throat sport.
Talamo is getting used to the fanfare.
Joe Talamo: We really did it for the good of the game — to try and get new fans out here and try and keep the existing fans out here. And just try and keep people coming out.
Talamo made a recent appearance on the “Tonight Show.” He has a following on Facebook and Twitter. And he’s only 19, which means he could easily ride for the next two decades. Many hope he’ll breathe new life into a sport that definitely needs reviving. After all, racing’s core customer, gamblers, have replaced the track with simulcasting and off-track betting, says sports marketing expert Joe Favorito.
Joe Favorito: What it used to have was, kind of, if you wanted to go and bet on horses, or you wanted to go and understand horseracing you had to go to the track, and now, obviously, that’s probably the last of your options, is actually physically going to the track.
Favorito says the key to reviving the sport is pairing a popular jockey with a champion horse. But nowadays, it’s near impossible for a horse to do what Seabiscuit did, becoming a household name by thrilling people year after year. That’s because horse owners make more money in breeding than racing, so top horses are typically retired after only three years, just as they’re hitting their stride.
Favorito: It’s a very very short window to be successful, and when they’re successful, it’s usually towards the end of their career. So as much as the horses come and go, the jockeys are always there. And the jockeys help make the horses what they are when they’re successful.
Favorito says a superstar horse would do more for the sport than a popular jockey. This year, Mine that Bird and Rachel Alexandra have provided flickers of excitement. But there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years. In the meantime, jockeys will take the reins, step into the spotlight and give fans a new reason to cheer.
In Los Angeles, I’m Andrea Gardner for Marketplace.