Friday, April 13, 2012

Guest Post: A Future For Racing?

by Mark Cramer

“But handicapping is complicated. If I wanted to do it well, I would really have to work hard at it. That would be like doing homework for school.”

   At the end of April 1989, I was attending a family funeral in my home town of Schenectady, New York. Once the body was laid to rest, several family members corralled me under a shady elm.
   “Who do you like in the Kentucky Derby?” they asked, in chorus. None of them were horseplayers. But racing was part of the general culture in this part of the woods. The Albany Times-Union had, and still has,
regular racing coverage, and during the Saratoga meet, its front pages are graced with feature articles on horse racing.
   With such interest shown by non-horseplayers, I was not made to feel like an oddball member of a marginal subculture. I told them I liked Sunday Silence. My aunts Helen and Ada, neither of them horseplayers, both bet Sunday Silence at their local OTB. When Sunday Silence drew out erratically to win, I felt as if I was doing my part to keep our glorious avocation alive and well.
   But these days, horse racing seems to draw a blank face from most folks. The hard-core are betting more these days and handle is up, but is this sustainable? On Thursday afternoons in April in Paris, stores are full of customers, soap operas enjoy a large audience, cafés are buzzing, museums are crowded and the immense grandstand at Longchamp is nearly empty.  Most people have never heard of Olivier Peslier.
   In the fall of 1998, I was back in the Capitol District of New York State to watch the Breeders’ Cup at the Albany OTB theatre. Art Kaufman, the man who originally conceived and published the Tomlinson
pedigree stats, now invited my reluctant 14-year-old son, Marcus, to come along with us.
   Art made a bargain with Marcus. “I’ll give you $2 to bet in each race, as long as you promise to study the past performances and bet according to your analysis and interpretation. You get to keep any money you win.” Art and I helped Marcus to understand the pps. I had already introduced him to racing, but I knew that forcing it is the wrong strategy for a father. We need friends like Art.
   Marcus was able to pick the winner of the Sprint, Reraise, and he also picked longshot Hawksley Hill in the Mile at 15-1, who ended up a heartbreaking second by a nose to Da Hoss. Not bad handicapping.
After the races, Art asked Marcus if he had enjoyed handicapping the races.
   “It was fun,” Marcus responded. “But handicapping is complicated. If I wanted to do it well, I would really have to work hard at it. That would be like doing homework for school.”
   I have also taken him to live racing, so he could appreciate the poetry of the Thoroughbred in motion. But in the end, Marcus chose other things to do with his life.
   In the sire rankings (I’m talking about horse racing writers siring horsesplayers), I find myself near last place. Mike Helm, author of Bred to Win: the Making of a Thoroughbred, for example, had one kid, who became a horseplayer like his old man. William Scott, author of Investing at the Race Track, sired at least two handicappers. On the other hand, yours truly, with four kids, has produced not a single horseplayer or handicapper.
   I ask myself how and why I have failed. Part of the answer may have come from my son Marcus. He has let us know that playing the races, in a serious way, is very demanding. It is not like watching a Formula I auto race or going to Disneyland. Most forms of entertainment require little or no study. In handicapping and playing the races, if you don’t study, you get buried.
   Consider Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic: “Is Google making us stupid” (July-August, 2008), where he points out a transformation in our culture, in particular, a loss of patience and attention span. He writes: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” So many links: we stop reading an article before we are finished and click on to a link, and then a link from the link.
  But this need for speed goes back before the internet. With the advent of remote control, TV viewers could zap one program as soon as it began moving too slowly. In order to counter the apparently shrinking attention span, some TV managers instructed their producers to hold no image beyond 13 seconds, so that viewers would not dart off to another channel.
   If this is all true, about the shortening attention span, then imagine what happens when we bring a kid or a friend to race track to enjoy live racing.
   “You mean we have to wait a half hour for the next race?” said one of my guests at Santa Anita. Of course, we could watch the horses in the walking ring, but those are slow images that last more than 13 seconds. My daughter Gabriela did learn to read the racing form, quite well, and appreciated the beauty of the Thoroughbred, but as she turned 13, she ended up dropping racing for other pursuits more in
demand by her teenage friends.
   It seems that other activities requiring both attention and patience, such as chess and jazz, are also losing supporters. But it would be simplistic to imply that the only reason for the shrinking of the racing audience is the parallel shrinking of attention span. Surely there are other changes in our culture that have squeezed away the space once occupied by horse racing.
   The French Jockey Club, France Galop, recognizes that a cultural approach involving all age groups, especially parents and children, is necessary to make racing touch the mainstream culture, the way I felt
it once did in upstate New York. So France Galop sponsors “Dimanches au Galop”, in April and May, with three participating tracks, two of them flat racing (Longchamp and Saint-Cloud) and the other the jumpers (Auteuil). Admission is free and there are many attractive activities for children. Picnic benches are set up in order to help fill those 30 minutes between races.
   Similar family-oriented free admission days are offered at other French tracks as well, with lots of festivities. The crowds are significant on those special days. But one France Galop official admitted to me that these events have a long-term goal but create no meaningful increase in betting handle. In fact, France Galop officials and employees are not even supposed to bet the races, and they don’t feel that it’s their job to teach the art of handicapping. They’re betting that a long-term cultural awakening to the beauty of the spectacle will eventually trickle into the betting handle. They also reward regular players by providing free coupons for people leaving the track on hard-core days, so seasoned handicappers will be able to get into the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, France’s biggest racing day, for free.
   In summary, the hypothesis is that racing has been relegated to the status of subculture and that types of entertainment that are less demanding on one’s attention span are taking its place. Here’s a link to a French Jockey Club promotion of racing. Do they have the right strategy? Or has the culture altered so much over the decades that racing will never regain its place as part of the mainstream culture?

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