A Response to Darren Rovell’s Dismissive Horse Racing Tweet

Pop Culture
Fans flock to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the Saratoga Race Course summer meet (above in 2016) each year. Attendance for Travers Stakes day had to be capped in 2015 and 2016 at 50,000 fans.

ESPN’s sports business reporter Darren Rovell has been tweeting about horse racing again. Brace yourself.

After the Kentucky Derby he posted a poll on Twitter to his followers:

54% - Hasn’t changed

29% - Care less, it happened

17% - I’m more enthusiastic

So Rovell looks at a poll that says that only 29 percent of respondents lost interest in the sport and declares that casual interest is dead. Fascinating. Forget for a second that a poll of his Twitter followers isn’t statistically relevant or anything. Even if it was, this poll doesn’t say that! There’s nothing about 29 percent saying they’ve lost interest to lead anyone to that conclusion all on its own.

Many people in Rovell’s mentions provide him with counter arguments to his conclusion. He says this:

So, it’s horse-racing insiders who won’t accept “reality,” but he offers no evidence of this reality that casual interest in the sport is dead. Then, he tweets this after the Preakness:

Again, he gets dragged in his mentions. Again, he tries to clap back:

OK, Darren, I’ll take your bait, even though that seems like an arbitrary barometer, honestly. Why would attendance on a “regular race day” be the only statistic that matters? What is a “regular race day”? There are more than a hundred racetracks across the United States. There is a horse race running somewhere in America on every day of the year, except on Christmas (races are held in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory, on Christmas). Every racehorse is working toward a unique goal. Some of those horses are 2-year-olds in their first year of racing. Some of them are not very fast and are racing for very small purses. Some compete only against other horses bred in their state. Some compete only against other horses who have never won a race before. Meanwhile, there are some horses who compete in stakes races worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. There are some that travel the entire world seeking out the best horses to compete against.

So which race is regular? Which is the barometer?

Surely, you don’t think that the barometer for how golf is doing is the attendance at a local charity tournament. Or that the barometer for how basketball is doing is the attendance at an AAU game. Or that the barometer for how ESPN is doing are the ratings of a regional ESPN AM radio program.

But for the purposes of proving that you are relying on anecdotal evidence and your own personal tastes and biases to make this point, I’ll accept your terms. How is horse racing doing on a “regular race day,” whatever that is?

In the wake of American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown, not only was attendance up at racetracks across the country, but so was handle, another barometer that you don’t care anything about, despite 65 fewer race dates in 2016. This is during the same period that attendance was down at college football games across the country. Do you think America is on its way to deleting that sport?

It isn’t a fair comparison. College football plays one day a week during a few months out of the year. Horse racing is running year round. But if you were to just break out the marquee events in horse racing throughout the year, of which there are many beyond the Triple Crown, you’d see comparable crowd sizes. Average crowds at college football games are around 40,000 people. There are some places where they get psychotic crowds of nearly 100,000 people out to a game, but I’m going to bet you dismiss those as outliers, great big parties with little to do with football. But horse-racing crowds during those marquee events throughout the year have been drawing similar-sized crowds. In 2015 and 2016, Saratoga Race Course capped attendance for the Travers Stakes at 50,000 and sold out. If the facility could handle more, they’d easily get it. Opening day at Del Mar last year drew more than 42,500. That’s opening day! But even an average day at the Del Mar summer meet draws more than 10,000 people, to watch all of the horses race, not just the oldest or fastest or most expensive or best bred.

At Saratoga in 2016, more than 1.1 million people paid for admission to that racetrack during last year’s 40-day race meet, a record number. There was no American Pharoah or Triple Crown ballyhoo to draw those people to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The average daily on-track attendance each day exceeds the city’s population of 27,000. Those people at the track aren’t locals. People travel from far and wide just to attend the races. They fill up the city’s hotels and vacation rental homes. They cram the sidewalks and streets … for six weeks! Show me another sporting event on par with the Saratoga race meet. There is nothing like it in American sports.

“Horse racing is a sport on the rise.”—Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports Group, which has increased its horse racing television coverage from 23 hours in 2011 to 85 hours in 2017

At Oaklawn Park, in the small town of Hot Springs in the tiny state of Arkansas, they see an average of more than 10,000 people at the track for every race day of their 55-day meet. That’s every single day to watch all of the races. And on their big day, the Arkansas Derby, they will regularly draw in more than 60,000 people, rivaling attendance at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game. People in Arkansas love the Razorbacks like they were the state religion, and almost everyone in Arkansas has been to the racetrack. In Arkansas, it’s just what you do; it’s a part of the culture.

Fans gather around the paddock at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Then there is Kentucky. They put a horse on their quarter. Horses are a $4 billion industry in Kentucky responsible for nearly 100,000 jobs. Horses and horse racing are tied to the very identity of Kentuckians. What other sport can say that? What other state in America is so connected both materially and spiritually to a single sport? And when America decided, according to Rovell, to delete horse racing, did it also delete the entire Bluegrass State?

In order to fully understand the appeal of horse racing, you need to attend one of the aforementioned racetracks during a big stakes race. Not a Triple Crown event; not a Breeders’ Cup event — come to the Travers Stakes, come to the Maryland Million at Laurel Park, come see the Pacific Classic. Come out to Belmont Park on Father’s Day or Independence Day weekend. And don’t just sit up in the press box and eat the free food, Darren, hang out in the backyard with the racing faithful. Talk to them about why they come to the track. How long have they been coming? How often do they come? Meet families with small children in the playground out back, meet college students from New York City, talk to school teachers and nurses and bankers and bus drivers. If you want to seek out oddballs, go to Aqueduct on a weekday morning, sure. But come out to Santa Anita on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when there’s a good card of racing and you’ll find as much a cross-section of America as you’re likely to find anywhere else.

My point is: There’s nothing to support this idea you have that Americans don’t like horse racing or care about the sport. Horse racing has millions of fans. There are racetracks that are thriving right now, with increased purses and field sizes and new fans discovering the game every year. Yes, there are also racetracks that are struggling. It’s true. I, personally, think there are too many racetracks. But just as major professional sports franchises will sometimes relocate to other cities or fold altogether, it doesn’t mean the sport itself is dying if a racetrack closes down. Not when there are many tens of thousands of fans on hand every time the best horses in a division face off against each other.

Across the country, each market faces its own unique challenges. There are different sports that people can choose to support with money and attention. That choice is sometimes the result of personal taste or which sport offers a better product.

In some places, like Saratoga Springs or Hot Springs or Louisville or San Diego, horse racing offers people a product they love and embrace. And they support it year after year, Triple Crown winner or not. They support it by coming out to the racetrack and spending a whole day outside and wagering on the outcome of the races through the betting windows.

Oaklawn Park is a Hot Springs, Ark. hot spot. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It isn’t that people in the racing industry won’t face reality. It’s that the reality they must face is one that is beset on all sides by a false and uninformed narrative that horse racing is a sinking ship. That narrative makes it harder for those tasked with bringing in new fans to appeal to them. And the baffling thing to me is that it’s a narrative most frequently pushed by media types who only pay attention to horse racing during the Triple Crown, which is a massively successful series of horse races with an on-site and television audience most sports can only dream about. Yet, these same voices tell us not to pay attention to those races at all, and that the true measure of the sport is the weekday crowd at workaday tracks in inconsequential events. Why? What interest does this definition serve? What would a truly healthy and vibrant horse racing market look like to you? Fifty thousand people at every track in America every day of the week?

I’m frankly tired of having this argument with people like you. I’m tired of listening to sports media guys who only care about the sports they themselves wish they could play. I’m tired of listening to them make fun of tennis or women’s basketball or horse racing because they assume since they don’t care about it, nobody else does either.

Look at me, for example. I hate golf. I think it’s boring and idiotic. If you put up a poll about whether or not my interest in golf has been hurt by Tiger Woods’ recent DUI, I’d click on the worst option you gave me. But I am the wrong person to ask about golf because I never, ever watch it. I never ever will. And, there are millions more people like me than there are people who like golf. Big deal. It means nothing about the relative health of that sport. There are plenty of fans of golf to support that (stupid) game, and who am I to tell them that they don’t exist and that their sport is dead just because my local putt-putt place closed down? What I do instead is keep my big, fat mouth shut and my uninformed, ignorant opinions about golf to myself.

You’re a journalist. Worst of all, you cover sports business. Do some journalism. You think your opinion about the sport matters, back it up with maybe 15 minutes of research. Or better yet, get out of your office and the press box and go to one of America’s many popular racetracks and ask people why they come to the track. Maybe you’ll learn something about a sport you assume is dying. Maybe you’ll treat it with a little more respect and a little less obnoxious arrogance. That’s what we need, journalists who will question their own assumptions. We don’t need another sports-media insider ignoring reality.

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