Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
This week’s story involves an answer that sparked a multitude of questions in the racing industry.
During a slow part of the stakes calendar like this one, racing Twitter can be set ablaze by a spark from the oddest sources.
It happened last week with an assist from the iconic television quiz show “Jeopardy,” which has been the subject of some hilarious “Saturday Night Live” parodies.
In some ways the furor seems akin to hilarious “Saturday Night Live” parodies with Turd Ferguson, a.k.a. Burt Reynolds, and Sean Connery, but it did stem from the actual show that aired Dec. 20. It happened when a contestant chose the category “Recent Events” and the answer was, “Bob Baffert trained two recent Triple Crown-winning horses: American Pharoah in 2015 and this horse in 2018.”
No one buzzed in, though it would have been a softball for a tawdry response from the Connery character in the SNL skit.
Afterwards this was viewed in some corners of the Twitterverse as a loud statement on the shrinking importance of horse racing and an abject failure by anyone involved in promoting or marketing the sport.
Now, to be fair, judging anything on the response from three contestants on “Jeopardy” is a shaky measuring stick at best. It would not have been surprising if these intellectuals rattled off the names of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence but stumbled on who won the National League batting title last season, and that would not have reflected poorly on baseball. So, horse racing deserves a break on that front.
Yet at the heart of the main swipe at the sport – that it is not as incredibly popular as mainstream sports such as basketball, football, or baseball – is really not news. It’s a fact which should be obvious to anyone unless they live in Kentucky, which views the Kentucky Derby as a state treasure, or in a vacuum.
It’s no longer 1958, and longing for those days when there was more public awareness about horse racing is fine, but it’s unrealistic to expect a return to those days. The sports world has changed incredibly in the last 60 years, largely because of television, and reversing those trends are not as easy as some might believe.
Yet it does not mean that racing is a dying sport. I’ve heard that claim for about 40 years and it hasn’t happened yet, and its demise is not on the horizon.
Not being as popular as the National Football League is not a death sentence. It’s simply a way of life for every sport.
Sometimes, when people work in the world of horse racing and spend much of their time freely conversing about it with co-workers or associates, they can forget that it’s a different world away from the racetrack.
If I went up and down my block here in Connecticut and asked everyone the “Jeopardy” question, they might strike out as well. I can say that because when I tell people I write about horse racing, the typical response is “That’s nice,” and the conversation steers to a different topic. It was a different story when I was covering the NFL’s New York Jets and the immediate response was “Can you get me Giants tickets?” All of which taught me which NFL team owns the Big Apple and that sometimes you can figure out what’s going on in the world by looking around you with open eyes as opposed to paying millions for a survey.
But the key part here is that if I also asked my neighbors who won the Daytona 500 earlier this year or the Major League Soccer championship earlier this month, I probably would not get many correct answers, either. Can you answer both questions? I knew the soccer answer only because I saw the recap of the title game on ESPN and was struck by learning that it was the city of Atlanta’s first championship since the Braves in 1995. But don’t ask me the name of that soccer team.
There’s no doubt more people know who won the Super Bowl or World Series than the Daytona 500 or the MSL Cup, and there’s not an outcry about auto racing and soccer being dying sports. So as much as there may not be 25,000 people a day filling racetracks, there is still close to $11 billion wagered on annual basis in horse racing, a fact that should not swept under the carpet.
There are certainly problems that need to be addressed in horse racing and room for growth as well. Yet rather than be woken up by a “Jeopardy” answer, what’s need is a realistic look around and an understanding that the advent of sports betting can present a huge opportunity for horse racing if it can carve out a space for its own unique form of wagering within the larger system.
Yes, it’s no longer the 1950s with huge crowds, or the 1980s with critics espousing hypocritical morals against “gambling” but at the same time embracing lotteries or making ludicrous accusations that all races are fixed. What’s needed instead is for people to embrace where racing stands in 2018 and 2019, and then work to reach a consensus about the best way for the sport to realistically move forward – not go back in time.
Hopefully that, rather than “Who is Justify?,” is horse racing’s most important question to be answered.
THE ALSO-ELIGIBLE LIST
Here’s some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: