There are some blog posts, and some interesting chatter on the Interwebs about the TV ratings and attendance for Triple Crown races the past few years. There are some who feel that racings problems are not causing a dying sport, and that we're on the rebound.
I don't think horse racing is dead. It never will be dead because someone somewhere will meet a man with a horse and want to race his or hers. Stakes will be put up, people will come to bet and watch, and we'll have a race day. People will watch the big races, like they always have. But it is certainly in bad shape, and Belmont Stakes attendance, a TV rating, Zenyatta on a news show, Secretariat movies, Seabiscuit movies and whatever else people want to use to argue with that, are simply missing the point on what drives the sport.
In economics, a depression is a loss of 10% of GDP, in a period over 2 years. If that's applied to our sport, we're in a depression times about ten. Real handle losses are about 50% of our business in the last ten years, 35% of the money for purses come from slot machines. Foal crops have shrunk, and there are fewer and fewer people betting horse racing as customers. It's rotten out there.
And the future, no matter how rosy we want to look at it, portends more storms on the horizon. In Canada, $350M a year just went poof for horse racing when the slots deal was taken away, and in 2013 purses will be low. In Iowa, it's all gone. In Pennsylvania, 16.7% of the cash was taken away and they narrowly escaped losing another $72M this year. Indiana dodged a bullet, which is likely to come back in next years budget. New York? If there's slot money going to racetracks in 5 years I would be stunned, and you would too. Ohio added slots and some other states may, but we all know that's a band-aid, anyway.
We put all those facts against, say, a nice Belmont attendance, and handle that's up 1.5% this season, and we're supposed to be gleeful? We're supposed to think this bottomed out?
Big races will always take in revenue, because they are big events. The Calgary Stampede - a large rodeo - had an attendance of a couple hundred thousand in the 1950's and now it's 1.2 million. TV viewership is up, mainly because there are more people around via population growth. If you use those numbers like some are using the popularity of the Derby or other Triple Crown races, you'd say rodeo is popular and growing. It isn't. It's deader than a doornail. Millions of people watch the biathalon each Winter Olympics. It doesn't mean skiing while shooting at targets with a gun is a hot commodity in the sporting world.
The sport of horse racing will grow when the problems that it has are fixed, and they are numerous and seem insurmountable. A run of good weather out east and small takeout reductions, a decent viewership for a TV series of TC races where there was a TC chance and a few other rosy stats in 2012 do not change that.
There's nothing wrong with being happy about our sport and getting excited about racing. The Jockey Club is doing some great work and there are other positive things happening. But we tend to accentuate the positive and try and extrapolate the micro to the macro way too often. This is why up until the last year or two we've been told things are fine (listen to a CHRB meeting and you'll still think things are fine). They weren't and they aren't. It simply allows people off the hook from doing what's needed to be done. We have never been a "CFL", who as a niche sport started to accept their fate, and finally tackle their issues.
That's not doom and gloom, that's reality. We have work to do, lots of it. It's better to put the gleeful feelings aside and get back to work to effect real change to help a shrinking sport.
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