I was chatting with racing historian and jack of all trades Bob Marks via email recently. I shared a story about the 1980's and the state of racing in Ontario.
The family stable, along with some friends, bought a horse in a New York sale, sometime around 1983. He turned out to be a pretty decent colt, winning a few New York Sires stakes and a 3 year old open or two. At four and five he really blossomed and raced in the FFA class at old Greenwood.
During that time there was no simulcasting, and several Ontario tracks like London, Rideau and others would have free for all invites, for say $30,000 or $50,000 purses (well above the local $14k FFA). These would mostly attract Toronto Saturday night horses. One such event was the Connaught Cup at old Connaught Park near Aylmer, Quebec. Our horse was invited and off we went.
The event was pretty huge, with people everywhere. They showed up to watch horses of a quality they could not see regularly. Keep in mind, these were not the top FFA'ers in the world, just from (mostly) Ontario. But there they were, lined up 50 deep at the machines, the dining room full.
This happened with many of these type stakes or invites - the MCTV in Sudbury, the Labatt (now Molson) in London.
Now you or I can watch similar quality horses from anywhere in the world, on any device at a dozen different tracks each Saturday. In fact, the Open at Yonkers probably has higher quality fields than those were. Yet the tarmac is empty, the handle is poor.
The easy narrative that accompanies this, is that with simo these races are not special like they once were. We don't have to travel to the track to watch, therefore we stay home. But I don't buy it.
We can watch a U2, or Phish, or Pearl Jam, or whatever concert on youtube, for free. We can watch pro sports in HD for a small fee as a part of a cable package. These sports and bands are everywhere, yet the public still attends live events by the millions. They'll shell out $400 for tickets without question, when in 1980, $18 was the going price for a Stones ticket at the CNE, or Bills game at Rich.
What I think changed, and what we generally miss when talking about the old days - folks who showed up at Connaught, or Western Fair, or Windsor Raceway were never really doing it for the "horses" like we'd all like to believe. They were doing it because they'd be able to gamble on a good card on a Saturday night.
Once racing lost the gamble - to casinos, etc - it lost the crowds.
I remember the California takeout hike chatter, back in 2010. One executive said, "we're competing against the Dodgers or the Angels." I don't think that's correct, nor has it ever been correct. Racing is competing with gambling entertainment, or "gambletainment" as Eric Poteck calls it on the twitter. It was in 1980, and it is in 2017.
Does racing want bigger crowds, more people talking about the sport, more potential horse owners? If they do I suggest they focus on raising handles over the next decade. Handle is, and always will be, the sports' leading economic indicator, no matter how much we wax poetically about the past.
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