Racing needs more fans,
cleaner image for 2004

Jan 6, 2004 3:36 AM

Asses in the seats and no past-posting bleats.

Rough and blunt, perhaps, but that’s a credo racing should adhere to for the New Year.

The live fan base has fallen below the Mendoza line. There are cries that some trainers are using illegal elixirs to win and more cries that computer cheats are betting after horses have left the starting gate.

They are but three major challenges the industry faces in 2004.

Purists seek more fans at the track to watch a sport, which, at its optimum, offers the infinite beauty of the thoroughbred. Honest bettors everywhere, on-track and off, want a level playing field.

"The first thing I’d hope for would be a bigger audience, more people coming out to the live races," said Richard Mandella, the Hall of Fame trainer who made history last Oct. 25 by winning four Breeders’ Cup races. "But I guess it’s natural to have attendance on-track decline because of home betting and inter-track wagering. There are so many ways to bet now without going to the races, so the first effect is a drop in attendance. The long-term dream would be to create such a big audience that it would fill in on all fronts, on-track and at other locations. I guess for the time being we have to expect small on-track attendance."

The bottom line, as in any business, is profit, and as long as handle grows, its source would seem secondary. Where the mutuel handle is generated is not an issue as long as it increases.

"With home account wagering companies like TVG and HRTV available to educate people, hopefully the dwindling live fan base will improve in the future," Mandella said. "Maybe five years from now a big enough audience will be created that there will enough for everybody. "But it’s the game of racing that we need to promote."

Racing can promote itself until Funny Cide goes to stud, but until it puts security in place that prevents odds from dropping on front-running horses after a race starts and until fans believe that all trainers are created equal, it won’t make much difference. That’s the opinion of Gary Young, outspoken gambler, bloodstock agent and professional clocker.

"It’s going to take cleaning up the perception that people think these games aren’t on the up-and-up," Young said. "Some people believe racing isn’t being conducted on a level playing field; some don’t. I happen to be among the first group.

"Even the ones who do think it’s conducted on a level playing field can’t deny that the perception has gone to hell. People doubt there’s fairness to the game. They’re very suspicious that races are being bet on after they’re over or at least when the field has reached the 3/8 pole.

"In California and a lot of other places, the quality of horses is being diluted. There’s a bit of quality at the start of Del Mar and the same for the big meet at Santa Anita. It’s nothing like it used to be, but it’s decent in the beginning. But it doesn’t last as long as it used to. Within a week we’re looking at short fields and short quality again."

Young disagrees strongly that a perception of wrongdoing is hurting racing.

"Someone recently wrote that whether cheating is going on or not is not important, but that the perception of cheating is important," Young said. "That was without a doubt one of the most stupid statements I’ve ever read in my life. He wrote (paraphrasing) ”˜whether there’s cheating going on or not isn’t important. The important thing is the fact that people think it’s going on.’ I had to read that about three times before I realized he was actually dumb enough to write something like that."

There are no easy answers. Only ready criticisms.

"There’s no reason to build new tracks with grandstands the size of Santa Anita and Belmont," Young said. "The most you would need to accommodate on-track is 30,000."

Young agrees that mega-plants are dinosaurs, and that handle drives the product, and that a large portion of that handle is produced at satellite facilities. It’s not about to change.

"Once the convenience of simulcasting was offered it can’t be taken away," he said. "Whether they want to admit it or not, I’m sure the powers that be wonder if they had to do it all over again whether they would have done that."

THE HOMESTRETCH: More News You Should Have Bet On: In the Nov. 25-Dec. 1 edition of GamingToday we wrote, "Here’s an early holiday gift. Miss Coronado, a 2-year-old daughter of Coronado’s Quest trained by Bobby Frankel, looked like a million bucks on the track in her debut at Hollywood Park but was victim of a 10-cent trip. Bet with confidence next out." The good news: She won by 2½ lengths on Sunday at Santa Anita. The bad news: She only paid $4.

...With the high cost of workers’ compensation in California, one trainer of a small stable at Santa Anita said it costs him about $200 for every horse he starts, including the jockey’s insurance and the premium for workers’ comp. Asked what the big outfits do, he said, "They just pass the cost on to their owners and that’s why racing is losing so many owners."

. . . Look for Julie Krone to resume riding by the end of the month. The 40-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, injured in a spill at Hollywood Park last Dec. 12, should begin getting on horses around Jan. 22. "She’ll probably look to take some calls the last week of January," said her agent, Brian Beach. Krone has 3,704 career victories and is the only woman to win a Triple Crown race (1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair) and a Breeders’ Cup race (Juvenile Fillies aboard Halfbridled in 2003).