How to Improve and Grow the Sport of Horse Racing: Part 1

This is the first part of a multi-part series on how to improve and grow the sport of horse racing.

Justify-13

Justify (photo by Jordan Thomson).

If you are reading this article, chances are extremely good that you’re a true horse racing fan, since, at this point of the horse racing season, the big Triple Crown races are over. This series is aimed at bringing more of the casual horse racing fans — those that move on to other forms of entertainment after the Kentucky Derby — back into the fold.

If you read my previous US Racing article “Why Justify’s Premature Retirement Threatens the Future of Horse Racing,” I had some criticisms — constructive criticisms — relating to the sport of horse racing and its future.

And I received some criticism of my own from those in favor of retiring Justify, aka the “They Did the Right Thing Crowd”.

First, if anyone thinks that I, or any true racing fan, wants to race an unsound horse or isn’t supportive of increased safety measures for jockeys and horses, you are totally misguided. In fact, one of my upcoming parts of this series will be on increased safety.

But it needs to be pointed out that Justify has not been officially diagnosed with an injury of any kind. Inflammation in the joints of performance horses is extremely common. Most often, it is due to minor issues.

Plain and simple, Justify was retired because he was worth more in the breeding shed than on the race track and this begs the following questions:

  • Are we breeding to race or racing to breed?
  • If this is now the standard for a Triple Crown winner, then why will the casual fan have any interest in the sport outside of the three Triple Crown races?
  • Why will the casual fan want to invest time watching a sport knowing full well that their favorite horse’s career will be short-lived if it is too good on the racetrack?

When I played pick-up basketball games in college, the teams didn’t have color-coordinated jerseys, so it was often difficult to determine, at times, who exactly was on your team. Thus, we had an expression — “Same, Same!” — when someone accidentally got confused and tried to guard or defend a player who was on the same team.

So, I am throwing that phrase out now: Same, same! I love the sport of horse racing. I am on your team. I want this sport to grow and become more successful.

A 2015 Harris Poll showed that only 1 percent of Americans call horse racing their favorite sport. In the most recent Gallop Poll in 2017, no American called horse racing their favorite sport.

I want this to change.

So, in this series, I will provide ideas on how this sport can be grown in the future.

Let’s face it, the sport of horse racing can get excellent attendance numbers and good TV ratings on occasion, so there is still interest in the sport. However, it is not the average American’s favorite sport.

This sport needs a commissioner, but that is unlikely to ever come to fruition. This doesn’t mean that a few key players in the sport can’t get on the same page, band together, share ideas and make some positive changes together.

And I think great step forward for growth is in the area of broadcast media. The NFL is king when it comes to television ratings in sports. How did this happen?

Monday Night Football — a prime-time weeknight game that also served as a way for the average fan to get a recap of the weekend games at halftime, see highlights and give the talking heads air time to discuss the happenings in the sport.

Plus, ABC developed an awesome theme song, heard from anywhere in any room, to get your attention.

Introduce Wednesday Night Horse Racing

I feel that televised horse racing events get lost in the shuffle on weekends with the casual fan, when it has to compete with other sports and other forms of entertainment. My question is: Why try to fit a square peg into a round hole?

The sport of horse racing needs more focus, which it can get on nights during the week when there are less entertainment options. The NFL caught on quick. In addition to having Monday Night Football, it branched out with Thursday Night Football.

College football fills up most Saturdays during the fall. Some smaller college football conference caught on and have their conference games on during the week to avoid having to go head-to-head with the bigger conferences. The NHL has Tuesday night games, most big boxing events are on Friday nights. Why not have Wednesday night horse racing, with some graded stakes races?

I feel that NBC and Fox Sports both do a wonderful job broadcasting the sport of horse racing. With poker being televised on ESPN, surely some major national cable channel could fit in horse racing for a couple hours on a Wednesday night.

The sport of horse racing needs to think more “outside the box,” as this formula for success and growth has been right under its nose for decades. Having a two-hour block of time mid-week would also be a great way to tie-in big weekend races to help build a bigger audience. And it would be a great way to build up some of the stars of the sport who may have raced over the weekend, will race that night or the upcoming weekend.

Wednesday Night Stakes Races? Make it happen. I’m all-in.

Michael Cox
Michael is a pharmacist by profession, author of “Masten Gregory: Totally Fearless” as well as a horse racing blog that can be found at: www.thederbyhandicapper.com. He attributes his love for horse racing to two things: his grandfather who used to listen to horse races on the radio broadcasted from the now defunct Ak-Sar-Ben race track in Omaha, Nebraska and a Sports Illustrated subscription in the 1970s.
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