The Decline of America’s First Pastime: Horse Racing’s Descent into Irrelevance
SPOILER ALERT: Horse racing’s storied place in American culture is gone and never coming back.
In his expansive 1964 book, The History Of Thoroughbred Racing In America, author William H.P. Robertson describes a portrait of horse racing in America that is barely recognizable today. It is the most popular spectator sport in the country. People know the names of the top horses and their backstory. Large new tracks are being built that are considered state-of-the-art for sports. And the sport is growing — in attendance, wagering and influence. In fact, the great Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and many other world-renowned horses and performances were yet to come.
The forward to that 600-page tome begins by noting that:
Horse racing has grown astoundingly in scope and in popularity since the early settlers brought to these shores a native love for such contests of speed and stamina, and so permanently injected it into our way of life that today racing is America’s number one spectator sport. Modern racing is a highly organized, thoroughly controlled and jealously guarded industry of coast-to-coast proportions, and an integral part of the revenue-producing machinery of more than half the United States.
Horse racing in America today, on the other hand, is marked by decline. Decline in the number of tracks, total attendance, number of horses bred and racing, owners, purses paid to those owners, wagers placed by the bettors and the number of people employed by the horse racing industry.
According to the 2015 Harris Poll of America’s Favorite Sport, Pro Football easily ranked as the most popular, distantly followed by baseball and college football. Horse racing? After experiencing a 3% overall decline in the poll from 1985–2015, horse racing now ranks as tied with women’s soccer, women’s college basketball, women’s pro basketball and men’s tennis in overall popularity. In fact, the popularity of horse racing is now so low that when the Business Insider produced the following chart of the Harris Poll results, horse racing wasn’t even included.
And unlike the other low-popularity sports, horse racing has been beset in recent years with negative publicity. As animal-welfare consciousness has grown in the United States, horse racing has been continually challenged to justify its existence. Scandals within the industry involving the improper drugging of horses, and public spectacles of stakes-level horses being injured or dying on the track have further eroded the public’s interest and enthusiasm for the sport.
The lifeblood of racing has always been the wagering dollars pumped into the sport by both committed horseplayers and everyday gamblers. Those dollars keep going down. Even with the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years occurring just two years ago, American Pharoah’s triumph has had little impact on horse racing’s bottom lime. Figures published by the Jockey Club show that from 1990–2016, pari-mutuel handle for United States horse racing peaked at around $15 billion in 2004, and has steadily fallen to less than $11 billion by 2016.
The national exposure of the sport has also steadily evaporated. From today’s vantage point it’s easy to look back and credit the developers of the National Football League, to use one obvious example, for their early understanding of the importance of capturing and holding a national television audience. And while horse racing faces unique challenges in marketing that other sports do not, it’s striking to consider what a poor job the industry has done in developing their product for the modern television (and now internet) age. National audiences in the U.S. are mostly unaware that horse racing still exists, save for a handful of events each year: the Triple Crown races featuring the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders Cup.
Particularly when compared to other major sports, the lack of evolution in the product offered to audiences is telling. Races at major tracks often overlap on starting times, have inconsistent and confusing wager options for people new to the sport, and the tracks themselves can seem unsafe and dilapidated. Add to that the constant legal battles among track owners, online wager companies, the state regulatory boards, and on and on. Even many of the tote boards used to display the live odds, results and payoffs appear to have been manufactured before computers were commonplace.
While beset by many negative outside forces, the people who run horse racing have also contributed to its problems. The horse owners, trainers, state regulatory boards, track owners, jockeys and even horseplayers put the U.S. Congress to shame when it comes to gridlock. These groups can’t come together on even the most basic improvements that could benefit the sport — think regulating the rampant medicating of their race horses, to name just one important example. Part of the problem is structural — horse racing has more than 30 governing jurisdictions in the U.S. But a large part is also the rampant we’ve always done it this way-ism.
By infighting and competing with each other rather than reaching any basic consensus, the industry has ceded control of the sport to the few large gaming corporations that now control it. And in reality, these corporations would be happy to be rid of horse racing altogether if they could replace it with more lucrative gaming options. They simply want the gambling profits, which can be more easily be obtained from slot machines, card tables, video terminals, etc. Having to maintain, feed and medicate large stables of live animals does not always efficiently serve the corporate bottom-line. Not to mention the potential for bad publicity when a horse publicly breaks down on the track, or PETA releases a secret video of horses being mistreated.
As a result, CDI, the company that owns various tracks including Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby takes place, has been more focused on their gaming development in recent years. Just last month NPR Morning Edition ran a report titled As Interest In Horse Racing Declines, Track Turns To Other Options. They noted that:
Racing just isn’t where the money is. Fewer people are going to races across the country. And that’s led to fewer races being run. There were 15,000 more races in 2006 than there were last year. To bring in more revenue, some race tracks have turned away from horses. Now, Churchill Downs makes its money this way.
In 2014, Churchill Downs bought Big Fish Games, which runs web-based platforms like ‘Jackpot City Slots,’ ‘Sunken Secrets’ and ‘Bush Whacker 2.’ Though the company says its anchor is still the Kentucky Derby, it attributes a jump in revenue last year to its acquisition of Big Fish. Cameron McKnight, a Wells Fargo analyst who tracks the gaming industry, says Churchill Downs has become a leisure company.
According to its annual SEC filings, Churchill Downs Inc. now only gets about 25 percent of its profits from the four racetracks it owns. And the company’s stock is trading near an all-time high. In addition to the addictive phone and computer games, Churchill Downs reaps much of its revenue from five casinos across the country and an online horse betting service called TwinSpires. Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, says Churchill Downs’s diversification is still bringing money back into the racing industry.
With gaming corporations exerting increasing influence over the sport as a whole, their lobbyists have been busy in the state legislatures weakening the racing industry even further. Texas, a state with a long history of live horse racing, has essentially de-funded the industry over the past few years. One theory that would explain the state’s curious lack of support for their own tracks, horsemen and horseplayers: the casinos lining the Texas borders would prefer to be rid of the horse competition, and they contribute to politicians willing to help with this goal. Similar efforts in Illinois and Florida now threaten the future availability of horse racing in those states, usually at the expense of further casino development.
Ironically, these declines continued after what could have been a turning point for the sport just two years. When American Pharoah crossed the finish line at the 2015 Belmont Stakes a jubilant crowd of 90,000 wouldn’t stop standing and cheering. People in the stands said it was one of the loudest sustained cheers they had ever heard.
American Pharoah had become the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown races that include the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. And in an unusual twist for the racing industry, the horse had no negative stories, rumors or associations plaguing his quick rise and ultimate triumph. A similar phenomenon had occurred just one year prior when the engaging California Chrome just missed winning the Triple Crown at Belmont.
If anything would give horse racing the jolt it needed, it would be these two great, charismatic horses supported by scores of horse racing fans, right? Not so much.
Even before California Chrome’s run for Triple Crown history, Dan Packel in the New Republic presciently argued that:
Even if California Chrome becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, it won’t be enough to arrest horse-racing’s inexorable decline. Once at the apex of the American sporting landscape, alongside boxing and baseball, horse racing has been hobbled both by cultural forces beyond its control and internal problems that it has been slow, or entirely unable, to fix.
A decade after Smarty Jones’s failed bid, it’s too late for any single horse to revive the sport as one that inspires raised voices year-round — from the wider public, that is, as opposed to the declining pool of die-hard bettors still shouting at banks of televisions at racetracks or off-track betting parlors.
The trouble is, the number of “racetrack people” dwindles by the year, and the negative stories swirling around horse racing aren’t going to win the sport any new diehards. The subject of many of these stories is one familiar to fans of America’s most popular sports: performance-enhancing drugs.
The racing industry is also plagued with problems that aren’t self-inflicted. Casinos, once found only in Nevada and New Jersey, now exist in 38 states. Elsewhere, there’s the lottery and bingo. Why would a novice gambler take the time to learn to decipher the complicated, almost runic numbers and symbols in a racing program when there are easier ways to get some action?
Horse racing also faces an existential threat in the form of land re-purposing. Imagine if NFL stadiums started disappearing because the land they were sitting on became too valuable. That’s exactly what’s happening to both minor and major tracks in the U.S.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the legendary Hollywood Park Racetrack closed in 2013 after 75 years to make way for a new NFL stadium and casino. In a recent interview the owner of Los Alamitos Race Course estimated that he’ll only be able to stave off developers wanting his prime land for another 10 years or so. Fewer venues could actually help stabilize the industry in the short term but they also undermine the regional appeal of the sport. Without the chance to attend a local race, how many young people will ever bother to watch a race on TV or visit a track in another state?
Is it fair to label a sport that still generates over $10 billion in revenue obsolete? Or is Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert correct when he says the sport is fine and just needs more stars? The trend-lines strongly suggest that the sport is in peril, with no obvious path towards future growth and stability.
Horse racing faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles both internally among its own stakeholders, and externally from both cultural forces and regulatory pressures. Will there still be major U.S. racing in 20 years? Will people stop what they are doing to watch the Kentucky Derby? Maybe, but by then the event is more likely to be kitsch, a spectacle of hats devoid of any larger meaning or purpose.