It’s Triple Crown season – Thoroughbred racing’s most visible time of the year. This week I head to Baltimore, following Orb in his quest to continue down the path after his visually impressive victory in the slop at Churchill Downs. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the sport in my travels over the past couple of weeks, and I am troubled.
Thoroughbred racing is a study of contradictions. On Kentucky Derby day, more than 151,000 people packed Churchill Downs on a soggy, miserable day. Although well off last year’s record of 165,307, the crowd will still rank the highest to attend any racing event this year. Beautiful weather on Kentucky Oaks day drew 113,820, just off the record of 116,046 set in 2010. Elsewhere, only the Preakness at Pimlico regularly draws crowds in excess of 100,000; Belmont Park is capable of doing so if a Triple Crown is on the line in early June.
Other than those bright spots, there are more worrisome signs every year. Storied Hollywood Park, on borrowed time for a while now, will officially close by the end of 2013, a victim of both racing’s decline and the high “alternative use” value of its property. South Florida Thoroughbred tracks Calder and Gulfstream have foolishly decided to compete head-to-head beginning in July, although there are still ongoing negotiations between the two owners. It’s hard to find attendance numbers – no surprise there – but I can almost guarantee there aren’t that many people willing to go to a Thoroughbred track on hot summer weekend in South Florida, and splitting that number in two seems, well, foolish. Not to mention that there is a dwindling supply of horses available to fill fields.
Racetracks also seem bent on discouraging the few remaining fans from having fun on race days. For the Derby and Oaks, Churchill Downs put in new policies after the Boston Marathon bombings in an effort to provide extra security. Among the banned items were coolers and cans, staples of the infield party. Pimlico followed suit as it prepares for this week’s Preakness. Delaware Park, which has a beautiful picnic area dubbed “the Grove,” has added similar restrictions for its 2013 meeting. I understand the need for security, but frankly, someone who wants to cause disruption will always find ways to do so. Racetracks should be welcoming those few fans willing to enjoy a pleasant day at the races, rather than preventing them from doing so or forcing them to buy high-priced food and beverage items.
Among the more curious rules in place for the Derby and Preakness is the prohibition of “cameras with detachable lenses” and all camcorders and video equipment. Many people who still go to the races enjoy taking photos as casual fans. Some professional sports limit cameras in their stadiums, but that is generally due to licensing issues. The racetracks cited security reasons for banning the equipment. But that makes no sense at all – after all, law enforcement officials used thousands of amateur photos and videos to help in their swift identification of the people responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings.
Combine these types of decisions with ongoing issues involving drug use and other animal rights concerns, and it’s no wonder the sport is declining. In the U.K. recently, justice was swift as a trainer found to be illegally giving his horses steroids was banned for eight years. The horses were ruled ineligible to compete until the fall. Compare that to the hand-slaps often given to trainers here in the U.S. when horses test positive for a variety of drug cocktails that influence performance. And medication policies are causing rifts among several high-profile owners and breeders, which is never a good thing.
As I have repeatedly stated, I love horse racing. But increasingly, I’m starting to wonder why.