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Monday, May 30, 2011
Belmont memories and futures

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

With the Belmont Stakes on deck, here's a decent question: Has horse racing outgrown big cities? Or has it at least grown around them?

Time was, big racing was the focal point of the sport, guys in fedoras, gals in dresses. You remember dresses. Not little black dresses for Little Black Dress Nights. Not tight skirts. Not formal gear. Sundresses, dresses like that, garments that contrasted the sexes.

Big-state horse racing is still important -- New York state racing, California state racing, spa-type seasons at Saratoga and Del Mar. Horse racing as a vacation aside, that's where you find the crowds, at the scenic spots where you can lose photos-gone-wrong in scenery. Spa racing is date racing, married people racing. But the shift to the sticks is inescapable. The racing regulars now gather in simulcast joints, the third at Belmont, the fourth at Delta, the sixth at Hooterville Downs, all infields look alike at the simulcast joints.

Live action used to be about the only horse racing in town. After college, I went to New York to learn how to be a stock broker, which took almost three months and amounted to: call rich relatives. We were paid $1,000 at the middle of the month, enough for a Broadway show, a steak in a restaurant, and a stake at Belmont Park after the train ride there, the best way ever to get to the horse races, always grumpy people with their heads down, it was like a movie scene. It was attend the races live, then, or go to a mid-block, side-street OTB facility where you checked your hygiene at the door. Following an afternoon at a smoky New York OTB room, you felt like carrying your shirt at the end of a long stick to the washing machine.

It's hard to be uppity when money is scarce. Big city racing can learn from the various necks of the woods where there are few live crowds but large simulcast turnouts, where the slot machine profits stock the purses, where Mom and Pop Stables thrive. Forget marketing to potential on-site race fans. Hustle the future simulcast patrons, step right up and get a free armload of nachos and cheese-like covering. What of the gigantic relic grandstands standing as a hollow tribute to the past? Sell the chairs as souvenirs. It's not so much a lack of crowds in horse racing, it's a major shift to the simulcast halls.

The way we were is old hat.

It's a prop.

We're all about instantaneousness.

It takes 22 seconds to find the internet?

Call a nerd.

We're about this text, seen 1.1 billion times hourly, earth-wide: How R U?

We follow idiots.

We watch losers.

We listen to crackpots.

There's no time to waste.

Check that.

There's tons of time to waste; there's no time to sit quietly.

Racing has become almost spontaneous, almost a point of purchase decision. I'm bored, flip on TV for a race and a wager. Stop at the simulcast joint on the way home for a beer and a Double, see if you could have been yawning around lucky without even knowing it. Every horse player knows about streaks. The simulcast generation has instant access to the possibility of hotness. Lose $20, win $200. Life is good.

The contemporary story of the sport is not a day at the races.

It's more like an hour at the races.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.