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The divergence of two great sports

2/17/2014

You might have read Steve Davidowitz's most recent column here at ESPN.com and if you haven't you should. Davidowitz waxed poetic about the many similarities between baseball and horse racing, from how both are thinker's games to how racing and baseball both planted their foundations in this country around the same time to the many notable names from baseball who have also been involved in racing.

Baseball has had some bumps in the road and many would argue that it has been passed by pro football as the county's true national pastime, but it has largely remained a very popular, very successful sport.


It's a good read, and it got me thinking. There was a time when horse racing was nearly as popular as baseball. Baseball has had some bumps in the road and many would argue that it has been passed by pro football as the county's true national pastime, but it has largely remained a very popular, very successful sport. Horse racing has not. So what has baseball done right and horse racing done wrong?

The obvious

Racing's popularity, much more so than baseball's, revolves around gambling. When racing and baseball were one-two in this country in popularity horse racing was the only legal means by which Americans could quench their thirst for gambling. Now it's just one gambling game among many and with takeout rates that make it the worst bet out there, racing can't compete with casinos, sports betting and the rest. People don't go to the racetrack like they used to because they've found more preferable betting options.

Baseball embraced television. Racing did not.

When racing was at its zenith television didn't matter. When it came to be, baseball, like most sports, realized the immense impact TV was going to have on this country and how important it was to climb on board. The exception was horse racing, which didn't want to give its customers a reason not to come to the racetrack. New generations of Americans became fans of sports by following them on TV. Horse racing wasn't on TV.

Baseball has a commissioner. Racing doesn't. Commissioners make rulings in the best interests of their sport and guide the games through good and bad times. Without a commissioner, everyone looks out for themselves and problems aren't solved, they intensify.

The not-so-obvious

Baseball has always had and always will have an opening day and a closing day. It will always have seasons and fans weary from the winter grind and hungry for the games to begin, those who can't wait for the start of another year. That used to be the case with horse racing. Major tracks in the Northeast were closed in the winter and the Florida tracks never dreamt of racing in the summer. Opening Day at Aqueduct in the spring was a big deal. Now, racing is a year-round grind. There's never an opening day because there's never a closing day. There's nothing special about a day at the races anymore because there's always going to be nine or 10 races the next day. The exceptions are the short-meet tracks like Saratoga and Keeneland, and that's among the reasons they are successful.

Baseball has done a great job with its facilities. Too many racetracks are dumps.

Starting with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992 baseball has found a way to make its stadiums as big an attraction as the games themselves. Over the last 22 years 22 new MLB stadiums have opened and others, like Fenway Park, have been refurbished. Go to a baseball game and you are going to sit in a clean, friendly, modern building that adds something to the overall experience.

Go to many racetracks and you're most likely going to be housed in a dreary, empty building that probably hasn't undergone any serious improvements in decades. Outside of a few places and a few days, the experience of going to the track is about as unappealing as it gets.

Who do you root for at the racetrack?

We like baseball because we have a rooting interest, our team. Horse racing has never quite had that.


We like baseball because we have a rooting interest, our team. Horse racing has never quite had that. In racing we root for #4, but only until the next race when we root for #5. But at least racing used to have stars, horses that could draw fans. You might have loved Kelso and couldn't wait to see him run and root him home, whether you wagered on him or not. As recently as the late seventies, racing had the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar, who met 10 times, including in all three Triple Crown races. Everyone was a fan of one or the other.

We don't have that anymore. Top horses race four or five times a year and come and go before they can develop a fan base. When the good ones are racing they rarely face one another. How can you be a fan of racing if you can't be a fan of any of the horses?

A meeting between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would have been the most thrilling, must-watch event in horse racing since, perhaps, the 1978 Affirmed vs. Alydar Belmont Stakes. For myriad reasons, horse racing couldn't pull it off. That would be like one team winning the American League, another the National League and not meeting in a World Series. That's laughable. In horse racing it's a reality.