Commentary

Here's where we are

Updated: September 17, 2012, 3:11 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

One of the many faces of horse racing lacks faces.

At the small-time live race meets, it's like attending the basketball game of a very bad team. You can hear the coach cuss at a player or wish he or she had taken another career path. You can hear ice rattling in cups.

At some live horse race meets about one mile short of the middle of nowhere, the workers outnumber the spectators. The cashiers at the small live meets have crossword puzzles and sandwiches close by the money. They might need help breaking a fifty-dollar bill.

The announcement that the horses are off and running often comes as a surprise. The winner's circle could be the size of a pitcher's mound. Oftentimes the winning horse and the jockey and the trainer are the only ones photographed. Owners of $5,000 claimers frequently have better things to do than watch a horse run for the 30th time.

It's not the nature of the sport that causes some sites to look like ghost towns. Grand grandstands were constructed before simulcast joints and home-betting changed the face of the sport on the grassroots level. Horse players are finally being treated like other casino players. They're suddenly perkier. But the perks aren't coming from the live tracks. They're coming from home-wagering operations on the Internet: Sign up and they'll deposit $100 or $150 right into your account. Put lots of money into play, and you get free past performances. There is irony laced with bitters as fine institutions like the Daily Racing Form help to keep people away from the live races by sweetening the stay at home wagering pots.

Even at the dust bowl tracks, purses are up, handles are fine, slot machine revenue pays the bills, the players are simply at home or at a simulcast hall.

Fedora racing at places like Belmont and Aqueduct, when the stands were packed with guys in hats and women in dresses, has become a casualty of technology.

Another major side to horse racing is the Breeder's Cup, which, now that it has realized that the weather in the wintertime is an important element when it comes to drawing crowds and showcasing champs, is doing great.

The Breeder's Cup features the world's best horses, with an Americans-versus-Europeans air to it, and consequently, the most difficult handicapping; because as everybody knows, grass races featuring a full field of great horses can't be handicapped outside lucky numbers. Breeder's Cup grass winners put up lottery figures. What has to win won't. What could conceivably win does. The Breeder's Cup has found the perfect semi-home base for its two-day November card at, now that it has return to earth with real dirt, Santa Anita. True, it's not fair to other tracks and hotels looking to jack up their rates double-time. But who can forget the cold Jersey rain at Monmouth's Cup. What's not to like about 72-degree weather and all the legs that entails?

The Triple Crown is horse racing's most popular season and it is doing beautifully, with big early jewel crowds and amazing TV ratings even though most of the fans go unmeasured by Nielsen at race tracks around the country that day. The Maryland race hangs in there because there's always the possibility of two wins in a row. The Belmont Stakes has become something of a victim of the training times, as young horses wound too tightly begin popping tendons and pulling muscles, and the third Triple Crown race turns into something like four Derby also-rans versus four New York home field experts, with the gigantic stands three-quarters full of fans and players remembering the way they were.

Spa racing remains hot, with $70,000 allowance purses commonplace, imagine such a thing, they must be thinking in the sticks. Spa racing is for the most part vacation-type racing where you can be proudly seen with family members before and after a card. Spa-type racing is Saratoga, Del Mar and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Oaklawn just raised its purses for the spring meet to $20 million, a record for its 109-year history. These three tracks are the most collectable among traveling horse players.

So that's horse racing for you. It has four sides, four seasons, four aspects: the Hooterville Downs circuit, Mom and Dad Stables, mostly empty grandstands, a sport financed by off-track wagering and psycho slot players; the Breeder's Cup weekend, featuring the best horses and hardest handicapping; the Triple Crown spectacle where hacks come on and say for the 45th straight year the sport is dead as record TV ratings are announced; the scenic, vacation racing times where there's something to look at besides losses.

Some parts of the sport do great, some do poorly, much could stand improvement, but then, what couldn't.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.