Racing's reality is in its face

Reality television has made its mark beyond fad-dom.

Viewers no longer flock to the television to see if Quincy can crack the cold case; or just who shot J.R.; or if this truly is the "big one" for Fred Sanford. No, those days are so long gone that they barely register rerun blips on the radar at TV Land.

Today's viewers can't wait to see which off-note singer Simon Cowell will heckle on American Idol or which would-be suitor Tila Tequila will be making out with next on MTV. Meanwhile, 24-7, 365, they flock to Youtube for the ultimate in reality, first-person programming.

So while viewers' tastes clearly have changed, now would be the perfect time for horse racing to make a move (OK, it's about five years behind the times, but that's actually AHEAD of the curve in this industry).

The reality of horse racing's reality television movement is this: it's about the people, not the horses. The American public would be far more fascinated with a conniving, down-and-out, needy-for-a-score storyline from a desperate handicapper than another feel-good vignette about the majesty of the Thoroughbred.

As the perils of the Thoroughbred become increasingly more visible (George Washington and Pine Island's fatal breakdowns in the past two Breeders' Cups adding to the Barbaro 2006 Preakness tragedy), perhaps a focus shift is what is needed to captivate the public's imagination. NASCAR learned long ago that it's not about discussing what's under the hood, but who's behind the wheel.

But I've long since abandoned the notion that promoting jockeys and trainers would be of much benefit to enlightening public awareness of horse racing. You can't possibly put yourselves in the shoes of someone who trains racehorses or a gal or guy who stands 5-foot-1 and weighs about a buck-six. Most of us can't train our dogs to go outside every time we need them to, much less stay aboard the carousel horses at the local mall.

So who's behind the wheel in horse racing? Gamblers.

And in 2007, with casinos popping up on as many street corners as Walgreens stores, the g-word isn't nearly as dirty as it used to be.

The gambler needs to be front and center in the promotion of horse racing. When you think about it, there's no more "reality television" tie in all of sports than the relationship between horse racing and its fan base. If you're a Cubs fan, for instance, a tough loss spoils your day and mood. If you're a horseplayer, a heartbreaking loss means you might not be making that mortgage payment on time. Tell me, what's more gripping to watch?

This is not to glamorize the plight of problem gamblers or to wrongly paint a picture of some horseplayers who claim to be "professionals" in the public eye, but in reality are living out of their automobiles.

My point is this: playing the horses is real interaction. It's not fantasy football or painting your face blue-and-white so you feel more into the process than you really are. And if reality truly sells, horse racing is sitting on a goldmine of supply.

Would I prefer that the horse sold itself and the industry? Sure. Columns like this aren't borne of knee-jerk reaction, or meant to unnecessarily stir discussion. All you have to do is consider the 2007 Breeders' Cup as evidence. Here you had the Kentucky Derby winner, Preakness winner, Arc de Triomphe winner and the winners of the two most important local races on the New Jersey calendar, the Haskell and Iselin. All the ingredients were stirring in the pot for both on-track and mass-appeal success. Yet, the event fell flat on its face, business-wise, and please don't pin any more than about 10 percent of the blame on Mother Nature.

With this week's announcement that January's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship purse would be raised to $1 million, an analyst handicapping the horse racing industry might deduce that the sport's focus is moving in the aforementioned direction. For an event whose mere existence was thought by insiders to be on very thin ice several months ago, the rededication of importance to the National Handicapping Championship gives the industry a stark opportunity to reshape itself with the reality-television world.

January's NHC should serve as the springboard for racing's reemphasis, putting the sturdy and long-standing relationship its fans provide the game on a daily basis ahead of the fragility of a single animal or the accolades of a trainer who elicits medicinal mistrust.

Some of the most prudent bloggers and handicapping contest players around the country have been barking this tune for some time, so I'm not one to lay originality claims. But I do have a voice that reaches many, and as one reader so wisely pointed out to me in an E-mail after last week's column, it is my obligation to responsibly impact change where change is needed.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its Web site, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at plonk@horseplayerdaily.com.