While I like Handride's passion for the sport, I do not agree that horse racing will ever be a mainstream sport the way NFL/MLB/NBA is mainstream. First I am a horseplayer and second I am a fan who marvels at the view from the grandstand at Belmont. While the horses are gorgeous the view only captures my attention for a moment. What keeps me hooked in this game is that I am a dedicated horseplayer who keeps daily notes, maintains a database and has devised my own system to handicap races. A horseplayer has more in common with Bobby Fischer than he/she does with Joe Six Pack tailgating on Sunday afternoon. Horse racing is a niche sport and it caters to gamblers, horseplayers or punters. Horseplayers are people who seek out puzzles to unravel, these are people who are excited by unraveling complexity, and do not want to be emotionally manipulated by simplicity. Example after example proves without a doubt that horse racing is most successful in jurisdictions (HKG, AUS, LON, NYC,SIN, TYO, IRE) where gambling flourishes.
NBA/NHL/MLB/NFL needs a fantasy league because the games themselves are not engaging as a stand alone entity. There is not that much to think about if you are not gambling on a pro-sports game. It is sit, watch the commercials and root type of thing. The TV talks and you listen. The info streams in from the TV, from the computer and from the handheld device. It is mostly a one way info stream. The engagement for the pro-sports fan involves an emotional attachment to one team. The profit for the NFL is in having that emotionally attached fan going out to order a TV package, buy $120 jerseys, $130 sneakers and $75 fathead wall posters. The expression of the pro-sports fan is in consuming. The expression of a horseplayer is in wagering.
Racing can not rival those pro-sports games in the merchandising department. Racing is not selling a fantasy or emotional projection, racing is providing the vehicle for you to challenge your mind. Nobody is going to go out and buy $120 Merlin Circle(well maybe me) sneakers. Take away that blind emotional fan attachment and the pro-sports games are a bore if you do not have action on the games. If games are a bore racing is even more of a huge bore if you do not have an opinion on the races.
Where racing diverts from team sports is that there is nearly nil rooting interest on a daily basis with racing. If racing had a fantasy following like the NFL this fantasy would neglect 99% of racing's content. However all is not lost for what the pro-sports game lacks racing holds in spades. Racing is a tremendous mental puzzle, when the game is healthy and the racing is robust there is nothing better than a day at the track. If you open up an account with any ADW and you have just bought a ticket to the greatest game going and your favorite team is your account balance.
Why waste the public's time and market the game as small time fantasy when the game is the greatest gambling orgy known to man? There are small time micro-sites available to rein in the newbies. YOUBET.NET is where you can open a play bankroll account. Road to the Roses is a derby prep fantasy. TVG had a fantasy league a few years ago that was a abject failure. With failure staring right in your face why continue to bang your head against the wall with fantasy games? Even a play money exercise is more engaging than a fantasy game where you have to wait for the Saturday stakes to see your horse win so you can get a point or two. What about the other 1000 races a week where there are no graded stakes horses? These fantasy games are for entry level fans of the game and most quickly move past entry level fan to full blown horseplayer in a matter of months.
How can you sell the sport as a list of top horses while the mental challenge of handicapping is neglected? This game is massive rush when you start to open up your mind to the form of the thoroughbred. The juice is in building opinions and the benefit is in bridging new synapses in your brain while discovering ideas about what constitutes winning form. Breaking down puzzles is what fuels the interest in racing.
Suddenly in the last two years sending a colt to stud is not as profitable as it once was. Some of the factors pushing away casual fans are turning around. The racing game is gaining economic appeal over the breeding game. This should help keep stakes horses in training for a few more years. This could widen the appeal for the entry level fans of the game.
Another problem is too much racing. It makes the product unpalatable on a daily basis for all but the must dedicated of horseplayers. This problem is also attempting to correct itself. Tracks going bankrupt is an excellent thing for the overall health of the game. There is too much racing and not enough horses. Short term pain means long term vigor. On any Saturday during the summer there are a dozen (SAR,MTH,SUF,PHA,DEL,CNL,CT, MNR,PEN, WO, FL, PID) tracks running on a Saturday along the east coast, this is too much racing and this goes on 7 days a week almost every week of the year. The product is watered down and needs to right size down to a quality product. Right sizing the game is a dirty job but fortunately the hand of market forces will do the dirty job.
With less entertainment options and a more concentrated version of the game bored sports fans who are looking for a challenge will be drawn in to the greatest show on turf. Patrick is doing a great job of pushing the game into the present, but let's not lose sight of what the game really is.