How To Put Racing Back In The Winner's Circle

When Tabasco Cat zipped to victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 11, the colt not only earned a $392,280 purse but also staked a plausible claim to the title Horse of the Year. Today, the Cat's performance is just a memory. And with the Triple Crown races over, Thoroughbred racing is pretty much gone from the public eye until next May's Kentucky Derby.

In today's sports world of rookies in Bentleys, star athlete pitchmen, and multimillion-dollar TV contracts, horse racing is an also-ran. According to Daily Racing Form Inc. and Equibase Co. figures, attendance at U.S. tracks plodded from 51,851,587 in 1982 to 52,338,395 in 1992, a pitiful 0.9% increase. In that same period, the overall handle--the money pushed through the betting windows of tracks and off-track-betting outlets--declined by 8% in 1992 dollars, to $9.4 billion. Meantime, the number of races run per year increased by 10%, to an estimated 70,253, while the number of horses foaled shrank by 11%, to 35,200.

HANDICAPPED. You don't have to be adept at deciphering the Daily Racing Form, which turns 100 this fall, to figure out those numbers add up to a sport gone lame. More races and fewer horses mean short fields and tired nags. That keeps horseplayers at home--or betting less. And racing's 17% to 18% average takeout--money subtracted from the handle for purses, taxes, and operating expenses--doesn't stack up favorably against the 5% or so (as low as 0.6% for craps) extracted from the wagered dollar by the growing numbers of casinos. While the Clinton Administration's proposed across-the-board federal tax on gambling is dead, racing always puts dollar signs in the eyes of hungry legislators facing budget shortfalls.

What's to be done? The Thoroughbred Racing Assns., an umbrella group for 49 major tracks in the U.S., this spring named J. Brian McGrath to serve as the first commissioner of racing and bring the sport of kings into the 21st century. McGrath is a seasoned entertainment executive who has put in stints at Viacom, Columbia Pictures, Coca-Cola, and Switzerland-based ISL Marketing, the company that arranges big-time sponsorships of the Olympic Games and soccer's World Cup. The commish is charged with pulling the hundreds of disparate entities in racing together to create a national identity for the sport. McGrath, it is almost universally conceded, has a lot of hay to bale.

The first innovation of his tenure was the introduction on Memorial Day of the National Best 7 bet, a weekly 50 cents chance to pick the winners of seven feature races across the country. But the Best 7 handle was just $371,075 on Memorial Day. On June 11, it was a modest $226,072. On July 4, it rose to $306,593, still a pittance.

Best 7, judged a nonstarter by cynical railbirds, is hobbled by a dearth of both ticket-sale locations and publicity--and by a bit of the internecine squabbling that McGrath was hired to mediate. California's big tracks are taking action on the Best 7, but the horsemen there stalled the inclusion of California races for the first few weeks. The New York Racing Assn. is letting its races be included and is televising the closed-circuit-TV Best 7 show at its tracks. But New York's Off-Track Betting Corp. is not yet on board.

This little dustup in New York--McGrath calls it an "issue"--will be settled shortly, the commissioner believes. He thinks the Best 7 is "off to a good start" and will be the cornerstone of additional improvements in the sport on a national level. For the future, McGrath hopes for an increase in big-league sponsorship of racing, with more major stakes races underwritten by the likes of Anheuser-Busch Cos.; more advertising at tracks and in a standardized track-program-cum-magazine; more on-site tie-ins with other forms of gambling, like the poker palace now in operation at Hollywood Park in California; more product displays and promotions; more event-marketing; more licensing of trademarks; more TV exposure; more, more, more.

SPEED FIGURES. A lot of what the commish proposes is long overdue. But for this sport, a little less could actually be a lot more. Says Peter D. Swatling, a 20-year veteran horseplayer from Fly Creek, N.Y.: "Tracks should emphasize the horses. They can't compete with the glitz and instant gratification of the casinos." The commish should campaign to prevent the taxman from adding more weight to the saddlecloths. He should also put an end to winter racing in the north--which is beset by too few horses, dangerous conditions, and low turnout--and get tracks to card 7 or 8 races a day, not 10, 11, and 12. Too many horses are breaking down under the strain.

Most important, McGrath should persuade track managements to provide more of racing at its best: pampered, blooded colts and fillies in parklike surroundings, such as Saratoga, Del Mar, and Monmouth Park. Exciting matchups. Color and speed and kaleidoscopic crowds. In short, a beautiful day at the races. That's what might bring more folks out. Not more billboards.