Everyone has his theory as to why horse racing has become irrelevant: it does not transplant well to television; it’s a sport for degenerates; it’s too dangerous; the tracks are poorly managed.
And you know what, each theory has a bit of truth.
But it is not the real problem.
Baseball did not transplant well to television, was filled with degenerates, has stadiums in dangerous parts of towns, and has gone through eons of poor management, yet has survived. Horse racing, like boxing, has not. And it really is simple.
The level of print journalism in horse racing has been set so low, it is impossible to trust anyone. Sure, the sport has had Joe Hirsch and Bill Nack, but Hirsch is dead and Nack retired.
Now? Now we’re stuck people like Mike Welsch.
I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Welsch; I really don’t. He just has the misfortune of being the latest glaring example. Welsch’s coverage of Gulfstream Park for the Daily Racing Form is syndicated out to CBSSports.com, ESPN.com, and NTRA.com, and probably other lesser-known sites. Yet, despite being one of the more visible writers in the industry, he does not even know some of the more basic policies of his sport’s governing bodies.
Saturday night, Welsch wrote, “Until Saturday, when Levine finally posted his first victory of the meet and did so in a graded stakes when Buddy’s Humor splashed to a three-quarter-length victory over Presious Passion in Gulfstream Park’s $150,000 Pan American.
“The complexion of the Pan American changed earlier in the day after heavy downpours forced track management to switch the Grade three, 1 1/2-mile marathon to 1 1/4 miles over a sloppy main track.”
Of course, I don’t expect you to catch the mistake; you think horse racing is irrelevant, as you rightly should. But it is mistakes like these that hurt the industry.
If a graded stakes scheduled for the turf is moved off the lawn and onto the main track, it receives a one-level grade decrease. In this case, the Grade three Pan American Handicap would have become ungraded.
Welsch did not know this basic rule.
I contacted the Daily Racing Form, as I do whenever I come across one of these mistakes.
They ignored me.
In the past, I’ve even contacted CBSSports.com editor Craig Stanke. Stanke told me to leave it be; CBSSports.com lets the Daily Racing Form syndicate to its site and it would be too much work to even begin to edit the material. I don’t blame him. CBS would have to hire a full-time staff to dissect the Daily Racing Form’s rubbish.
The Daily Racing Form, the mainstream news source of the sport, has made horse racing irrelevant. It continues to do so with each edition.
Now other things have contributed. Until recently, there actually was such a thing as a turf writer. Prominent newspapers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Washington Post recently laid off their long-time turf columnists. Of course, the PI would then lay off most of the rest of its staff went it went internet-only a few weeks later.
ESPN.com still employs a few respectable turf writers independently of its syndication deal with the Daily Racing Form, such as New York Time’s turf and college sports columnist Bill Finley, but the staff continues to dwindle.
Horse racing coverage in major papers has disappeared or been reduced to only the pari-mutuel results. The Miami Herald rarely writes more than one sentence for each race and provides the payouts. Of course, you first have to find the track in the middle of pari-mutuel results for at least a half-dozen greyhound and jai alai payouts as well.
But for most of the country, it’s the incompetent writers of the Daily Racing Form that bring horse racing news to the public. And that’s a shame.
Now, I understand horse racing has been on the decline for decades; I’m not ignorant. Maybe even with more competent staff, we as an industry would be just as thick in mud as we are now. Maybe we would have the government hanging over our backs and PETA down our throats and maybe nobody would care. Maybe nothing would be different.
But I’d like to think it would be at least a little better.
In 2003, Seabiscuit, a well-written, popular history of one of the country’s most popular and heroic horses of the radio age, brought horse racing back into the nation’s eye. Based on the award-winning and best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand and adapted for the screen by Gary Ross, Seabiscuit captured our hearts.
The hysteria carried over into 2004, making Smarty Jones’s attempt to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 the most attended Belmont Stakes ever and most-watched race in years.
Yet the good writing continues to be few and far between.
At this point, the damage has been done. Unless we get a gelding triple crown winner who can race 15 times a year for five years, we’re not going to be able to duplicate the attention.
Even Curlin could not generate much mainstream interest. His race to break Cigar’s career earnings record was relegated to ESPNEWS. I watched it, but I doubt you did. Did you even know Curlin set the record?
Horse racing, in order to be taken seriously, needs a more competent media base. It needs writers on the inside who are able to take their stories to the public. It needs more people like Ray Paulick—people who truly understand horse racing as both an industry and a sport—people that understand the importance of conveying their message to the public.
Paulick’s website, aptly named the Paulick Report, contains a mixture of headline links to major stories in the sport and industry, and articles he has written that provide a uniquely well informed understanding of a particular issue. A former editor for both of the sport’s two main weeklies, Bloodhorse Magazine and the Thoroughbred Times, Paulick has more knowledge of the sport than quite possibly anyone else in the business.
But does his writing get onto ESPN? Once in a blue moon.
Horse racing’s main problem is its print media. How can you gain interest in a sport where you can’t trust a thing you have read? It takes too much effort.
And if there is one thing the internet age has granted us, it is the ability to learn without exerting too much effort.
So I beg the Daily Racing Form to please, for the sake of your sport, for the sake of our sport, please require some level of competence. It is not asking a lot. Employ writers who at least know what everything means.
I don’t mean to pick of Mike Welsch; I really don’t. God knows he’s far from the most grievous offender. Heck, I’m willing to even grant him a pass. A mistake is a mistake. But an editor should have caught this.
And when no editor caught it and I did, one should have at least listened to me.
When you let quality slide, you make your product less desirable. When your product is not desirable already, you turn away even your loyal supporters.
Daily Racing Form, build up support by creating standards. Have writers who understand the sport and know its rules. Push them.
Then, maybe, we’ll begin to recoup some of our lost audience.
Or don’t, and watch this be the last Preakness run in Maryland. Watch Hollywood Park close within the next few years. Watch Aqueduct shutter. Why would you care?
Daily Racing Form, you don’t think the blood is on your hands, but it is. And it is staining everyone around you.