Why interest in horse racing is declining in the U.S., including among horse enthusiasts By Jeffrey Compton June 20, 2014 at 6:01 pm Howard Simpson, my best friend at Babson College, was one-year ahead of me, several years older (he did a tour in Vietnam before starting college), and from a different social background. He approached me after he had been elected student government president, and I had just been passed over as editor of the school newspaper for someone with far fewer qualifications. He said “I want to re-invent student government. Will you help me?” I answered “why not?” We had a very eventful year and, at least based on the number of accolades we got, it was a success. After college Howard and I moved on to different worlds, I to manufacturing and later to gaming, and Howard into managing family investments (he comes from a prominent Chicago family) and his life-long love, horses. Married to Martha Smith Simpson, the owner of Tempel Farms, one of the leading breeders of Lipizzans Stallions, Howard has been very active in the equestrian world. One example is the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, about which, a recent article in a prominent equestrian publication said, “without Howard Simpson this thriving and well-organized institution likely wouldn’t exist.” Howard and I have kept up with each other by phone and email, especially in recent years – even though I have little interest in horses and he has little for gaming. But I realized a couple of weeks ago, during a luncheon discussion with Aaron Stanley, one of our contributors, that I have never asked Howard about the domain where our interests do overlap – horse racing, and specifically the decline of horse racing in America. So I send him a short note – and got a 600-word answer, with even more comments in a subsequent phone call. “Although much of my family, including my parents, cousins, as well as my sister, bred racehorses, I am not personally been directly involved in flat-track racing (as opposed to steeplechase), but I have observed it closely over the years. You would know more than I why the gamblers moved on, but there are several reasons why horse enthusiasts have also lost interest in flat-track horse racing.” A very organized thinker, Howard had a list of reasons for this decline: 1) The finances of horse racing over the years allowed the symbolic relationship between horses and horse enthusiasts to be subverted. In other words, horse racing no longer cared about the horses, it cared about the money. A hundred years or so ago, racing was the hobby of gentleman farmers who raced more for the majesty of the sport and pride in ownership than for financial considerations. When money took over, many horse enthusiasts moved on to other equestrian activities: sport horses, Olympic related competitions, or even rodeos. 2) As sports go, including even other equestrian activities, horse racing does not allow for much interaction – everyone is a spectator. After a great night at a baseball game, we can all enjoy softball on the back lawn the following day; we can toss hoops after a basketball game; but you can’t bring home a horse race. Also there is very little celebrity name recognition with horse racing. Most people know the names of at least a couple of baseball, football, and basketball players, but cannot not name even one current jockey. 3) At a time when it should have been broadening the market, horse racing became more insular. Younger people became locked out while an aging, small group tried to control their sport. They did not keep up with marketing, image, branding, or other forms of communicating with the public. Even tennis – a similarly upper-class sport – changed from white clothing to modern sports apparel with logos. 4) Racetracks have become the victim of changing real estate demands. When you total up the areas for the track, clubhouse, viewing stands, horse barns, training areas, and parking, racetracks take up a lot of acreage. So most were built well outside of major city boundaries. Over the years, track costs have gone up (maintenance, drug testing, changes caused by the Americans with Disabilities Act, etc.). Due to suburban growth, the value of the real estate used by tracks has also increased – but only if the real estate is used for another purpose, such as housing or a shopping mall. Many recent track closings were not caused by operating losses as much by offers the owners could not refuse. 5) Horses are no longer part of our daily lives. Our parents and especially our grandparents grew up around horses: they were, if not part of the family, at least something frequently encountered. Today about 98% of families do not own a horse, and horses aren’t common except in rural areas. 6) Racing allowed itself to get a bad name, especially regarding drug issues. Although the industry has done an excellent job of monitoring breeding, they really didn’t jump on horse drugging concerns until a few years ago, far too late to stop the scare and the rumors, especially on the Internet. Additionally, flat racing has never appeared concerned about animal welfare. By contrast, over the years other organizations, especially the United States Equestrian Federation, have put millions into animal protection and research. If you talk to USEF members, the concern for the welfare of horses always comes through. A final thought – mine, not Howard’s: Of all the points that Howard made the one that really struck home was “Horses are no longer part of our daily lives” – but with respect to the casino industry. To rephrase what Howard said, horse racing has suffered irreparably because of subtle but increasing differences in the childhoods of myself, my parents, and my grandparents, coupled with the failure of horse racing to recognize and address those changes. With respect to gaming at casinos, there are also consider differences between my childhood and those of the generations that followed: home computer game consoles beginning in the 1970s, the Web beginning in the 1990s, and smartphones beginning around 2000. If the industry does not address those differences, twenty years from now someone will be writing an article similar to this one, but about brick-and-mortar casinos rather than racetracks.