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Monday, December 31, 2012

Horse Racing - Still Classic

The Head Chef and I recently saw an exceptional performance by Max Richter, a German-born neo-classical composer who has crossed over into the indie-rock/ambient-techno spaces in the past.  His latest release came on the classic classical Deutsche Grammophon label.  Recomposed by Max Richter - Vivaldi-The Four Seasons is pretty much what it says - a re-worked, re-imagined version of that seminal composition, with some modern syncopathic touches and a generally more urgent and, at times, dour take.  He performed the work in its entirety at the eclectic club Le Poisson Rouge, one of my favorite spaces in the city; where else could one see both the Emerson String Quartet and F**ked Up within a 12 month period!?

Mr. Richter was accompanied by Daniel Hope on violin, and a new in-house symphony which goes by the name of Ensemble LPR, an elite assemblage of the finest NewYork-based concert musicians, according to their website.  It doesn't specify is that they are the finest "young" New York-based musicians; but that's what they are, and they performed the piece with youthful gusto and flair, hitting every note perfectly.  (As somebody who is "blessed" with perfect pitch, I'm quite sensitive to the slightest mis-step, and would know.  Don't take me to a high school orchestra recital, to me that's the musical equivalent of fingernails on the blackboard.)

A flier distributed at the venue by Ensemble LPR muses that "a newcomer to classical music might be forgiven for wondering:

    Why, in the year 2012, is the work of classical music so little a part of the larger cultural dialogue?

    Why, in a city like New York, is the work of orchestras and composers of so little relevance to the lives of people who follow the arts, and to people who do not?

    Why, among its peer art forms, is classical music the least nimble and most conservative in its patterns of thinking?

    When did a genre dominated by genius and virtuosi become sclerotic, rigid, unresponsive?"

Hmmm.  Well, that sure seems familiar to us horse racing enthusiasts, don't it?  ‘Genius' surely wouldn't apply to our sport in the same sense it would to Vivaldi or Beethoven or Haydn.  But I suppose there's something virtuosic about, say, training five Belmont Stakes winners in a row, isn't there?

But a sclerotic (I had to look it up too), unresponsive, non-nimble, industry which has become largely irrelevant to the cultural dialogue?  Yeah, that sure fits.

Ensemble LPR laments that classical music is seen as being anachronistic; but it is to me.  There’s very little in the way of “modern classical” that interests me.  And even that which does hardly compares to the mastery of the Baroque era.  However, while one can surely argue that the best horses of today don’t compare to the best horses of the past, the essence of the game of horse racing itself lives on.  Sure, the product is diluted, the grandstands are often deserted, the purses artificially propped up by a revenue stream that is already being pecked away at, and which will continue to come under attack.  But the buzz as the horses head towards the post and horseplayers scramble to get their money down is as electric as ever at tracks like Saratoga and Del Mar and Keeneland and Churchill.  Because the game is the game.

As I reach the end of my 8th year writing – or, occasionally writing, as the case may be – this blog, my views on how the game should be marketed have evolved.  Horse racing is a gambling game.  Period.  It is not at all a sport in the sense that many would like it to be.  Forget about the notion that we need stars and rivalries.  We put too much emphasis on stakes horses, and on these "big" days with short-field Grade 1’s.  Nobody cares about divisions and standings and Eclipse Awards.  The Breeders’ Cup is an unwieldy mess.   We spend months obsessing over the Kentucky Derby, which is a terrible race with which to attract new fans who can’t even pick out their selection amongst the 20 horse melee; and often just a terrible race, period.  This game will live or die by its ability to attract people who want to wager money on horses running around a track, and it doesn’t matter if they are Grade 1 – whatever that even means nowadays – or $10,000 claimers who have never won three races lifetime.  (And personally, I much prefer to bet on the latter.)

And the irony is that, as a gambling game, horse racing is better than ever, a thousand times more so than just a quarter century ago.   One has an endless choice of betting options on every race, and races from all the country to choose from that you can bet and watch from your living room, or even on the go on your tablet or cellphone.  So why isn’t horse racing thriving at a time when seemingly every other form of gambling is?   

In large part because the industry is…well, sclerotic.  The lack of a national organizational structure means that it lacks the nimbleness to move past the hand-wringing and criticism over breakdowns and drugs that it has been distracted with for the last several years.  You can say what you want about what you think about Joe Drape and the NY Times’ sensational and decidedly one-sided front page coverage….and I’ve said plenty.  But the fact is there wouldn’t be a Breakdowns – Death and Destruction and Chaos and Whatever-The-Hell-They-Call-It series if the industry was able to police itself in a common sense manner.

Unfortunately, despite incremental steps taken in jurisdictions such as New York over the past year – and only when forced to do so by clueless politicians and influential newspapers with an agenda - this seems unlikely to change anytime soon.  Surely not by the time the next Four Seasons pass in 2013.  

Perhaps there’s an Ensemble Horse Racing out there with an infusion of young blood ready to attack the matter with gusto and flair.  Myself, I’m now long past that stage, and just enjoying the game and all of its modern conveniences while I can.  The thrill lives on for me as much as it ever has.  And despite all its problems and challenges, I’m sure that the game will far outlive me.

 - And now, while we're partially on the subject, I turn back to my other favorite pastime - music - and present my favorite records of 2012.  They’re in alphabetical order, but with the ones that were particularly special to me highlighted in CAPS.  (And a hat tip to whoever it was I’m stealing that format from).

Animal Collective – Centipede Hz (Domino)
Bob Mould – Silver Age (Merge)
Dinosaur Jr – I Bet on Sky (Jagwarwar)
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
El-P – Cancer For Cure (Fat Possum)
Hauschka / Hilary Hahn – Silfra (Deutsche Grammophon) 
Metz – Self-Titled (Sub Pop) 
The Shins – Port of Morrow (Columbia)
SWANS – THE SEER (Young God)
Pete Swanson – Man With Potential (Type)
The Walkmen – Heaven (Fat Possum)

Honorably Mentioned

Titus Andronicus – Local Business (XL)
Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Disappears - Pre-Language (Kranky)
PS I Love You - Death Dreams (Paper Bag)


Crystal Castles - III  (Fiction)
Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)
Kevin Drumm - Relief (Editions Mego)


steve in nc said...

I really appreciate that essay.

I agree with the overall comments about classical music and the scene that goes with it (and the jazz scene has its issues too). But I think you also have to allow for the time lag between the cutting edge in certain arts and our ability to understand/enjoy it.

Thelonius Monk's music scared a lot of people to death when he was alive. Now it sounds like folk music. Stravinsky, at least his tonal stuff, is pretty accessible now. That said, there's no excuse for a scene that pushes people away.

Speaking of which, they have messed the BC up fairly royally, but it still is my favorite day (the Saturday) of racing. Only the BC and a few other big stakes days have those big contentious fields of good horses, with some great play-against reputation horses.

And while most years, the ladies with the hats are more psyched about the Derby than I am, I have seen a number of Belmonts with the Triple Crown on the line, and that was high drama you can't get without the Derby first.

But trying to parse the contenders in the last race at AQ in winter (go, Terminus, go!) is fun on a regular basis. You're right - it's a game, not a sport and I love it just the same.

Happy new year, and thanks for your writing.

ballyfager said...

I consider it a sport. If asked the greatest sports achievement ever, I would say Secretariat's Belmont Stakes. Anyone old enough to have seen this will never forget it (or how it made them feel.

Sometime read about Citation's three year old season. More recently, what about the Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta controversy which was prominent right on this blog? That had nothing at all to do with gambling

Some people care about who's the best horse. Other people don't.

Some people care about hockey. I say that because I know you do. To me, the only interesting hockey story I ever heard was how and why the Rangers got their name.

Seriously, didn't you ever wonder why a team from New York would be called the Rangers? If you don't know, Google it.

El Angelo said...

To me, there have always been several different circles of horse racing: Grade 1/2 races, boutique meets (Saratoga, Keeneland, Del Mar, maybe Monmouth), day-to-day racing at major tracks, day-to-day racing at 2d level tracks, and day-to-day racing at minor tracks around America. They mostly operate on different planes and the Venn Diagrams of the 5 do not show a ton of overlap (it's mostly the boutique meets with the first and third groups). Everyone can enjoy them in different ways, but they're almost fundamentally 5 different enterprises, and only the first one would I consider a "sport" per se.

Great post Alan.

Figless said...

Thanks for an entertaining read, even if I never heard and probably never will hear any of those bands (my loss I am certain) I commend you for being cutting edge.

As for racing, I believe that clearly Thoroughbred Racing is a sport.

The Graded Stakes are analogous to Major League Baseball, the day to day racing the minor leagues, the boutique meets equivalent to Yankee Stadium (the old one) or Wrigley Field.

Completely different games, but the same sport, but one that is supported by wagering, something it should proclaim with pride.

"Competition" and "Sportsmanship" are often cited as the essence of all sports, but dig a little deeper into the creation of those sports and wagering often played, and in most cases still plays, a prominent roll.