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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Racing Coverage Goes in the Garbage

- The Boston Globe and Washington Post – the home of Andy Beyer no less - recently dropped their horse racing news coverage, and contributor Travis Stone laments the loss in this column.

Horseplayers have long fought a generalization by society that they are degenerates, lacking the skills to function in what is called, “normal society.” Combating this mindset is where racing needs to start.
I don’t really agree that this is one of the major problems. For one thing, so-called “degenerates” are held in pretty high esteem these days; just check out the latest Nielsen ratings for Wife Swap.

Besides, while you and I, of course, don’t fall into the degenerate category (moi?), let’s face the facts: the racetrack crowd likely does contain a higher percentage of lowlifes than many other segments of the population. You want “normal society?" Try the opera. Besides people yelling the most unimaginable profanity at the jockeys who risk life and limb in every race, and those who spend races in the bathrooms with their hands over their ears because they can’t bear to watch or listen to the fate of their two bucks, the most damning evidence is the propensity of some people at the track to go through garbage cans.

Perhaps this is just a New York phenomenon, I don’t know. But next time you’re at any track in New York, including, and in fact, especially Saratoga, if you have the stomach for it, pull up a chair near a garbage can and watch. I absolutely guarantee that from mid-day on, when there’s enough material to go through, you will not go more than three minutes without someone at least checking it out. I'm serious. That is more of a lock than anything I’ve ever picked here. You have the people who kind of just nonchalantly peek in as they’re going by, and then circle back to take something off the top when no one’s looking. (Or when they think no one is looking.) But then there are those who just dive right on in without hesitation. Yuck!

What the hell are they looking for in there? Programs or Racing Forms? Discarded tickets? Tip sheets? I’m happy to report that I’ve never seen anyone pull a George Costanza and pick an éclair out of there, but it’s still a rather disturbing and sickening phenomenon. What really would be something is to install some Garbage Can Cams and get a running video of the faces peering in; you could sell that to the local House of Horrors for big bucks.

So if track degenerates are causing newspapers to curtail coverage, then we have no shot. Look, there’s plenty of interest in the sport when there are things to be interested in. Stone’s scenario of the Kentucky Derby going from front cover, to inside page, and then to a minor statistic before being taken off the press completely is overblown and something that will never happen. But the day-to-day, or even just weekend coverage will continue to diminish as long as the sport’s stars retire after a handful of races, depriving the game of the type of long-term rivalries that people might be interested in reading about. And as long as the sport tries to market itself through celebrities asking Who Do You Like Today instead of coming up with the kind of marketing schemes, perhaps in the form of contests and giveaways linked up with more popular professional team sports, that would entice people to turn on televised stakes races with a rooting interest that causes them to scream ‘Go Baby Go.’ And then there’s the flip side of the epic that is Breeders Cup day – the fact that the event turns the rest of the year after the Triple Crown into one long and, for the most part, ultimately meaningless prep for a single day with far too many championship races for a daily newspaper to provide any meaningful coverage of. Without some kind of profound change in the way the sport is conducted and promoted, we’ll soon all be able to throw our sports sections into the garbage (and wait to see who picks it out).