The horse racing industry has had a tough time over the past decade, only made worse over the past year and a half, and it appears it only took a pandemic and an economic shutdown to produce a few new fans.
Horse racing has been relegated to the back pages of most mainstream sports websites in recent years, now usually found under the “More Sports” tab along with Curling and Track & Field.
I covered horse racing for several years at Bleacher Report, racking up a few million views, and now there is no Horse Racing tab at all. Perhaps they need to put that tab back up. We are the only game in town.
At Vegas Insider and Oddshark where I have written a column for 15 years, most of the guys there actually know my name now. Horse racing now makes their front page. I might even get an invite to the Christmas party this year.
The industry has had a spate of issues, starting with a rash of equine deaths at Santa Anita last year that was covered by the national news and brought out the crazies at PETA.
Then we had a disqualification of the Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security, which brought some attention to the sport, but certainly not exactly positive.
The Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita despite many thinking that was the worse place to hold the year-end championship event. The two days went off without a hitch until the final race on national television where Mongolian Groom broke down in the stretch and was later euthanized.
I think many of us thought this was the beginning of the end of the sport.
With 2019 behind us, this year had to be better right?
The Juice Men
The Feds had a different idea, handing out indictments against 28 people in a doping scheme that included well known trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis.
It was soon after that the Coronavirus pandemic started gaining strength, shutting down the NBA, NHL and MLB spring training. NASCAR followed suit and then horse tracks started closing.
Now we are down to a handful of racetracks still running, all without fans—Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Fonner Park, Will Rogers Downs, Los Alamitos, Remington Park and Oaklawn Park.
Each track has put in strict protocols, and so far, have been able to continue to run, giving horseplayers something to do while nearly the entire country is sheltered in place.
It also has given sports bettors something to wager on. We have seen an uptick in sports bettors making the transition over to playing the ponies.
With sports networks starving for programming, we have seen Fox Sports and NBC Sports Network pick up hours of horse racing coverage. Many bettors looking for action have taken the plunge.
Racing Can Resume Quicker
Horse racing is in a position to get up and running close to some level of normalcy quicker than most other major sports. In basketball and hockey there is quite a bit of contact between players, less in baseball, and even less in horse racing (with the possible exception of Paco Lopez and Ricardo Santana).
Horse racing also has a model that fans in attendance are not necessary as most of us wager from home anyway.
We have seen Keeneland cancel their spring meeting, Churchill Downs moved the Kentucky Derby until September, and there is still no word on when the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes will be run.
Two other boutique meets that do draw huge crowds are Saratoga and Del Mar and they start in July. Will we back to being able to attend sporting event by then? Nobody really knows.
It is still going to be very trying time for the industry, from sales auctions being canceled to owners not being able to run their horses and losing money to many in the industry out of jobs.
However, after many failed attempts by the industry to market the sport effectively in recent years, who would have guessed a pandemic and a shutdown of the economy would be the thing that brought new eyeballs to the sport?
The only thing that sounds crazier is all of us sitting around at home and betting $7 million at Fonner Park on a random Tuesday.