There was rain, but no tears. As wakes go, the alleged last day of racing at Suffolk Downs was a remarkably dry-eyed affair. The small cadre of track regulars, the nostalgic, the curious, all were intent on enjoying themselves. There was a lot of laughter in the grandstand, a lot of greetings between old friends and new acquaintances, a lot more proof that sports are the ultimate social network.
This was as it should have been. A day at the races is fun. Always has been, always will be. It’s just too bad for Suffolk that it took its end to teach what could’ve been its regular customers that fundamental truth.
Out of kindness, it is to be hoped that Suffolk’s management didn’t notice the significant percentage of the crowd who were saying hello and goodbye to the track at the same time, horse racing newbies, many of whom were the young adults the sport needs but can’t get. If track officials saw how these newcomers enjoyed themselves, their pain might have been too much to bear.
The stereotype goes that horse racing is for old people. It’s based on fact. When I told a fortysomething acquaintance I was headed to Suffolk’s last day he responded, “I always associate the racetrack with my grandfather.’’
How poignant that the last live card at Suffolk Downs gave evidence the stereotype need not be, that horse racing can appeal to those decades away from their Medicare cards as well as to retirees. My son, still in his twenties for another month, made the trip to Suffolk with me. He spent half his time hobnobbing with peers he has met through business and pleasure. To a man and woman, these younger people were having a hell of a time.
Cornelius, a Bruins fan of note, was the third member of our party. He’s roughly my son’s age. He had never been to a horse race. He didn’t know how to read a program or the Daily Racing Form, at first anyway. But before the nine-race card was half over, Cornelius cashed a big ticket, hitting an exacta that paid $97.20 for a two dollar bet. And he was hooked. By the seventh race, Cornelius had hit another exacta, was deep into exotic wagering, and observed, “maybe it’s a good thing for me this place is closing. I can see how this could get serious.’’
Cornelius was a lost opportunity for Suffolk Downs. So was Ann, a reporter who’d spent the week covering the track’s upcoming demise and came to its last day as a curious civilian. She didn’t bet much if at all. But she took the grandstand air, patronized the concessions and was entertained. Young adults with steady jobs and disposable income are the Holy Grail of American marketing. Last Saturday afternoon demonstrated that horse racing can indeed be sold to them. The trick, which Suffolk never mastered, is how to get them in the door.
These two Suffolk newcomers typify both the dilemma and opportunity of the horse racing business. Racing is neither wholly a sport nor wholly a form of gambling. It’s both at once, each of which can be enjoyed for its own sake or together as one experience.
The mantra of the racing industry is that it cannot compete with other forms of pure gambling such as casino games and the lottery because the pace of horse betting is too slow. This is a mistaken premise. Handicapping loses out as pure gambling not because it’s slow, but because it’s too hard. It’s an intellectual multi-dimensional puzzle containing enough variables to give Bill James a nervous breakdown with raw luck tossed into the bargain. The half hour between races at the track isn’t nearly enough time to come close to solving it.
People who get off on playing scratch tickets just aren’t going to go for that kind of challenge. Handicapping can’t compete for entertainment dollars by selling itself as a bet. It has to sell itself as a game for competitive people with strong egos, that is to say, almost all Americans.
Human beings like money, and they like feeling lucky so they’re excited and happy when they win at a slot machine or craps table. A winning ticket at the track appeals to both those sentiments and also adds a bonus rush. It makes the bettor feel smart as well as richer and lucky and deservedly so. That’s a kick Mega Millions cannot offer.
The most popular form of sports gambling today is fantasy football. Were I in charge of marketing horse racing, I’d run ads on cable sports networks throughout the NFL season with a message along the lines of “when you get bored with that kids game, try a REAL mental challenge. Plus, we offer nine or ten games a day instead of one a week.
The final race at Suffolk was fittingly enough the day’s best as horse racing the sport, a photo finish following a stretch duel between five possible winners. It was thrilling whether one placed a bet or not, a terrific example of the appeal of the beauty and power of the incredible animals who are the sport’s stars , the athletic ability of the small but amazingly strong and coordinated men and women who ride them, and, let’s face it, of the danger to man and horse that is racing’s constant companion. Every race is a potential catastrophe avoided through skill. Human nature draws crowds to that, too.
Most baffling of all, horse racing does next to nothing to emphasize its most primal appeal to non-gamblers. It has pretty horses. The thoroughbreds at a smaller track like Suffolk are as beautiful as the ones who’ll run in the Breeder’s Cup next month. They just don’t run as fast. I noticed that almost every obvious newcomer to Suffolk spent much more time hanging by the paddock looking at the entries than did the longtime railbirds. Horse racing is so old horses themselves have become a novelty for city folk of all ages.
Humans may love a fast easy buck, but they also love animals. In the end, casinos are a tribute to our nation’s limited math skills. Race tracks are that, but they’re also something more.
When they Implode a casino, as they do in Vegas every so often, a crowd gathers and cheers. When Barbaro died in 2007 after complications related to the shattering of his leg in the Preakness Stakes, millions of people who’d never seen a racetrack felt sorrow. Many wept.
What’s the reaction when a racetrack dies? Faith in the power of hope for the next race.
Just before post time for that ninth race, a man in a coat, tie and a large tie clasp featuring a prominent horse shoe was by my side near the starting gate. He was a Suffolk official, as he kept calling the track “we.’’ He gave me a very bad tout on Irish Beau, who may still be rounding the final turn.
Then he turned and confidently declared. “There will be racing here next year. Bet on it.’’
Horseplayers may die broke. But they never lose a dream.