Limping Home

By Turner, Richard | Newsweek, June 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Limping Home


Turner, Richard, Newsweek


Can a Triple Crown winner save thoroughbred racing? Don't bet on it.

AT BELMONT PARK ONE DAY LAST week, even as a crowd of 20,000 mills happily around the race-track sporting chestnut-color giveaway caps, Bob Baffert settles into a box seat amid a sea of empty rows. Belmont often seems eerily vacant, like a museum after closing time. Owners and breeders, blue-blooded and blue-haired, pick at swordfish in a sequestered dining room behind him; a few feet away, on the other side of the gate, old men chomp cigars and rustle Racing Forms, cursing at the TV screen. Between these two eternal factions of horse racing, there used to be swarms of middle-aged and middle-class people streaming to Belmont to enjoy the races every day. But that was 50 years ago.

There is trouble here: the stench of a sport that is dying. As the 44-year-old Baffert prepares to saddle Silver Charm this Saturday with a chance to become the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown, he knows his colt is being looked to as the sport's Tiger Woods, its Michael Jordan. But many racing people fear that Silver Charm will gambol with the ghosts of Secretariat and Citation, and nobody will notice. "The sport really needs this," Baffert says. "We need to turn this into an event and give the young people something to remember. My own kids think it's boring--or did until now--and they know everything about Ken Griffey."

He says the racing industry should have created something like Joe Camel to lure young people, and though he's right, he doesn't realize he's picked a guileless metaphor. Baffert is refreshingly unpretentious and direct. "I'm a '90s kind of trainer," he says, and indeed, efforts were being made for him to appear on the Howard Stern radio show this week. Baffert is a Howard fan. Is Stern a racing fan? No. His father is. (We rest Our Case.)

Everything is in alignment for racing to romp home this week: a gutty colt with several serious challengers; a handsome, articulate jockey in Gary Stevens. But running Silver Charm through the celebrity machinery is no sure thing.

The vaunted winning streak of an older horse named Cigar, which ended last year, was no magic bullet. Attendance at racetracks has slumped nearly 50 percent since 1980, and TV ratings have plummeted.

The problem is attracting younger fans. "I've been through two generations, and I've seen everything get cool at one time or another," says Allen Gutterman, marketing chief for New York City's OffTrack Betting Corp. "Golf is cool now. Pool has been cool--twice. Even bowling was cool for a while. But in all that time, horse racing has never been perceived as cool."

The sport should have everything going for it Racing facilities are lovely relies of another time. Women jockeys compete equally with the men. The athletes don't act like jerks, chasing mares around singles bars. The sport is highly telegenic, and has great cyber-possibilities: it's full of railbird chatter, and handicappers analyze more downloadable data than fantasy-baseball practitioners do. But too few fans are young enough to know a byte from a bridle.

The enthusiasm of those who love the game is infectious. …

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