We'll surprise you

March, 5, 2010
Horse racing is a sport born of opinions. My horse is faster than your horse. Rachel Alexandra is better than Zenyatta. The 10-horse is a stronger closer than the 5.

Turf writing is also a profession that embodies opinions, predictions, determinations. You call a trainer because you figure his runner should be pointed toward a certain race. You write a race advance by leading with the favorite, getting quotes on the second and third choices. Sometimes, seeing what is wrong, given an outlet, you write to criticize or in an attempt to fix it.

Two columns from the latter category were published last week. One, Paul Moran's "Dumbing it Down," appeared here on ESPN.com on Feb. 23. The other, "Social Studies" by Vic Zast, ran Feb. 28 on HorseRaceInsider. These pieces both saddened and frustrated me because they demonstrate a severe disconnect between generations while failing to recognize that there is a strong demographic of up-and-coming youngsters who are invested in the industry as horsemen, horseplayers, and racing fans.

Zast blamed the times for racing's decline in popularity, writing, "Like all things that persist for an extended time on the reliance that the public will like it, horse racing's demise has been influenced by dozens of changes in the culture."

Moran made similar points, knocking "the elusive 'young' audience ... up to its ears in 'new media' which only fosters isolation ... is more inclined toward video games and text messaging than an intellectual commitment of the magnitude required to traverse the years-long learning curve that results in a horseplayer."

Both of these astute gentlemen have been around the sport since long before my time, and I respect their opinions and understand their frustration. They saw the game as it used to be for everyone -- as Moran penned, "The early experience of those drawn to racing ... invariably fed by the social aspect of a day at the track, a place where friends were made, opinions exchanged, lessons learned, lies told and tales of both victory and defeat embellished almost gleefully ... where neophytes found mentors and life-long relationships bound by racing and betting cemented."

But in reading Moran's column, I had a moment of déjà vu. That description perfectly embodies my own experiences in the racing industry. Some of my closest friends and most valued mentors have come my way through the press box at Saratoga, the backside at Keeneland, or the paddock at Santa Anita. I've met people who have enriched my life and helped me become a better person, those so much more experienced than me who have shared stories and opinions and advice. From state to state and track to track, those lifelong relationships have developed and fueled my interest and passion for the game along the way.

So here's my question -- why can't that experience be handed to the younger generation? What are we -- and by "we" I mean any "industry insider" from track management to the Turf writers -- doing to guarantee that a trip to the racetrack is a positive, individualized experience for potential new fans? I decided to ask four of my peers what they thought, and I also have a few opinions of my own.

Joe Kristufek, 40, counts duties as a handicapper for the Daily Herald and morning-line odds-maker for Arlington Park among his many titles. He also runs Horseplayernow.com along with fellow horseplayer Jeremy Plonk. And Kristufek gets what it takes to promote the game.

"You have people going through the turnstiles every day at the racetrack and they leave knowing only what they did when they came in," he says. "But if you educate people about the game, with knowledge comes interest. The more you know about racing and intricacies of the sport the more you're going to be drawn in."

At Arlington, Kristufek regularly leads informational handicapping seminars and Saturday morning Q&A sessions on the apron. He finds himself interacting with racing fans and horseplayers on a regular basis, and believes it should be every insider's job to make the public's racing experience an exceptional one.

"Every racetrack's in-house television host should be accessible between races," he says. I'll do my segment in the paddock with the track host, and then once I'm done I'll stand and talk to anybody. If I meet a young couple or a group of people who seem really into the game, I'll take them into the paddock, where the average fan doesn't get to go. They're always like, 'Wow, that was so amazing, we can't believe you just did that for us!' And I think, You, you're my future! I want you to enjoy the game one-tenth as much as I do. It's all about giving back.

"Sure, wagering is an intellectual game, and some people have the mental fortitude to enjoy trying to figure out the puzzle, and some don't. But the great thing about horse racing is that everybody can enjoy this game any way they want. I tell people if they're overwhelmed at first by the Form, read the comments in the program. When the horses come out for the post parade, take the program and look at the runners. They're animals; some look good, some don't. Some look ready to win, some don't. I can tell people how to watch a post parade and pick horses based on physicality and they'll cash tickets all day long."

Kristufek isn't the only one who believes knowledge and a willingness to share it will go a long way in ensuring repeat visitors to the track. Jason Blewitt, 32, is a racing analyst and broadcaster for the New York Racing Association. He says the key is enabling fans to have the kind of experience he did when he first fell in love with racing when he was in 11th grade.

"The young people that I wind up meeting, most of them -- even if it's their first trip to Belmont or Saratoga -- it just takes one positive trip to get them hooked," he says. "They may have had zero interest but they see that atmosphere and feel that vibe and if you can get them out there once and find a way to make them connect to the sport, they'll come back.

"I remember walking out onto the apron at Belmont and I couldn't believe that, right in my backyard, could be something as beautiful as that. The infield, the size of the grandstand ... and then I hit my first bet and I was hooked. Sometimes I still go out and sit on the apron during a race and just look all the way across the infield at the jockey caps and feel that excitement as the runners get into it turning for home."

As far as social media is concerned, NYRA has embraced it -- from Facebook to Twitter to a stable of blogs focusing on horses and people in the racing industry. In fact, I used Facebook chat to message Blewitt in search of his cell phone number while conducting interviews for this commentary.

"I think from day one the game has done a good job of embracing the Internet and social networking," Blewitt says. "Today people communicate differently than they had in the past, and when you think about social networking it's just another positive way that the game can get out there to different fans and interested people."

Joe Nevills, 23, agrees. Nevills, former Thoroughbred Times intern and writer behind "The Haiku Handicapper" over at The Michigan-bred Claimer, has found that social media has connected him with an entire group of racing fans he would have likely never met . And, he believes, the info-heavy world of the racetrack fits perfectly into the social media scene.

"Racing is all about information, from the past performances to the odds, to the 'who's and what's,' to just how the horses look," he says. "Young people are getting better and better at processing a lot of information at once, and racing requires just that.

"I can find out about racetrack information on Twitter, download [past performances] on various Web sites, get inside info from texts. If anything, technology has made racing easier for people with short attention spans because they don't have to try as hard to get the information they need."

I think it's easy to get caught up in the "industry insider" role, with all-access passes and parking stickers and positive connections to our peers in the game -- whether trainers, owners, jockeys, Turf writers, or figures in track management. Often, we take our hard-earned privileges for granted because horse racing is our job, just what we do. But we all need to remember, along with Molly Jo Rosen, 24, the reason why horse racing attracted us in the first place.

"Why is racing my drug of choice?" wrote the author of Fabulousfilly.com, when I asked her to contribute to this commentary via Facebook chat. "The adrenaline push of the horses as they load into the gate. The instinctive herd mentality of the actual race. The thrill of the stretch and the flash as they cross the line. But most magical of all is being chilled to the bone, standing in the dark at 5 a.m., hearing the thunder of hooves on dirt and seeing breath in clouds and steam off the runners' backs."

Zast suggests that the sport begins changing from "the playground of learned folks" to "a pastime that anyone can enjoy." Moran puts a similar recommendation more bluntly, writing, "the industry's leaders must dumb-down the sport; creat(ing) an experience that can be explained in 140-word tweets for people who would find Richard Eng's book, "Horse Racing for Dummies," beyond their attention spans ..."

I beg to differ.

Somehow, in the midst of the madness, in spite of everything wrong the industry has ever done, horse racing still has a wonderfully diverse, incredibly magnetic pull. I see it over and over again. In my buddy who texted during a mournful Breeders' Cup absence thanks to a business trip to Hawaii -- "Bored on beach. Send Picks." In my friend who visited the racetrack for the first time and remarked, somewhat incredulously, "This is where you do your job? But this is like vacation!" And, ironically, I see it most in young racing fans who, starry-eyed, consider a trip to the announcer's stand, a visit to the press box, a moment spent in dialogue with a respected rider or horseman, the best thing that could ever happen to them.

So if you love horse racing, do your part. Talk to people about the history, the tradition, the passion of the game. Get them personally involved with a weekend -- or a night -- at the races. Take a group of retirees to the paddock. Talk Derby picks with a 10-year-old fan. Reach across generations. Embrace the ever-changing culture and the ever-changing industry. And above all, older horseplayers and racing fans, give the young people a chance.

We may not be very experienced, but most of us are pretty smart. And given the chance, I'll bet we'll surprise you -- Twitter, Facebook, and all.

For more comprehensive information on horse racing, visit Helloracefans.com and Horseracingnation.com and be sure to follow Novak on Facebook and Twitter, @ClaireNovak.



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