Saving racing, one ostrich at a time

They held ostrich and camel races the other day at Lone Star Park. A guy named Mike Newlin was just named the new general manager at the Meadowlands, hired there because he improved on-track business at the races at the Nebraska State Fair. How'd he do it? Part of his success had to do with, yes, bringing in ostrich and camel races. Those large flightless birds, which put on a pretty entertaining show are all the rage.

Those preceding sentences will have the racing purists cringing, or maybe laughing. But I think these ostrich guys are on to something.

Racing has thousands of problems, but I've come to think that the single biggest one is that the on-track experience is no longer fun. In most cases it is awful.

That's how all of us became fans. Your father, uncle or best friend took you to the track and you thought it was a magical place and you couldn't wait to come back.

The soul and the heart of horse racing was the racetrack. Once upon a time, it was a great place to be. There were crowds, energy, excitement. The stands were full of colorful characters, rumpled guys in bad sports jackets who called the losing jockey on a 3-5 shot a bum, a thief and poor excuse for a human being, even a really short one. Because no one had ever heard of simulcasting, all you had to bet on was the nine or 10 live races run on track, so each race seemed a little special. Most of all, going to the track was, win or lose, a lot of fun. You could drop $50 at the windows and still say you had a darn good time.

That's how all of us became fans. Your father, uncle or best friend took you to the track and you thought it was a magical place and you couldn't wait to come back.

"Bringing families to the track is important to get new fans," Newlin said. "Everybody remembers the first time they went to the track. Either your dad or your grandpa took you to the track, and you always remember that. We need to build that back up again where people can feel they are in a friendly environment and where a day at the track is fun."

No one has ever fallen in love with the sport at an OTB, a simulcast parlor or in front of a computer screen. And now if your uncle, let's call him Uncle Moe, takes you to just about any track not named Del Mar, Keeneland or Saratoga, they'll be taking you to a place that is lifeless and empty. The few souls you will see in the buildings, which are usually way too big for the modern world, will look lost, there because they have no place else to go and they get a kick out of cursing at miniature horses racing around the TV screen. If you drop $50 at the windows you'll probably go home feeling like a sucker.

Or maybe your local racetrack is a racino, which means that the racing part is the neglected, red-headed stepchild of the casino. That is if you can actually find the racetrack. Most casino companies do their very best to keep them hidden.

There are only a few exceptions, the aforementioned Keeneland, Saratoga and Del Mar, Monmouth Park on weekends, big event days like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup. Actually, those sorts of things and places are thriving. The Triple Crown has never been more popular and Saratoga never seems to take a backward step. Because there are so few of them, people are hungry for great on-track experiences, a primary reason why the big event days and the boutique tracks are doing so well.

It will never again be 1953, where every inch of the apron at every track was lined by fans and fedora-wearing bettors and the racetrack was the only place to make a legal wager on a horse. Even I, the nostalgic romantic that I am, would never dare say we should get rid of simulcasting and betting on the Internet. But somebody needs to figure out how to make a day at the track special again. That was the heartbeat of racing and without a heartbeat everything will eventually die.

Obviously, there should be a lot less racing than there is and more tracks ought to try to emulate the type of schedules they have at places like Keeneland. Charlie Hayward, who runs NYRA, has said he wants to blow up cavernous Belmont Park and rebuild a much smaller facility. That's exactly, by the way, what they plan to do at the Meadowlands. The less-is-more approach to the facilities will definitely help. Tracks need to do more with the jockeys and the horses. Make the jockeys come out between races and sign autographs. At the Little Brown Jug, the fans are allowed to tour the barn that holds the Jug horses and see them from a few feet away. That's a great idea.

Going to the track isn't any fun anymore, which is why people don't go. The ostriches can't fix racing all by themselves, but they certainly represent a step in the right direction.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.