Word Play

Given its long duration, one of the best places on earth to have unexpected and thought-provoking conversations about horse racing is the Keeneland September yearling sale.

The first few days of the sale are always a veritable Who's Who of the racing world, but even during the rest of its two-week run, there are plenty of people on hand. At any given point, some of them are going to have time on the their hands. It is the hurry up and wait nature of any horse sale.

Talking is a natural way to pass the time, and I am convinced the amount of opinions and gossip that go around the sale grounds could rival that of any high school. Considering an average of 400 horses go through the ring each day, it is no surprise there are a lot of people, a lot of horses and a lot of noise.

If you care about something, you will take the time to learn about it.

Inevitably when covering the sale, I reach what I consider my Grinch moment, where all I want to do is go around saying, "the noise, noise, noise, noise" a la the beloved Dr. Suess character. If my schedule allows, that is when I try to find a spot in the back walking ring to flip through my sale catalog and decompress.

It was at this moment in time last week when I was approached by a woman who was astonished I knew how to read a catalog page. As the days have passed, I keep returning to our conversation because it highlighted a long standing issue: is horse racing's vernacular keeping fans away?

While her directness was startling, in all fairness, I can appreciate why she walked up to me unprompted to express her surprise. I was sitting cross-legged on a concrete wall eating a Tootsie Roll Pop. Combined with the fact I was wearing barn appropriate tennis shoes, had just pulled my hair into a ponytail with my fingers, and tend to look young for my age, she probably thought I was 12.

When I pointed out I was probably a great deal older than she was thinking, she pointed at the candy and said, "Well, you are eating a sucker."


But after I explained I cover horse racing and everything that goes along with it for a living, she started asking questions. It turns out she sells real estate. She also confessed that sale catalogs and race programs overwhelm her and that she didn't think she would ever understand them.

We chatted some more and then she went on her way. But her words have stuck with me.

Although the ultimate goal of horse racing -- cross the finish line first -- is pretty easy to understand, there is a lot that goes into that simple act.

Pedigrees, speed figures, track bias. Trainer habits, owner demands, jockey talent. Dirt tracks, grass tracks, synthetic tracks. Bar shoes, glue-on shoes, no shoes … the list goes on and on.

The point being, I get horse racing can get complicated pretty quickly. Multiple tracks do things to try to educate new fans, and there are also some fantastic online resources, but the intricacies aren't something you are going to pick up overnight.

In recent years, the Breeders' Cup has tried to make the event more "fan friendly" by doing things like changing the Distaff to the Ladies' Classic because it is supposedly easier to understand. From the day this idea was introduced, it rubbed me the wrong way for multiple reasons.

Every sport has its own terminology, and I think that should be embraced. I also remain a bit surprised no producer of lady products has stepped up to claim that sponsorship. The Lady Speed Stick Ladies' Classic does have a nice ring to it.

But after talking with this kindly stranger at the Keeneland sale, I couldn't help but wonder if my reaction to things like the Ladies' Classic wasn't on the arrogant side. Maybe the way to attract new fans isn't through education but readjustment of the establishment.

I have toyed with that idea for the better part of a week now, and arrogant or not, I just can't make myself buy into it.

If you care about something, you will take the time to learn about it. Furthermore, you don't have to understand everything about a sport to enjoy it. The offside rule in multiple sports plagued me for years, but it never kept me from getting into a good game.

The fact this sport can be complicated is not a bad thing. My conversation with the stranger at the sale highlighted that curiosity encourages conversation, which in turn can lead to education.

Plus, for all of that, we all have the friend that picked the 100-1 longshot winner because the horse had a memorable name. A great time can be had by one and all at a horse race, whether you can spout off five generations of Secretariat's pedigree or not.

I stand by the idea that it is fun, excitement and openness that will get people to come back, not the catalog pages and terminology.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com