"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 September 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

A Day at the Races

[Grumbley, grumbley, grumbley]

During a preliminary race on

Preakness Stakes day 15 May, fan

Lee Ferrell slipped past

hundreds of racetrack security

people, crossed two fences and

an interior grass track, and

climbed onto the Pimlico

racetrack straightaway. Balling

his fists, Ferrell narrowed his

sights on the heavily wagered

thoroughbred Artax, who was

coming off the final turn at

approximately 40 miles an hour,

bearing down on Ferrell's

position. As startled

jockeys sought to inch their

horses around the squat

intruder, Ferrell threw a punch

at Artax worthy of Alex Karras

in Blazing Saddles. But unlike

Karras' Mongo, Ferrell whiffed,

striking jockey Jorge Chavez a

glancing blow in the leg. Artax

and a visibly shaken Chavez

failed to win (officials felt

the incident had no real effect

on the order of finish). For his

trouble, Ferrell was beaten to

the ground and carried off to

jail, pleading mental



The primary lesson of the

Ferrell incident is "Never bet

on the favorite." A second

lesson: Horse racing may or may

not be a great sport, but for

general weirdness and odd

spectacle, it's hard to beat a

day at the track.


Horse racing is experiencing one

of its periodic resurgences in

American sports culture. The

'90s have yielded great horses

(Cigar), out-of-left-field

surprises (this year's Kentucky

Derby winner Charismatic), and

the rise of at least one major

media-savvy personality, trainer

Bob Baffert. But in an age where

ESPN and image-drenched

commercial endorsements drive

massive entertainment

conglomerates, horse racing

remains comparatively

inaccessible and remote. Half

the athletes can't talk, the other

half strain to use a regular

drinking fountain, and the sport

enters TV consciousness

(barely) three minutes at a

time, for three days, spread out

over a measly five weeks at the

beginning of summer.


[Bishop's spot]

Curiously, thoroughbred racing

seemingly revels in its

second-rate image. Think horse

racing, and the image that

likely pops to mind is seedy old

men poring over racing forms in

search of a "sure thing" or a

really bad movie starring

Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Korman,

or Howie Mandel. The central

irony of horse racing is that

those elements — all linked

to gambling — aren't local

color or fan excess. They are

the actual driving force behind

the sport. And as long as

attendance remains high and

millions upon millions of

dollars are wagered, television

exposure and broader mainstream

media awareness is irrelevant.

If for years the thriving

southern California racing scene

could do no better for its most

public spokesman than longtime

Johnny Carson third banana Doc

Severinsen, no one involved

really seemed to mind. They were

too busy counting their money.


They're beginning to mind now.

Horse racing's current

situation is directly linked to

changing American attitudes

toward racing's "sure thing."

Racetracks used to enjoy a

near-monopoly on legal gambling

in some states: Now all states

except two are in the gambling

business themselves. Throw in

the growth of reservation-land

tribal gaming, card rooms, and

casino gambling on riverboats

and dry land, and horse racing

finds itself to be one of many

options for the potential gambler.

This is beneficial for reopening

local and regional racetracks

and for spreading off-track

betting parlors in towns without

them. But the numbers are

ominous in other ways. Racetrack

betting has increased in the

last 15 years but at a slower

rate than all other major forms

of gambling, even middle-America

favorite Bingo. Racing writers

warn that direct competition

between local racetracks and

riverboat casinos have, so far,

favored the casinos. And

Internet gambling, with its

ability to offer up wagers from

all over the world using

international sites not tied to

the restrictions of state laws,

is a massive, obvious threat to

local track revenues.


[rainy days]

The National Thoroughbred Racing

Association's response has been

to emphasize the sport itself.

In 1997, to drive up interest in

racing among sports fans in

their 20s, the NTRA created the

infamous Lori Petty commercial.

The spot featured the

never-popular Tank Girl star in

garish makeup and close-cropped

hair, rhapsodizing on the

excitement of watching a horse

race. It culminated with her

raspy-voiced exclamation of the

NTRA's motto, "Go, Baby, Go!"

The commercial traumatized the

racing establishment and

confused the potential audience,

who reacted negatively to Petty.

Rather than promoting the idea

that racing is cool, Petty's

message seemed to be, "Can't

score a sitcom on UPN? Might as

well go to the track." (Later

commercial spots went to Rip

Torn — a more traditional

image, the NTRA claimed —

who, hot off of The Larry

Sanders Show, probably enjoyed a

more favorable profile with the

original target group than



More effective campaigns are

track specific and either

embrace gambling or have made

their peace with it. Venerable

Kentucky racetrack Keeneland

Racecourse's drive-up betting

windows sound farcical but have

led to minor yet real gains in

revenue and definite interest

from other tracks. More

widespread are enticements to

get families and children out to

the park. Maryland's "Pony Pals"

features school visits from

jockeys and organized birthday

jaunts to area tracks (to hear

stressed-out mascot "Blinkers,"

call (301) 470 5699.)

Louisville's Churchill Downs

hosts civic events like the

regional Boy Scout picnic, while

Seattle-area Emerald Downs

features a picnic area, face

painting, and a moonwalk

carnival ride.


These campaigns sell the kids on

the animals and spectacle and

give the adults the freedom to

make bets. Thus on a typical

weekend afternoon, local tracks

are filled with images that

would send shivers up the spine

of a Gamblers Anonymous sponsor:

a young father marking his

place in a Curious George book

with a race program, three

kids at a picnic table

expressing concern that Dad

hasn't been seen for a

half-hour, a mother taking

pointers from a teenaged son on

how to read a racing form. Yet

for the most part, kids at the

racetrack seem distracted or

oblivious. If the yearly Triple

Crown races are best described

as raucous cocktail parties,

then a day at the racetrack with

the family in tow is like an

all-ages Fourth of July picnic:

The kids underfoot barely notice

the drinking, backbiting, and



[hell in a hand basket]

Efforts like the Lori Petty

commercial and attempts by the

NTRA to place more races on

television fail to recognize

horse racing's specific appeal.

As a sport, horse racing offers

two minutes of action surrounded

by 20 minutes of interminable

waiting, making baseball

and golf look like the

last 10 minutes of The Wild

Bunch by comparison. But as a

gambling activity, horse racing

offers the great outdoors,

reasonable odds, and just enough

time to think over one's bet

before making it. Horse racing

has always relished its role as

the shady uncle at American

sports family get-togethers, and

its recent participation in the

sort of self-delusion that

surrounds other sports

enterprises is a road best not

traveled. Anyone convinced of

racing's inherent nobility is

already a convert. The rest are

looking for authenticity, even

if it's of the nudge-nudge,

wink-wink variety. Horse racing

— still successful on its

own terms, quaint, and largely

ignored — may have the best

of all worlds and not even

realize it.


The last thing Americans need is

another sport. But they can

always use more genteel ways to

gamble. Besides, by continuing

to serve hard-core fans and

attracting young marrieds, the

Sport of Kings will eventually

bring out the young people targeted

by the Lori Petty commercial. Seedy

old men are great company compared

to the average drunken

loudmouths found at your local

stadium or sports bars, and

young marrieds have

entertainment value. On a summer

Sunday at Emerald Downs, a

25-year-old woman with bright

blue hair admitted telling a

survey that her favorite thing

to do between races is "count


courtesy of 40th Street Black

[Purchase the Suck Book here]