- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. The railbird is becoming an endangered species.
More than 150,000 fans will crowd Churchill Downs on Saturday for the 128th running of the Kentucky Derby, but the scene on other days and at other racetracks around the nation is much different.
Technology that helped rescue a struggling industry by allowing bettors to wager via the Internet and the telephone and at off-track betting parlors and casinos had an unintended consequence: empty stands. Some wonder if the railbirds the fans who once chirped insults to jockeys from the finish-line fence are a dying breed and if the thunder of hooves may be replaced by the hum of overhead TV sets in betting parlors.
"Technology has saved racing, but it is also the curse of racing," said Kelso Sturgeon, a former agent for jockeys who now wagers professionally in Las Vegas. "There's something to be said about exposure to the actual racehorse. Over the long haul, the lack of exposure to the racehorse itself and the pageantry of the game will eventually hurt more than it helps. It's a short-term fix."
It is a fix that the industry desperately needs.
Wagering flat-lined at $9.3 billion in the early 1990s. Attendance slumped to such a degree that it was less than half of its 1980 level. Tracks such as Canterbury Downs in Minneapolis and Ak-sar-ben Downs in Omaha, Neb., shut down. Others, such as Timonium Fairgrounds outside Baltimore and Delaware Park outside Wilmington were on the verge of ruin.
The financial picture, at least, has changed dramatically.
The horse racing industry now generates $25.3 billion annually, nearly $500,000 more than the motion-picture business. Wagering nationwide has increased in eight straight years.
Most of that growth is because technology has made it easy to place bets without going near a track.
Many small, financially troubled racetracks were saved because bettors worldwide were able to wager on races in, for example, Charles Town, W.Va.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Des Moines, Iowa. Gamblers in Australia, Europe, South America and the Caribbean wager on Maryland races, as do bettors in 30 other states. Tracks now earn millions of dollars in simulcast royalties money that means the difference between success and a shuttered track.
The shift in the way bets are placed is staggering.
More than 85 percent of the $14.6 billion that is wagered on thoroughbred racing nationwide each year is now done away from the racetrack. Wagering has increased 30 percent overall during six years of widespread off-track gambling. Live betting at the track, however, is now barely half of its 1996 levels.
Those numbers convince many that the change in wagering patterns is only a good thing.
"There are more people exposed to it today than ever before. People say it's dying, but the fact is more people are wagering today," said Churchill Downs Chairman Tom Meeker.
Maryland has three off-track betting parlors and four tracks that offer daily wagering. Wagering from home in Maryland on races nationwide is expected to begin in the next few years via telephone accounts, though many residents already call out-of-state tracks to set up accounts or simply wager via Web sites. Racing is making itself available through new outlets much in the same way lottery tickets can be bought in stores.
"It's about offering convenience," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club. "It lets you expand your audience. You can build the market through technology."
Said Churchill Downs Vice President Karl Schmitt: "Twenty years ago, you have to come to Churchill Downs or bet with a local bookie. Now there's 1,000 locations. It's a service to the customer."
It's a service that also is emptying the stands.
Weekend races regularly drew crowds of 40,000 at major tracks in the 1950s and '60s, the golden era of the sport. However, lotteries, casinos and sports wagering have steadily diluted racing's monopoly on gambling, and alternative means of betting on racing have further siphoned fans from the tracks. The crowds have thinned so much that many tracks stopped reporting attendance in the mid-1990s.
"Who wants to pay $6 to get in, sit in filthy seats, walk down filthy aisles and bet at filthy parimutuel windows when you can sit at home and make a few bets?" Mr. Sturgeon said.
Has racing merely found a short-term fix? Maryland racing leaders are preparing to renew lobbying efforts to get slot machines placed at racetracks next year. Aging facilities at Laurel and Pimlico need more than $100 million in repairs, and the state's racing industry sees salvation not in recent gains produced by technology but in shared casino revenues. But, again, Maryland racing will not rely on patrons at the tracks for growth.
"Most people would agree that [non-live wagering] over the last decade is more or less moving the deck chairs around," Mr. Capps said. "There's more wagering on racing that came about because of the expansion of menu. Now it's transferring dollars from one means of wagering to another. Most people agree simulcasting has had most of its run."
Another question is whether technology also is creating a passionless patronage.
Racing has always been an action business the flow of money, the chance to wave a winning ticket at nearby strangers. Now, the celebratory whoops echo in sparsely crowded grandstands. The shouts of fellow bettors urging home a long shot, the haze of cigar smoke in the grandstand and smell of horse flesh in the post parade that make racing the intoxicating sport it is are missed by those watching from the comfy confines of their couches.
Many tracks and parlors regularly offer 250 races for wagering daily, creating a seemingly endless stream of post times somewhere. From harness racing in Delaware to thoroughbreds in Los Angeles, race goers are fumbling through several programs, searching for their next bets even when the local track is dark.
For all the problems, there still are occasions when racing flashes its old grandeur.
For two minutes when the nation's best 3-year-old colts pass under the shadow of the Twin Spires, even those who watch only one race every year pause.
There is no twinkle of a tote board showing the odds on races from far-flung, obscure tracks. There is no debating whether to wager on some nag from New Jersey or a long shot from Louisiana. The roses prove too alluring for even non-racing fans to ignore the start of the Triple Crown that continues with the Preakness Stakes on May 18 at Pimlico.
"The Triple Crown is perceived by the American public as the definitive championship event," said Joe De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club. "A lot more people pay attention to championships than regular-season games. They don't watch the [Washington] Wizards-Indiana on Tuesday in January."


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