Thoroughbred racing’s long slow death, 1972

Sep 10th 2012 11:50 am |

The horse racing “Twitterati” have an ongoing debate that pits those who insist that racing is dying with those who think there are far too many positives to make such a diagnosis. Few argue that it is thriving, but the doom and gloomers assert that anyone who can’t hear the death rattle of thoroughbred racing must live in some alternative fantasyland. Those who earnestly point to the positive signs in racing tend to get — in the parlance of Twitter — “LOLed” by the doom and gloomers.

If you have read this blog since its founding in 2008 you know that I lean toward the side that sees the glass half full. One reason being that if you look back on the history of the sport, insistence on its terminal state goes back over a century. I have read articles as far back as the 1880s, and in nearly every decade since, with some variation on the “horse racing is a dying sport” theme. At some point, it would seem, the prediction loses its punch. It has been consistently wrong over the course of three different centuries.

My latest find in the ever-expanding obituary of racing strikes a familiar theme. It comes from a copy of the May 6th edition of The Thoroughbred Record from 1972. Here is a selection from Arnold Fitzpatrick’s editorial titled “Laying it on the Line”:

When things are automatically good because they are old and automatically bad when the are new, it is a sure sign of senility — in a person or an industry.

This is, perhaps, [racing’s] most serious problem. Racing used to be a venerable and respected facet of the American Scene. Now it is merely old. We are tenaciously clinging to many, many outdated aspects of the sport. A ‘brilliant young man’ in racing today is 50. Someone who is 40 is a mere child, and anyone less than that is practically classed as an embryo.

Statistics show that the average racegoer these days is approximately 45-50, and it seems to me that the average professional in racing is perhaps ten years older than that. One day soon we are going to look around to discover that most of the racegoers have died, and racing will be left without a public.

The age of the majority of the spectators and executives in our sport is one of the primary factors behind our failure to break the ‘youth market.’  We have discussed it time and again. Our leaders either can’t or won’t think enough like young people to attract them to racing…”

It’s funny that the “racing fans are dying off” argument has now reached middle age. It doesn’t take a math wizard to calculate that this particular argument doesn’t hold up. On top of that, recent technological developments have made a profound impact on racing.  The notion that the racing scene is ‘old’ and ‘outdated’ is no longer true. If you look at how racing has tapped into the internet and social media — things that could hardly be conceived of in 1972 — it’s safe to say that racing has made great progress in keeping in step with the so-called ‘youth market.’

For a terminal ‘patient’, racing sure has its fair share of good days: the Triple Crown races, the Breeders Cup, the summer meets in Saratoga and Del Mar, and let’s not forget the two Keeneland meets. If these are the days of a dying “man,” I can think of a few people (including this writer) who would take whatever poison thoroughbred racing has been drinking over these many years.


Arnold Fitzpatrick, “Laying it on the Line,” The Thoroughbred Record, 6 May 1972

Update, 9/10/2012: Dean — of the excellent Pull the Pocket site — wrote the following in response to this post: “Racing is not ‘dead’. It will likely never be ‘dead’. As a business (primarily driven by betting) it’s simply probably about 15% to 25% the size it was 50 or 60 years ago.”  The full post at Pull the Pocket is well worth a look!

Thanks for reading!

Filed in thoroughbred racing history

8 Responses to “Thoroughbred racing’s long slow death, 1972”

  1. Don Reed says:

    Bet $2 in 1972. Horse wins. Collect $200.00.

    Celebrating? The restaurant bill in 1972 came to $38.18.

    Bet $2 in 2010. Horse wins. Collect $200.00.

    Same restaurant. Same menu. Same meal: In 2010, it cost $200.00.

    This is one reason why racing’s popularity has waned. It’s a sane one.

    Inflation $ calculation was obtained from using “The Inflation Calculator,” http://www.westegg/inflation/ (period).

  2. Larry Mc says:

    William Murray, author and novelist, self proclaimed racing expert, predicted in his 1992 book “The Wrong Horse”, that thoroughbed racing would be gone within ten years. The younger crowd that horse racing marketers always seem to be chasing lack, in addition to knowledge, Money. The knowledge comes with time and so does the money. I very, very seriously doubt if many of todays Thoroughbred owners used to stare out the window of their high school classroom, dreaming about winning a $25,000 allowance.

  3. Andy says:

    One problem with Don Reed’s comment…he didn’t adjust the bet for inflation. Someone who could afford to bet $2 in 1972 would be betting $10 in 2010, winning $1000.

  4. John Chambers says:

    I read this article and agree that racing is not going away. What most of the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to is that there is still intrest in racing but it is now spread out all over the country. The days of large on track attendece are over except for special big races. However the fans are still there. They are just spread over many places: on track, OTB’S, casinos and now even at home through computer or phone bet accounts. I play much more and often since computer beting became possible. I still go and enjoy the live races but now I have a choice of which track I want to play and can play at my convience. I still play my local tracks but also play tracks like Canterbury Park and Mountaineer Park on a regular basis. All this new tecknology on a long term basis will increase the fan base for racing.
    I guess I am now considered an older fan since I will turn 60 this year but I expect to see and bet racing until the day I die. Thanks for the good article
    John Chambers, Lansdowne, Pa.

  5. Dr. Timothy Yatcak says:

    It is the governments and the cancerous racinos expansion that will ultimately KILL racing.

    I am watching it evolve right now in Ontario, Canada

  6. As an embryo of age 32, I can attest that there are far more racing fans of around my age than many of the older folks may think. Racing will survive–it is a little slower than most other sports to move into modern times, but that is probably a plus rather than a minus. Very interesting read, thanks for posting.

  7. Big Red's Shadow says:

    They said the same thing in the mid teens…and then a horse named Man O’ War showed up and he drew the biggest crowds in history for that time. These doom and gloomers hurt racing more than help and its like they need the negativity and spread it like terminal disease in order to make themselves feel happy..its disgusting and not needed.

    Racings doing OK but it does need help. We don’t have the great horses we used to. We don’t have trainers that can train a three year old to run the triple crown. Thats the problem. Not a fan of the Baffert, Lucas kind of AQHA trainer that has haunted our races, turning animals that should be able to run a mile and a half into glorified sprinters. We need Jones boys, Feustals, Fitzsimmons kinds of trainers. Guys that knew how to train thoroughbreds. Also the blood stock is leaving our country. The last Fasig Tipton Sale had more foriegn buyers and that hurts Kentucky. Its time for a pr blitz and its time for the Jockey Club to insist that thoroughbreds run distances. Think about it, the horse that holds the World Record for two and a half miles is Kelso…one of our greatest ever..and he did it in 1964.
    We need great horses, and we need our horses to run. Alsab ran 47 times in his racing career…think about it. The horses can do the work. We need fearless trainers and owners. And we need another Man O’ War.

  8. chuck says:

    These are no thoroughbreds but extended sprinting quarterhorses….
    who wants to watch that?….

    oh take out the casino money and this will slow faster than a sprinter trying to run 10 furlongs….