Racing Myopia

It’s been two months since live racing ended in Massachusetts, and a lot is still in flux when discussing the future of the sport in New England. The New England HBPA is in talks with Suffolk Downs to negotiate a live meet for next year, which is either breaking down or still going fine depending on the media outlet.

The fallout from the closing is still quite fresh, and with a little time I’ve been reflecting more and more on Suffolk’s place in the Thoroughbred industry, and how some important conversations that should have been sparked by its closing seem to have been swept under the rug instead. Recently, the Boston Globe presented this article on what they’re calling “Generation Boston.” People age 20 to 34 make up more than a third of Boston’s population, with an additional 44 percent of the population of Cambridge in that age group. Surrounding communities tell the same story.  They are a large, innovative, and influential age group contributing more than $1 billion to the local economy each year.

Wow.  Right here in Boston, a captive audience of exactly the demographic that America’s Best Racing has been focusing their marketing on lately.  The largest population of young people in any major American city. The population here is wealthy, international, educated.  Just the sort of people who maybe, if they get bitten by the bug, would become bettors and owners someday. And there is currently no venue for them to be exposed to racing.  A facility that is literally four subway stops from downtown Boston lays shuttered.

It would be easy, as some have done, to solely level the responsibility for Suffolk’s closing directly on the current management.  It’s not a stretch to say that in their quest for a casino license, Suffolk Downs didn’t pour the resources into marketing their racing product that they could have. But that unnecessarily simplifies a complex situation.  When they held their last racing day in October, the complete lack of anything more than an “eh” from the industry was painfully obvious. Suffolk was dismissed by most as a backwater, shitty track that had seen its best days and wasn’t worth saving.  In turning its focus to marketing big days and big tracks, racing has ignored the importance of the more accessible tracks right in people’s backyards. It’s horribly myopic.

Yes, Suffolk could’ve done more. But the industry was just as guilty. If they had looked closely, they could’ve seen the role Suffolk had as a track that served as a middle ground for horses that couldn’t be competitive in the New York circuit but had racing life left in them. Perhaps they could’ve seen a track with a proven record of commitment to aftercare, retiring horses at a level when they could still be viable for second careers. They could’ve seen a population of horses that would be an interesting target demographic for drug and safety reforms. Or an accessible track for new owners to begin investing their money in the sport. They could’ve taken a look at all the successful jockeys and horsemen and women who have their roots in the East Boston oval and left to become some of the sport’s biggest names.  One would hope that they would recognize the over 75 years of history in a sport that prides itself on its longevity, and try to pour some of its more substantial resources into helping a struggling track that has always played an important part in the larger racing picture.

But most importantly, in a sport that is trying to reinvent itself and appeal to a new generation, they could’ve seen that with the closing of Suffolk Downs, the industry left a major U.S. city and entire region without an easily accessible, inexpensive race track to expose the largest target audience in the country to the sport. And the tragedy of that cannot be overstated. The complete lack of understanding about what that means for the future of the sport? That’s something that racing can ill afford to be in the dark about. In examining the closing of Suffolk Downs, the lack of industry support for ALL of its stakeholders, must bear some of the burden of guilt.

Oh well. Saratoga is just a short four hour drive out the Pike and a few-hundred-dollar-a-night hotel room away, right?  Let’s hope that enough people interested in spending a day at their “local” track will find their way there.

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