Horse Racing Losing Both Glamour And Audience

The centuries-old tradition of horse racing around the country is in danger of extinction. The industry has struggled in recent years as a result of smaller winnings, scandal and the expansion of other betting opportunities. The Solano County Fair in central California is likely an indicator of times to come; there, for the first time, video screens of horse racing events from around the globe have replaced live horse racing.

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Horse racing used to be called the sport of kings. It's now facing an identity crisis with some fans saying it's become nothing more than a lottery on four legs.

As Capitol Public Radio's Emily Green reports, Internet and satellite wagering are causing drastic changes in the sport that are visible at racetracks around the country.

(Soundbite of race track)

EMILY GREEN: When David Martin was a kid, his dad took him to the horse races every Saturday at Californias Golden Gate Park. He says they would always sit in the same spot.

Mr. DAVID MARTIN: My uncles would be there. His brothers would be there. It was like a meeting place. More like a meeting place than anything else. They talked to one another there more than (unintelligible) home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREEN: Like his dad, he loves to gamble. But he says the game has changed since his dads era. To begin with, the horses are not nearly as good.

Mr. MARTIN: I even called to the racing secretary one time and told her, I said what the heck is going on here. This is ridiculous. You've got maiden horses, maiden claim horses racing on a Saturday entry - that would never be, especially on a Saturday card or a Sunday card. That was just unheard of on a Saturday. But thats common now.

GREEN: The once unheard of has now become commonplace. Here at the Solano County Fair in Northern California, Martin is watching the races on TV. That's because this year the fair abandoned a 58-year tradition of live horse racing and replaced it with satellite gaming.

Of course horse racing has always had one foot in gambling. But increasingly its about watching it on TV or the Internet and not going to the live thing, says Kirk Breed. Hes director of the California Horse Racing Board.

Mr. KIRK BREED (Director, California Horse Racing Board): I can remember in 1983 when we did the first simulcast race, and we brought in it on TV, and it had a big TV monitor there up there. And it was during the state fair and we were standing there watching it.

GREEN: Breed was with his friend, Jack Clifford.

Mr. BREED: And people were actually betting on this race that was being conducted in Chicago or someplace. And he says that is going to be the demise of horse racing right there.

GREEN: To get people to actually show up at the live races, the horse racing industry is pushing legislation in many states to allow slot machines at the tracks. But experts say the long-term solution to keeping the industry alive is to eliminate all but the biggest meets. This would generate bigger payouts and larger crowds. But it would also mean the end of live horse racing at the little venues.

Already, the number of county fairs in western states offering live horse racing has declined by some 50 percent over the past 20 years. That's according to the executive director of the Western Fairs Association.

(Soundbite of a crowd noise)

Unidentified Man: Come on, six. Come on, six. Here he comes (unintelligible) you see him?

(Soundbite of a crowd noise)

Unidentified Man: Oh no. So close.

GREEN: From Illinois to Montana and California, horse racing is one of the main draws at state fairs. Here in Pleasanton, California, east of San Francisco, the crowd is a mix of men and women, kids and old people.

Frank Blais props up his 10-year old daughter on the fence. Thirty years ago, Blais worked as a jockey and what hes most excited about is...

Mr. FRANK BLAIS (Former Jockey): To see the horses run. You know? And to see how these little jockeys are handling, you know, a 900 or 1,200 pound horse and to be able to control it.

GRAPHIC: Ironically, Blais is blind. And while he can no longer see how the horses run, he loves being here.

Mr. BLAIS: I enjoy hearing the crowd, and just the atmosphere of the track, and smelling.

GREEN: The key, racing experts say, is whether the track can keep them coming back. But already, county fairs around the country are running on wobbly legs. Take the Solano County Fair. Organizers saw a 28 percent drop in attendance this year. One of the main reasons cited for the decline: the lack of live horse races.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Green.

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