Yesterday, a friend and I attended the horse races at Belmont Park, one of two major thoroughbred tracks in the New York City area (the other is Aqueduct, and they do not compete with each other – when one is open the other is not). Although it was an absolutely beautiful Saturday, and Preakness day, which one would think would cause more folks than usual to think of horse racing, paid attendance (at a venue capable of holding over 100,000, with 33,000 reserved seats, according to Wikipedia), was just a shade over 8,000. The place looked almost abandoned, with whole sections of the stands and betting windows closed off, and many of the food and beverage outlets also closed. It evoked a trip I made to Ellis Island before it became a slick museum, when you could see it literally just as it was when the government closed up shop in the 1950s. Of course, Belmont was still running, but it was a ghost of its former self, and much different than on my last visit, on a Belmont Stakes day several years ago.
I speculated out loud how the state of racing had come to this, and asked my friend (who is for practical purposes new to the game, having attended the races for the first time in ages a few weeks ago with me in Keeneland, which presented a wholly different picture). One problem was the quality of the card. Without going into detail, I’ll just tell you that the feature was a $100,000 stake for State-breds, three and up, at 7 furlongs on the dirt. The race attracted a field of only six, and the favorite — who ran true to form and won — went off at 3-4. The rest of the card, except for one very nice maiden special weight race on the turf, and a couple of allowance races, was the usual mix of state bred and/or claiming (including conditioned claiming, and the dregs-de-la-dregs, state bred maiden claiming) races. My friend, who liked Belmont a lot, did note one difference between it and Keeneland — at Belmont, because the track is so large, few races start in front of the stands. He enjoys watching the starts as well as the finishes, as I’m sure many race fans do. He also mentioned that gambling tastes have probably changed, and people don’t want to put in the work it takes to handicap races when instead they can mindlessly scratch off instant lottery tickets or press the buttons on slot machines.
Nonetheless, given that a family of four could park free, or ride the railroad from the City directly to the track, pay a total of $12 for admission, have a nice picnic in the paddock area in the presence of majestic thoroughbreds and colorfully-clad jockeys, and bet as little or as much as they wanted to and could afford, it was difficult for us to understand how so few people could have decided that an afternoon at Belmont Park would not be a bad way to spend part of a beautiful spring weekend day.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if people show up at the track or not, as long as total handle is enough to sustain the game. People may find it easier and more convenient to bet and watch from remote locations, with the track serving as an entertainment production facility that happens to let people in to watch, like a TV show filmed before a live audience rather than a Broadway show. But that surely wasn’t the intent of those who, some 60 years ago, enlarged the facility to accommodate 100,000 fans.
Fortunately, the possibility of this year’s Belmont Stakes producing the first triple crown winner in several decades will guarantee a full house on June 9. However, if Belmont needs a healthy on track handle to survive, one big day cannot make up for too many days like yesterday, not to mention the even more sparsely attended weekdays and weekend days when the weather is inclement. Aside from inflating the purses (indiscriminately, it seems to me), I don’t see the VLT money that was long anticipated as the savior of horse racing being put to any good use to develop or sustain fan interest. As I’ve written before, I foresee a time in the not too distant future when the State will have had enough and will take the money back to use for other purposes.