Can Big Brown Save Horse Racing?

Millions of television viewers are expected to tune in Saturday to watch Big Brown attempt to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978.

Another 100,000 or more will be at New York's Belmont Park watching the race in person.

It will be a day with numerous big — and small — bets. It might turn out to be a historic day in horseracing. The one thing it won't be is a typical day at the track.

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The New York Racing Association estimates more than 100,000 fans will show up for the race. Smarty Jones in 2004 was the last horse to try for the Triple Crown, and nearly 120,000 people packed the track's grandstand.

Compare that to Wednesday, when a measly 2,000 people came out to the track.

Big-name events such as the Belmont Stakes bring out fans and their money. But during the rest of the year, fewer people are showing up at the track.

Back in 1990, there were 73,000 thoroughbred races across the country, according to the Jockey Club, an industry trade group. Last year, the number of races had plunged to 51,000.

But that doesn't mean that the industry is losing money. In fact, more money is being wagered now than in the past. In 1990, $9.4 billion was wagered on races. Today that stands at nearly $15 billion.

So why the disconnect? More and more gamblers are placing their bets over the phone, Internet or from off-track facilities. So on any given day, there might only be, say, 500 people in a grandstand built for 10,000 but hundreds — if not thousands — will be betting on that race from around the country.

"It is killing the live-track, on-track experience, which some might say is killing the industry because maybe one day races will be run in front of no people. But at the same time, you have a lot of money coming in and the convenience of it may be bringing in more money," said Tom Law, managing editor of the Thoroughbred Times, a weekly trade publication.

Out of the nearly $15 billion wagered last year, only $1.7 billion in bets were placed at the track where the race was occurring, according to the Jockey Club.

"A lot more people don't go to the races anymore," Law said.

Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said that "overall, because of the year-round nature of the sport, attendance is waning on your average days."

Gamblers today have a lot more choices than they did just a few years back. States have allowed more casinos within their borders. Native American casinos also have popped up, and slot machines now are at horse and greyhound tracks in several states.

But Chamblin doesn't attribute it to the competition, which he says has outpaced the growth of racing. He said it is being driven by "the fact that people are looking for more convenience in life including the way they participate in horseracing." The fastest-growing way to wager is over the Internet.

The slot machines have done one thing, however: increased the prize going to the horse owners. In the states that have slot machines at racetracks, typically a cut of those winnings goes toward the prize pot. And in many cases it can greatly increase the pot.

Christine A. Dorchak heads the group Grey2K USA, which advocates for the end of greyhound racing, saying it is cruel to the dogs. While she doesn't study thoroughbred horseracing, she said that in the greyhound world the slots have made a big difference.

"Slot machines are the life-support that dying racetracks are clinging to," Dorchak said. "Tracks that receive permission to offer slot-machine gambling stay open. Those that are refused close down."

Tim Capps, a former racing executive who's now an equine industry expert at the University of Louisville, said the big-name events help keep some tracks in business. While daily attendance might be down, more and more people are watching and betting on the stakes races.

"Today, there's more interest in the Triple Crown than there's ever been," Capps said. "But the everyday races have seen a diminution in terms of on-track attendance, if for no better reason than we made it easier for people to do something else or bet on something else."

There is also the issue of instant satisfaction. With horseracing, there is a long wait in between races, roughly 15 minutes or so. Gamblers sitting in front of a slot machine can place a new bet every few seconds instead.

"You are in a much, much more competitive world today than you were in 10 years ago, 20, 30, 40, 50 [years ago]," Crapps said, "because of television and the emergence of the electronic era of entertainment in general."