Still sore over an unplaced bet (in spite of a hunch) in the BC Classic, I needed to blow off some steam. I wanted to see some races and make some bets. With the newly renovated and much hyped Bar & Book at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie only 30 minutes away, I decided to make the drive.
I pulled my truck into the near-empty lot and walked into the Pavilion. Once an aging, cavernous building that housed a wall of out-of-focus monitors and a fog of cigar smoke, the Global Gaming Solutions pet project was now a full blown Vegas-style spectacle. High-definition monitors as far as the eye could see, brand new betting terminals, a bar stocked with beer from all over the world and a dinner menu that would rival any sports bar in the metroplex. I didn’t even recognize the place.
I snagged a few programs and a copy of the Daily Racing Form and hunkered down at a cocktail table to go to work. I was there to bet on a few races, have a drink and call it a night.
"Hey, can I bum a light?" An old man in a pearl snap shirt and a pair of polyester slacks was looking up at me. He had to be pushing 80. A wrinkled faced hidden behind a pair of bifocals, a wisp of white hair combed over his head and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"I could’ve helped you five or six years ago," I told him. "But I gave that up when my son was born." I explained that the fancy new bar behind me was bound to have some matches or at least another smoker sitting at it. He nodded thanks and walked away.
Getting back to my programs, I found the next scheduled race and went through my analysis.
I traded money with the house in the first two races but I watched as the old man with the unlit cigarette cashed 2 back to back winning tickets. I couldn’t tell what kind of money he was making from my table but it was apparent he was making out okay. I stopped him as he walked by on his way back to his table.
"Sir, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" my journalistic curiosity got the better of me.
"What do you wanna know?" he asked.
I told him it looked like he knew what he was doing and asked him if what he thought of the fancy new renovation to the place. He made some small talk about how he only played exactas straight up and wasn’t big on weakening his dollar with a box "I know what I know!" he said multiple times. He claimed he liked the new building but wished they had added more restrooms instead of a "ridiculous" dance floor.
Then he said something that caught my attention.
"I don’t see many young bloods like you out here anymore!"
I’m 30 years old. Hardly young when you consider the legal age to make a bet at most tracks is 18. I looked around the room and realized how right he was. Nothing but men in their 50’s and 60’s.
I asked him why he thought that was.
"You know, this thing used to be called the sport of kings, now it’s just another form of entertainment. Most kids your age are more interested in football or the internet."
Pressing my luck, I asked him what he thought the sport could do to attract a younger demographic and keep itself relevant.
"Horse racing needs a savior, plain and simple," he said. "I’m talking about a great horse, another Secretariat or Affirmed. That’s what will shake this thing up. People keep talking about the small purses or the (lack of a tv presence)... but these are things that would change if some great horses would show up. And! if they would let the damn good one’s run past 3 years old!"
He asked me once again if I had a light. I reminded him that I didn’t but the bartender could help. He nodded and walked away.
Was it really that simple? I wondered if it was.
Baseball and Horse Racing used to be 1A and 1B in America. Now Baseball is a distant third to the NFL and the NBA with Horse Racing so far off the radar most people aren't even aware of its existence save for the first Saturday in May when NBC and the jet set show up for some face time and pretend to be interested for a few hours. Gambling revenue is down, small tracks produce even smaller fields with minuscule purses. Is the sport watering itself down? Has Horse Racing become irrelevant?
But then my mind drifted to that grainy film footage that I had watched so many times; the 1973 Belmont Stakes. And I remembered the feeling that I got, and still get, every time I revisit those images as Secretariat romps down the stretch, striding farther and farther away, all alone, with track announcer Chic Anderson shouting "and Secretariat is blazing along the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09... Secretariat is widening now... He is moving like a TREMENDOUS MACHINE!"
The world's greatest golfer, Jack Nicklaus, was said to have wept in his living room while watching Secretariat stride for the wire. Poetry in motion, perfection personified. Nicklaus wasn't the only one to be moved to tears.
I realized my heart was pumping a little faster. And I understood that it was possible. If another Secretariat could emerge, it could once again capture the imagination of a generation. We are a people who are drawn to stories of greatness.
There is no doubt, the sport needs a face-lift, but it needs a Poster-boy to breath life into it first. It has been over 30 years since a Triple Crown winner has emerged. Horse racing needs a savior. A truly magnificent horse who transcends the sport, one that will once again inspire a generation. And if one can emerge, the cameras and the people will come... and their money will surely follow.