Why horse racing can appeal to a younger crowd and overcome its ugly past

Let’s be clear.  I wasn’t planning on liking horse racing.

I spent the first four weeks of the shutdown in a hazy search for sports, looking for signs of it everywhere — in old NBA classics, Madden simulations, the car chases on TV from which I couldn’t unglue myself. 

Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, I made the three-hour trek to Calgary Stampede parties multiple summers in a row without ever giving a single thought to buying tickets to the rodeo. Horse racing was even less than an afterthought. 

Even though I thought it would be tedious, maybe a little charming but ultimately not for me, I was ready to play the ponies. It’s the kind of thing you do early in a relationship, when you’re still pretending to be open to new experiences.

And then a dozen beautiful horses leaped from the gates, and I was entranced. 

I was shocked by how entranced I was.

I felt nervous, a little somber in the face of the magnitude of sheer vitality.

Watching my first race was like grazing the edges of an ancient stone, feeling its power, its ancestry, that sense of entering into an ancient lineage. 

Humans have watched horses race since 4500 B.C., when they were first domesticated by nomadic tribesmen in Central Asia. Horse racing is as old as spectator sports, part of the ancient Greek Olympics. The sight of a horse on the run is life-giving, inspiring. It sets off something carnal. The way they tried to best each other, stride by stride, made me want to run. “Horses,” as the late William Nack put it, “have a way of getting inside you.”

In a single frame, a good race can chart multiple arcs: the frontrunner, the disappointment, the underdog. Who holds its stride when a competitor is on its heels? Who gets in whom’s head and falls apart? Who finds out its extra gear has an extra gear? No matter who you are, there’s a horse for you.

It’s what I was missing. Not a substitute. The real thing: the commotion, pain, joy, drama and energy of sports that can be purified and concentrated into a 60-second flash — or triple the length of a TikTok. 

And there’s always more to watch. But despite being tailor-made for a generation that needs a break to check its phone every 90 seconds, horse racing’s average audience is aging, a fact “Big Horse” is onto and would like to change. That’s part of the reason why the 152nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday is an opportunity to capture an audience that won’t be distracted by other American sports. 

Belmont Stakes favorite Tiz The Law runs with jockey Manny Franco during morning training last Sunday in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

There are a number of reasons for horse racing’s decline in popularity: changes in gambling culture, demographics, race, Netflix, marketing, technology, attitudes toward animal cruelty — although I’m not sure how much that applies to an audience that tunes in every Sunday to watch men mash their heads against each other. The one thing I’m convinced of: It isn’t a failure of the product itself. The races are invigorating. 

Just under two-thirds of gamblers place bets on mobile phones now, but in general, the betting and viewing infrastructure has been slow to catch up to consumer habits. Why aren’t there hundreds of live streams on Twitch? To boot, millennials are less drawn to gambling than their older counterparts. For the bettors who remain, Las Vegas offers more options to burn money than ever, and other North American sports are starting to get in on the action, too. 

But does horse racing even need to hitch itself to gambling? Sure, the races are suited for it. They’re so short you can convince yourself you’re always in it. If your horse is quick out of the gate, you’re already ahead — and probably anxious. If it’s slow, it’s just conserving energy for the final stretch. If it’s lagging behind, at least it’s on the outside of the track, with an open path ahead. If it’s stuck on the inside, well, a lane’s just about to open up. Hope never dies. You can believe right until the end, and sometimes you’re rewarded with the best feeling of all, the most addictive property of the sports bug: the comeback. You can chase that feeling all day.

But even when you lose, it doesn’t hurt the way a bad run-out does in poker. Because horse racing is a real sport. There’s intrinsic pleasure in watching it. It should position itself closer to the NFL: Gambling lubricates the experience, but isn’t dependent on it. An audience with increasingly little disposable income might need that message.

Gambling, in fact, was only introduced to the sport in the 1600s, when the English got in on the game, which is where most modern horse racing narratives start. The Derby was named after a man named Derby, and so forth. 

American horse racing is steeped in its own history, obsessed with lineage. Racing fans know who sired whom, the farms where famous horses were bred, the names of the people who owned them. It’s almost endemic.

But the more I read about the mainstream narrative of horse racing, the more disconnected I felt from the races, and it occurred to me why, despite spending my life in the periphery of horseracing, it took a pandemic and a white boyfriend for this 26-year-old Canadian woman of Indian descent to finally tune in: modern horse racing isn’t designed to appeal to me. 

The heroes in American horse racing culture are almost always white. That’s on purpose. Thirteen of the 15 jockeys in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, including the winner, Oliver Lewis were Black. In the early 1900s, Jim Crow laws conspired with racist attitudes within the horse racing ranks to push Black jockeys out. Between 1922 and 1999, no Black men rode in the Kentucky Derby. Black people are slowly filtering back in, but you can only find their contributions to history if you suss them out. 

These days, most jockeys are Hispanic, while most horse owners are white. In 2014, a Mexican American horse trainer filed discrimination lawsuits against a white track owner with a history of making racist comments. There’s the “Indian Charlie” newsletter, about which Ada Limon, a poet of Mexican American descent who grew up loving horse racing in Kentucky, wrote: “You want to talk about bringing more young people into the sport? Well, how about we don’t let ugly, racist newsletters with twisted, harmful content into our paddocks and racetracks.” 

Young equestrians are now questioning the horse racing world’s lack of response to George Floyd’s homicide and the ensuing protests against police brutality, challenging the sport they love to tackle diversity problems and its deep-seated white privilege.

The horse racing community should welcome a reckoning with race. It’s the right thing to do, and it would benefit the sport in the long run, universalizing an image that’s seen largely as Southern, white and old, tied inexorably to gambling. 

Horse racing can and probably always will represent those things, but there is so much more to it. American history is short, far shorter than the ancient, primal history of horse racing, which enraptured audiences from Athens to Italy to Hong Kong to Japan to India and beyond. 

If you’ve never watched horse racing, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes would be a good start. But there are races everywhere, all the time. Check one out. Watch the way the horses move. It’s for you.

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