Horse racing is a game of contemplation.
The breeder sits at the table for hours studying pedigrees and how they comingle to find the best mate for his mare. The buyer examines the pages of the sale book and notes from physical inspections before raising his hand to bid. The bettor looks over the program to make the most profitable selection at the racetrack.
Even among the static of outside distractions – a bustling crowd, an auctioneer, inclement weather - there is a certain serenity to the studiousness of horse racing. One might even call it zen-like.
An ever-growing sentiment among the movers and shakers of the horse racing industry is the concern over empty space in their facilities. They bemoan the sections of empty grandstands or an apron spotted with racegoers as a sign of dwindling attendance, and they are not wrong. Many of these tracks were built to hold a certain capacity crowd that many years ago would have jumped at the chance to cram into those bleacher seats, but no longer do.
The answer some are coming back with to combat this problem is to shrink, by building smaller grandstands or otherwise funneling the existing patrons into smaller areas until it gives the appearance of a crowd. It is easier to advertise a track as a happening place with a party atmosphere if it looks like there are actually people there to party with.
I understand this sentiment, but if the idea is widely adopted, it could jeopardize one of the one of the greatest perks horse racing has over other professional sports – the ability to be left alone.
This is not to say that every track should become a ghost town – far from it. Without people to watch the races, the sport dies. But what sets horse racing apart from its contemporaries is that it can be enjoyed on an entirely different level when the world around you is quiet.
We’ve all been there. A faraway place on the rail on a nondescript weekday card where the closest human being is the fellow driving the water truck on the track. This is a special place. One where an attentive racegoer can focus and listen.
This is where you hear the starter repeatedly remind the riders in the gate that they have to go twice around in a two-mile race. This is where you hear the rumble of hooves hitting dirt or slapping mud and universal language of a rider urging his or her mount into the final furlong.
This is where you hear those same riders give their excuses and advice to trainers following the race amidst the rush of air entering and exiting their taxed mount’s lungs, while you keep a small mental note for when the horse shows up again. NBC spends thousands of dollars wiring the races for sound during their telecasts, when the right spot on the rail on the right day can get it all for the price of admission.
Perhaps most importantly, this is where you can be left alone with your thoughts – Look through the program uninterrupted, get a feel for how a horse looks on the track beyond the few seconds they’re displayed on the simulcast feed, look up at what is probably a massive structure behind you, soak in whatever nature has given you that day, and perhaps imagine they’re holding the races just for you. That’s about as close to a state of zen as it gets in this game.
Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of small tracks. I love Keeneland, but the opportunity to achieve that level of connection with what’s happening on the track is nearly impossible amidst the throng of 10,000 to 20,000 other fans on the apron – most of them drunk, some of them disrespectful. Even as someone with a media credential to go just about wherever I want, I still find the saturated crowds intimidating at times. Zen can be found, but it’s a long, hard journey to find it.
There is no Nirvana to found on Kentucky Derby day, where the crowd is bigger, louder, drunker, and meaner; and you couldn’t throw a Frisbee and hit the closest horse. A small part of me almost pities the ones who use this race as a starting point in the sport, especially if their first racing experience is attending it live, because what happens on the dirt between the rails is in such disconnect with everything that surrounds it.
Ironically, that same venue can be a wellspring of that solitary enlightenment most any other day of a live meet. Sitting at the clubhouse turn of Churchill Downs’ cavernous grandstand just about any other day of the year outside of Derby weekend, one can hear the hooves and the whips and the jockeys chattering at each other as they head back to unsaddle. Where there was once chaos, there is then peace. It’s pretty cool.
Racing needs a crowd, and there’s no debating that. But there needs to be room, too, for the introvert. Crowds can be fickle, and will move on to the next shiny object that catches its eye without warning. When that happens, those seeking racetrack enlightenment will be the ones still on the rail, focusing, studying, experiencing in the peace and quiet where they do their best work.