It's another brilliant Southern California day at Santa Anita Park, the San Gabriel Mountains appearing almost close enough to touch. \nThe grass is a vibrant green, the sky azure, palms sway. The track nearly sparkles. Save for the large video screen near the finish line, since 1934 it's felt unchanged by time. \nIt is truly one of the most exquisite sporting sites in the world and it takes little imagination to visualize the stands packed with men in their fedoras, screaming as Seabiscuit drives home another victory. \nOnly in another hour, the gates will open at Santa Anita and fewer than 7,500 people will drift through the turnstiles. \nLess than a year after the movie "Seabiscuit" was heralded as a love note to the sport and a hopeful impetus to return fans to tracks, attendance continues at a dismal pace. \n"Somewhere along the line we've lost people," trainer Dick Mandella said. \n"I wish I knew the answers. It's something that eats at me all the time. You come out here and look at this beautiful park and the beautiful horses that run here, the great racing ... and then you go over to the mall and it's full of people. I don't know how that works." \nHorse racing continues to diminish from the national sports conscious. It's a deep slide that's been going on for almost 15 years now. Where 60 years ago it was one of the country's three major sports -- along with baseball and boxing -- it has now slid deeply to the inside pages of sports sections. \nToday is the 67th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. A race that confirmed the legends of Seabiscuit, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, John Henry and others. That drew more than 83,000 in 1947 and a record 85,529 as recently as 1985. That once almost defined the sport. \n"Going back to the late '30s, the Santa Anita Handicap was the biggest race in the country," said trainer Lenard Dorfman, 81. "A US$100,000 purse was just out of sight in those days. \n"The papers would be full of stories a week before the race. Now it's just like another race." \nLast year's on-track attendance at the Santa Anita Handicap was 25,803. The movie "Seabiscuit" came out early last summer and offered an immediate pump in attendance at Del Mar, but otherwise race attendance has continued at near all-time lows. \nThe off-track and home betting that has left the handle at record levels and the sport healthy, also has kept many regulars away from the track. \n"The uninitiated observer might look at grand stands emptier than they're used to, but that belies the fact that more money is being bet than ever," said Eric Wing, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Association. \n"The challenge to the industry is to pump up those live attendance figures and get them moving in the same direction as the handle." \nThere is a legitimate fear that the sport is no longer being handed down from one generation to another. Fewer grow up around horses as they once did. "Seabiscuit" aside, the movies no longer romanticize the sport. Most sports writers seldom cover the sport. Fewer books sing its praises. \nThere should be legitimate concern that it is only a matter of time before the lack of those actually at the track, helping others to learn and appreciate the sport, shrinks its audience and begins to hurt racing financially. \nIn 1947 Santa Anita averaged more than 35,000 daily fans. Horse racing was an event. Last year it averaged a record-low 8,842 (19,798 with off-track). This year it is at approximately the same level. \n"Everyone in the industry is concerned about the downward trend in attendance," Mandella said. "We're all hoping that anything will spark things up and bring them back. \n"I think it's a natural cannibalism. You open home betting, off-track betting, people are going to go with convenience, particularly here in LA where you can't get very far very fast." \nThere is also the additional gambling competition available at card clubs and Indian casinos. There is constant competition for the entertainment dollar, particularly in the Los Angeles area. \nNew fans have become difficult to come by. Horse racing is unlike other sports and can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with its structure, both in the racing and betting. \nChris McCarron is Santa Anita's third all-time leading jockey. He appeared in and was a technical adviser to "Seabiscuit." Now he might have a greater challenge, however, as Santa Anita's general manager, one of those responsible for developing a relationship with those unacquainted with the sport. \n"This industry has failed miserably at trying to encourage people to enjoy the social aspect of horse racing," McCarron said. "To enjoy a beautiful afternoon gazing out at the San Gabriel Mountains and watching a bunch of incredibly talented athletes run by every 30 minutes." \nMcCarron said contributing to the decline in California is the state's demanding workman's compensation program, driving many owners and trainers out of state. Fewer horses mean smaller fields in races and less interest to bettors. \nYet it is that other eroding segment of its fan base that racing might be most concerned with. Not simply the fan who enjoys the gambling element, but the one who appreciates the magnificent horses, the courageous jockeys, the unique competition. \nHorse racing's vanishing fan. \nBettors make the sport's engine run, but it's those who love the sport, who sense a magic where others only see odds, that are at its weakening heart. \n"Sitting at home, it's just gambling and money," Mandella said. "And that's OK, that's part of the sport and people love it. But there's more to this game, and a lot of people don't understand it. \n"You can't appreciate horses until you walk up to that paddock and watch them walk by closely and really get a feeling of what they're about. Look at their shape, the muscle tone and the coats they have. You don't have to know a lot about them to do that."Mandella looked over his shoulder and admired the track. \n"You take out these 300-acre parks in the middle of cities and what would replace them?" he asked. "More houses and more industry. \n"This is the last grasp of horses and men working together, competing together in sport and play. That's how the world started. This is kinda the last hold of that, and it ain't bad."
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