Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Horse-racing attendance has been left in the dust

By Steve Dilbeck  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ARCADIA, CALIFORNIA

It's another brilliant Southern California day at Santa Anita Park, the San Gabriel Mountains appearing almost close enough to touch.

The 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.

It 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.

Only in another hour, the gates will open at Santa Anita and fewer than 7,500 people will drift through the turnstiles.

Less 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.

"Somewhere along the line we've lost people," trainer Dick Mandella said.

"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."

Horse 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.

Today 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.

"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.

"The papers would be full of stories a week before the race. Now it's just like another race."

Last 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.

The 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.

"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.

"The challenge to the industry is to pump up those live attendance figures and get them moving in the same direction as the handle."

There 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.

There 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.

In 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.

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