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It’s Kentucky Derby Day, but What About the Rest of Horse Racing?

Fans cling to the Kentucky Derby as a beacon of hope. Dan Packel on the Sport of Kings’s fading glory.

David J. Phillip / AP Photo

When Barbaro cruised to a decisive 6½-length victory at the 2006 Kentucky Derby, I was cheering from what the Louisville Courier-Journal referred to in the next day’s paper as the worst seats at Churchill Downs.

Section 128 was the farthest from the finish line in the temporary bleachers erected every year for the Derby. Our seats afforded a fine view of the 20 3-year-olds breaking from the starting gate. But until Barbaro passed by once again as he accelerated down the stretch—1:45 seconds later—I could only monitor the race on a distant video screen.

Still, at least I had a seat. Every year, the Kentucky Derby is easily the most attended horse race in the U.S. Reliably drawing more than 150,000 spectators, the race is one of America’s biggest public events. Much of this crowd winds up in the track’s infield, a general-admission free-for-all offering plenty of opportunities to pound mint juleps and light beer, but allowing severely limited live viewing options. Scoring even the least desirable reserved tickets in the house involved a considerable chain of favor-asking initiated by my future in-laws, and an equally considerable outlay of cash.

On other days, at other venues, it’s easier to find a vantage point to watch the races. Every day, at tracks scattered throughout the country, thoroughbreds run counterclockwise around an oval, just like they do in the Derby. It happened about 45,000 times in 2011. There’s money to be made at the betting windows, too. The volume of action might be significantly higher on Derby day (with something north of $100 million changing hands), but on a random weekday afternoon at Hawthorne Park in Chicago or Sunland Park in New Mexico, gamblers try to out-handicap each other through parimutuel betting—again, just like the Derby.

But seemingly nobody’s doing it. Take a winter afternoon at Aqueduct Park in Queens several months ago, just a mile from JFK airport. While the creaky old grandstand had been halved in size by the recent addition of a slots parlor, there was ample space both outside in the chill and inside, underneath the television monitors. Not a single fancy hat on display; just a sparse, aging, predominantly male crowd, clutching at programs and tip sheets, shifting from mutters to yells and back as races started, crested, and ended.

Or even on a sunny April Saturday, back at Aqueduct, for the Wood Memorial, one of the key prep races ahead of the Derby. Attendance was free, and there was no trouble staking out a spot with direct views of the finish line. Here, a crowd listed at 12,514 watched a promising 3-year-old named Gemologist secure a position in the starting gate at Churchill Downs for today by virtue of his victory in the $1 million race. If the horse—the third choice on Wednesday’s morning line at 6-1—continues his unbeaten streak this afternoon, the roar from the crowd he’ll receive when trotting back past the swollen grandstand to the winner’s circle will obliterate the smattering of applause he earned last month from the Aqueduct faithful.

The fate of the Wood provides a useful entry in the growing gulf between the Derby (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Triple Crown races) and the rest of the sport—from other prestige events to the humdrum routine. While the Wood never held the pageantry associated with Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, the race routinely drew more than 50,000 spectators to the track in the 1960s (PDF). In the same period, Derby attendance has not just remained steady, but increased: with the exception of Secretariat’s highly anticipated run in 1974, attendance at the Derby throughout the ’70s was reliably lower than during the most recent decade.

Attendance figures aside, only the most Pollyannaish defenders of the sport would dispute the facts of racing’s steady decline. Even a flashy late-1990s ad campaign, featuring the slogan “Go, Baby, Go”—aiming to present racing as “hip, cool, slightly naughty”—failed to halt the decline. Blame the rise of casinos, state lotteries, and other legally sanctioned forms of gambling. The 34 years without a Triple Crown winner to generate badly needed positive buzz hasn’t helped. And there’s rising, well-justified concerns over the fates of the magnificent, fragile animals that we push toward victory, and far too often, past it. Overreliance on drugs, irresponsible breeding practices, shoddy regulation, and indefensible cravenness on the part of too many owners all have combined to invite shocking breakdowns. This callous treatment of the lifeblood of the sport is indefensible, and especially damning in an era when the public is increasingly attuned to animal welfare.

Yet the Kentucky Derby remains immune. Even the tragic collapse of filly Eight Belles immediately after crossing the finish line second in 2008’s Derby did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm for the 2009 race.

Lovers of the sport cling to the Derby as a beacon of hope, the crowds and coverage hinting that maybe the magic of the day could be re-created elsewhere. But credit an accumulated patina of glamour, now burnished with petrodollars, that allows the race to draw sustenance from one indisputably thriving American industry: celebrity culture. This year, expect names like Ashton Kutcher, T.I., and Mary J. Blige, along with a coterie of B-listers and reality-TV stars, some of whose names I had to look up to discover their “accomplishments” (Tinsley Mortimer, Josh Dallas) and others (Guy Fieri) that are simply overexposed.

They’ll romp for NBC’s cameras in front of the Twin Spires while the hordes of fashionably attired, well-lubricated fans provide a colorful backdrop. Meanwhile, the serious gamblers in the ranks (and there will be many) will delight in the undercard, a slate of races that, thanks to the purses and quality of entrants, would be the envy of any other track official around the land.

Not that other tracks don’t benefit. My Twitter feed bubbles year-round with updates from Track Pack PA—part of a marketing effort aimed at branding local tracks as glamorous destinations where a young crowd can unwind. I’m skeptical about the overall results, but local attendance certainly spikes today, with casual fans coming in to make bets on the Derby and often sticking around to watch some live racing before the big race shows on the monitors.

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It’s a fun way to spend the afternoon, with shorter lines to load up on overpriced mint juleps and commemorative T-shirts on sale. But the entrance, through what’s now a casino, provides an unsubtle reminder that racing is now second fiddle.

Only after 6 p.m. today at Churchill Downs, when the call to the post sounds and the camera lands solely on the horses, will racing momentarily capture its historic grandeur. And one can see it and feel it, even from the worst seats in the house.