What’s Behind the Decline in Horse Racing’s Popularity?
In 1985, four percent of Americans named horse racing as their favorite sport; in rank it was in 8th place overall that year.
Fast forward over 30 years. A Harris poll in January of 2016 found that only one percent of Americans claimed horse racing as their sport of choice. It ranked just behind swimming and track and field as the 13th most popular sport.
According to the Jockey Club, horse racing’s breed registry, the U.S. handle (the total amount of money wagered on races) hit its high in 2003 at $15.2 billion. In 2015, that figure had plummeted to $10.6 billion.
A PR problem
Many people have wondered what is behind the waning interest in one of America’s oldest and greatest sports. There are likely several reasons why—ones that may never be fully recognized or understood.
As we’ll see, many of the problems facing horse racing appear to have their roots in the sport’s battle with maintaining a wholesome image. Consequently, for some, Thoroughbred racing does not shine as brightly as in decades past. Its light is dimmer, slightly tarnished from bad publicity over the years.
For now, let’s focus on one likely cause of decreased interest—the problem of doping that is so common in racing today.
The straight dope on doping
One of the biggest image problems North American horse racing has faced in recent years has been related to doping, or administering tightly-restricted medications to horses to enhance performance.
The practice of doping racehorses actually goes back thousands of years. However, it was around the turn of the century when horse owners and trainers began to realize the competitive advantage that certain drugs give horses.
In the late 1800’s cocaine and morphine were the drugs of choice to give equines. Cocaine stimulated the horse and gave him more energy to run harder, while morphine dulled the pain from any lingering injuries or disabilities.
Over the years, the types of drugs used for doping have evolved. By the late 1940’s, amphetamine-type drugs were used widely as stimulants to boost performance. Later on, local anesthetics to numb pain followed. In the years to come, anti-inflammatory drugs and anabolic steroids gained popularity as their performance benefits became evident.
Questionable use of medication
Nearly every racehorse in North America is on some kind of medication—it’s the nature of the business. Just as medication is used in humans to compensate for injury or illness, the same is true in horses.
However, it’s the kinds of medication, and the amounts of them, that has come into public scrutiny in recent years. Plus the fact that many of the drugs used in North American horses are banned in other parts of the world.
The idea that money and fame drives the practice of doping lingers in the minds of many people who might otherwise be horse racing fans. Some of the glory of the “Sport of Kings” has faded with the increasing popularity of the idea that a favorite horse might only win because of performance-enhancing drugs.
But more than just a public relations problem, doping has catastrophic effects on the horses themselves.
Under the effects of drugs to enhance speed, build muscle, or mask pain, horses often break down when pushed beyond their normal limits while training or racing.
Too often the public has witnessed these breakdowns. Horse racing’s image is tarnished a bit more whenever people see a strong, majestic Thoroughbred injured and suffering.
When the breakdown is broadcast on live TV, the effect is even more dramatic. Think Ruffian in 1975, or more recently, Barbaro in 2006 and Eight Belles in 2008.
Brighter days ahead?
Despite the doping issue and other problems found in horse racing, things may be looking up for the industry. The overall U.S. handle increased in 2016 and so far again in 2017.
The rise in handle numbers comes despite fewer race days and fewer races, caused by foal crops hitting a low in 2014. A lean foal crop has meant fewer horses to race until later crops mature.
Not everyone is down on horse racing, however. American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert believes the industry is will be fine. “The sky is not falling…I don’t see a problem…We just need more stars.”
Let’s hope he’s right.