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The Sport of Kings

April 29, 2010
by

I’m a horse racing fan. In fact, tomorrow I and my degenerate cohorts are heading south to Louisville, Kentucky to take in the races at Churchill Downs. I am incredibly excited. While I’ve been to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup several years ago, I have never attended the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby. So I am really looking forward to this trip.

All of that is prelude to my racing-related rant.

I was flipping through the Metro section of the Times on Sunday and hey, look, there is an article about OTB. Not only that, but they devoted a half-page of the paper to it. Sweet. Then I started reading it. The title was “The OTB Parlors, Limping Along.” Fine, OTB was never much of an operation, and it is on its last legs (and I do appreciate the use of the comma in the headline). Then I read the sub-headline: “They bring in $1 billion a year, but looking at these grim, puzzling dens, it can be hard to tell.”

Seriously? Grim and puzzling? Grim maybe, but what’s so puzzling?

The article was authored by Ariel Kaminer, in the “City Critic” column. In addition to the headlines, the article gave no real flavor about horse racing or why anyone was interested in it. Instead, it focused on the less-than-clean rooms run by the outfit (which is completely true) and the personal attributes of the patrons (“black baseball cap, several missing teeth,” “broke, in ill-health, separated from family”).

Now I don’t doubt the veracity of the author, nor do I doubt the details of these people’s lives. But what really got under my skin was that the article gave no flavor or feeling for why anyone might actually want to be in such a place or be interested in horse racing (or wagering for that matter) for any reason beyond grim desperation. To the extent the article even addressed actual handicapping and the sport itself, it was characterized as cryptic and indecipherable. I’m not big on letters, but here’s what I wrote to the author (by e-mail, being the modern dude that I am):

I have to say that your OTB article today was one of the most condescending pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve read a lot. The sub-headline calls the OTBs “grim and puzzling” yet it’s not entirely clear why they are any more puzzling than anything else you guys write about, including the Socrates Sculpture Park that is written about sunnily a couple of pages earlier, but which, when I went by it yesterday, I found pretty grim and puzzling. But in this case, you spend half a page of the Times describing horse racing as “impenetrable” and the depth of the analyses horseplayers have access to (whether they use them or not) as “a cuneiform phone book.” Despite the fact that you had a purported “expert” accompanying you, you apparently did nothing to try and figure any of it out, and you certainly didn’t explain any of it to the reader. It’s as if you had someone write an article for the metro section about baseball and talked about how odd it was that everyone was focused on this little round stitched ball, and there were these big screens that kept showing numbers carried to the third decimal place!

If you’re going to bother reporting on something, including reporting on the people who seem to be interested in and care about it, maybe you should spend a couple of minutes trying to figure out what is interesting about it and why people might care about it, beyond your preconceived notions of “the kind of people” who might frequent such places.

To her great credit, the next day Ms. Kaminer responded to my sort of snide message:

I’m sorry to hear you were so disappointed in the article. I wasn’t trying to explain horse racing, just the experience of hanging out in the parlors if you’re not already a part of that world. And from that perspective, it is pretty confusing. That racing program, for instance, includes no guide on how to read it. OTB clearly made the choice – its prerogative, to be sure – to design the OTB experience for those who already know their way around.

As for the headline, though, copy editors write those. As is always the case, I saw it only when you did – when the article was published.

That’s all well and good, and it was a nice response, but I don’t buy it. What makes horse racing interesting to many of its fans, including me, is the combination of detailed arcane detail and statistics, as reflected in the past performance pages of the Daily Racing Form, and the equine and human stories that those cold data reflect. The cool thing is figuring out what you think is going to happen in a given race, whether it’s based on what the horse has been doing, where he or she has been doing it, who the trainer is, what the name of the horse is, what surface or distance the race is being run on or at, what color the horse is, post position, the weather, and on and on. There are a million variables in a given horse race, and it is up to each of us bettors to decide what we think is going to happen. And then, whatever drove you to place that particular bet, the race happens, and you find out in a minute or two whether you were right or wrong. It’s exhilarating (and often disappointing), and it’s fun whether it’s $5000 claimers or the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And what pisses me off is that nobody tries to write about that. Everyone writes about how grim and depressing OTB parlors are, or how dilapidated many tracks are, or they write about people they find in those parlors or at those tracks who confirm their own preconceived stereotypes of the kind of people who would be found in such a place. Horse racing may be in decline for many and varied reasons, but I like it, and I appreciate it on many levels, and I think lots of other people do too. How about writing about that for a change?  

By the way, I feel compelled to note that while I did snarkily comment on Ms. Kaminer’s expert, Jessica Chapel (for which I apologize), I did some research (read: Google) and I found her very good and informative horse racing blog, which I heartily recommend.

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