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The Sport of Kings Is Dying. Long Live the Belmont Stakes!

The slow decline of horse racing from a racetrack veteran's perspective

Horse racing lives in a perpetual state of decline. Half a century ago, the Sport of Kings had a firm place in mainstream American culture; today, that place is a window of approximately five weeks, from the opening bell of the Kentucky Derby in May to the final stretch of the Belmont Stakes in June. These are first and last legs of the Triple Crown—the Preakness, which is run at Pimlico, outside Baltimore, falls halfway between them. The trifecta of races for three-year-old thoroughbreds is horse racing’s annual moment: its Super Bowl, with big floppy hats. Winning the Triple Crown means winning all three races, something no horse has done since the mid-’70s, when Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and then Affirmed (1978) swept the field.

For racing enthusiasts and those who work in the industry, there are plenty of other important stakes races—the big contests, where horses owners pay fees to enter the race, and the resulting purse is much higher than average. The Breeder’s Cup, two days of racing that move from track to track each October, is arguably the biggest. But for the general public, horse racing starts and ends at the Triple Crown, especially its first leg. This year’s Derby pulled in the highest ratings in two decades, with close to 18 million viewers tuning in to two minutes of racing (and hours of NBC’s goofy filler coverage). And since this year’s Derby winner, American Pharoah (yes, that’s how his name is spelled), went on to pull off a Preakness victory, all eyes now turn to Belmont.

I’ve worked in the horse racing industry as a pari-mutuel clerk—a person who takes and cashes bets—since 2003. My home track is the Saratoga Race Course, in upstate New York, but I’ve also worked every Belmont Stakes for the past decade, and this Saturday will be my eleventh trip out to Jamaica, Queens. (The track is on Long Island, just over the Nassau County line.) Our name comes from the pari-mutuel wagering system, in which the track sets odds and bettors put their money up against the collective pool, rather than against individual bookmakers.

It’s a job that’s part cashier, part casino dealer, part bank teller, part bartender—the species of sympathetic bartender, anyway, who lets you unload your problems while you try to figure out what to order. (In this case, how much to put on the double, or which horse to box with the seven and the three.) There’s that lingo, too—dollar amount, type of bet, and horse number, made complex by combinations and shorthand. It doesn’t have to be complicated: If you don’t need human touch when you place your bets, the process is so straightforward that a machine can do it—which, increasingly, they are. 

The perspective from the other side of the betting windows can be a strange one. I’ve written before that at Saratoga, I’ve gone days without seeing a horse in person. The same could probably be said for a lot of my regular customers. Taking bets gives you a view of racing that has very little to do with horses and a lot to do with the people who like to bet on them. And in my decade taking bets, I’ve seen the crowds shift in ways that are backed by the numbers: I read about plummeting attendance figures and corresponding track handles (the amount of money bet in a given day), but I can actually see the crowds thinning, and I punch out fewer tickets each year. In some bays—our term for a block of betting windows—an average weekday can feel like a ghost town.

From where I’m sitting, interest in big days appears to be inversely proportional to interest in the every day: On a million-dollar stakes day, the racetrack comes alive. Going to the track was once habitual, a quiet afternoon with the Racing Form and a few buddies; now it’s mostly an event destination, a couple of big days a year to go wild, and the tracks are responding in kind. There’s a growing trend of what’s known as “big event” racing, where major stakes races are packed into a single card rather than spread across a few days, as they’ve been in the past. 

Event days barely seem to be about horses anymore: They’re packed with extras, like concerts and contests, not to mention easy access to extraordinary amounts of alcohol. Three years ago, I worked the Preakness Stakes infield, the area inside the track, and most people I interacted with that day neither knew nor cared that horses were circling us every half hour. With “unlimited refill” plastic beer steins around their necks, I saw a good number of people passed out on the grass by 11 a.m. (Maroon 5 was the headliner, playing directly in front of my window, which added insult to injury.)

When there’s no hopeful in the running, the Belmont can feel like an afterthought; men get really misty-eyed with me talking about what might have been, a very popular theme at the betting windows. But when there’s a chance at the Triple Crown, the track is swamped.

Last year, when California Chrome tried and failed to complete his Triple Crown bid, Belmont Park saw a record crowd of more than 100,000. We dealt with an increasingly drunken and belligerent crowd, who only got more belligerent when California Chrome failed to even come “in the money”—first, second, or third.

There was chaos at the Long Island Railroad gates, where twice as many people as they’d accounted for tried ride back to Manhattan. (A transportation expert assessing what went wrong had my favorite line of the day: “The Long Island Rail Road wasn’t prepared for a bunch of losers on the train.”) The angry crowds that day were surely at the heart of Belmont’s recent decision to cap admission lower this year, at 90,000 people—facilities wholly underutilized every other racing day of the year can’t handle another oversized crowd.

I started working at the track by chance—twelve summers ago, I was just looking for a job—but I’ve grown fiercely protective of it over the years. So it’s hard, to watch this sport descend into these extremes. There are certainly tons of people who still love it, who come every weekend, who follow it faithfully—but their numbers are dwindling. The crowd looks different every year. I work with people who have three or four decades’ experience to my one, and I can’t imagine what things today look like to them. Older men love to tell me about the way things used to be, frowning as they glance out across empty grandstands. Racing has always been steeped in nostalgia, whether that’s preserving “traditions”—those big floppy hats, or all the cigars and mobster suits—or wishing it were still 1958. But as the years pass I find myself looking backwards, too. There’s nothing pleasant about taking bets during a big event, shouldering abuse from drunk people who don’t seem to care. But sitting on an average afternoon waiting for someone to place a $2 exacta bet can be just as disheartening.

Modern racing is a troubled sport, plagued by animal abuses and a lack of uniform regulation. Money is in breeding, and the health of the animals has suffered in recent decades; in turn, so has the health of the sport. So maybe it’s no wonder that the crowds have dried up, that people will come to Belmont this weekend to place a bet on the Triple Crown and to watch the accompanying Goo Goo Dolls concert (someone is continually punishing me here). And once they get on the LIRR—if they can even get on the LIRR—they won’t think much about horse racing for another year. Maybe horse racing needs to be better to attract the sustained interest it once held.

Or maybe this is the future: highs and lows, two enormous minutes, three times a year.