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Editorial - Horse tracks off track

January 06, 1998

Editorial - Horse tracks off track

Facing a governor hostile to slot machines at race tracks, Maryland's horse racing industry is investigating the possibility of raising revenues by putting their product on cable TV and letting viewers bet by pushing buttons on their remotes. It's an idea so bad that it's tough to know which aspect to attack first.

Let's start with the problem of addictive gambling. The virtue (if that's what it can be called) of the present horse-track format is that, unlike a casino, you can only bet during the day's program. After eight or nine races, even the most compulsive gambler is forced to go home and contemplate the day's losses. The proposed Television Games Network would provide four to six live races every hour.

The idea is also flawed because it doesn't address horse racing's real problem, which is that is hasn't updated its image or marketing strategy since the 1920s. Consider what's happened in NASCAR auto racing in the same time period. Through tie-in marketing with a variety of other products, including unlikely items like cereals and household cleansers, a whole new group of stars has been created, stars the fans root for week by week. But we doubt if the same fans who keep track of Winston Cup point totals could name any of the horses who contended in last year's Triple Crown races.

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What the tracks should be doing is promoting contests for rider or stable of the year, to give the fans something (and someone) to identify with. In a country obsessed with pets and animals in general, it shouldn't be impossible to get people to root for a horse or two.

Nor would it be a bad idea for the horse industry to spend some time explaining the concept of handicapping to patrons, who might find the mental exercise of trying to determine a horse's future success based on its past performance more stimulating than pulling a slot-machine handle.

In sum, horse racing doesn't need a TV cable channel that will hurt those inclined to gamble too much, but a marketing makeover to help it promote the people and animals than make it an exciting sport.

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