The other side of the tracks.
T.d. thornton's revealing book should do for horse racing what upton sinclair's "the jungle" did for meat packing. but -- please -- hold the "reform" legislation. government already has enough of its clumsy tentacles holding racing's head under water. "not by a long shot" should be taken by racing industry participants as a call to the post of a higher consciousness characterized by self-examination, self-correction, and inspiration. media relations director of struggling suffolk downs in year y2k (enough went wrong at the east boston track to make one suspect the move into the new century was somehow at fault), thornton uses a deft hand and sharp mind in peeling the onion that it is thoroughbred racing. as with any onion's exploration, tears flow. the author succeeds in giving a realistic picture brimming with tough love thanks to his training as a newspaper reporter mixed with an attraction to what thornton calls the "cruel radiance" of the race course. thornton's family connection (his father, paul, is a suffolk downs trainer whose stable has included 2006 new england horse of the year bodgiteer) gives his vision added range. our author must be a pretty good diplomat as well since he manages to maintain part-time employment at "sufferin' downs" after publication of such a frank book. with a sensibility in the tradition of damon runyon and grantland rice, thornton manages to re-create the lovable roguishness racing enjoyed in its heyday. but, unlike many in today's establishment racing press, thornton is no cheerleader lazily waiting around for the next press release or racing commission meeting. he charges at shabby thinking and practices like a horse coming down the home stretch. and that is the chief reason "not by a long shot" should become a reference book for those who really love horse racing and want it to have a future. to go along with his gritty look at racetrack life, thornton scores a nice daily double by relating interesting bits from new england racing history. among them -- --the story of massachusetts thoroughbred owner peter fuller, coretta scott king, the tumult of 1968, and dancer's image (the fuller-owned steed and only horse ever disqualified from winning the kentucky derby). --the 1970s race-fixing scandal run by boston native fat tony ciulla that ensnared 39 tracks and dozens of jockeys including the great angel cordero jr. thornton does an admirable job summing up the economic challenges facing horse racing. he quotes liberally from bill veeck's "thirty tons a day" (a memoir of the maverick promoter's two years running suffolk downs) yet thornton doesn't seem to consider that racing could solve many of its problems with the government by following veeck's example. veeck sued the massachusetts state government to allow children to attend races -- and won. shouldn't racing leaders stop playing games with elected officials and go to court to have the sport's economic rights upheld? also curiously missing from our astute author's observations is an examination of thoroughbred racing's inaccessible post times. races at suffolk downs start at 12:45 p.m. and usually end at about 4:30 p.m. three of its four cards per week are held on weekdays. is it any wonder attendance has fallen when most races are conducted at times when most people are stuck at their jobs? why not try night racing? it should be said that the mostly mid-level tracks that have gone to night cards haven't found the practice to be especially lucrative. thornton writes colorfully about suffolk downs "winter grind." yet any person with a modicum of common sense would ask "why the heck are they racing horses when it's 20 degrees outside? doesn't track management realize that very few fans/bettors are going to show up? isn't this just a waste of time and purse money?" the author lets it pass without criticism. another lapse of reason -- chief operating officer robert o'malley speaks to beacon hill legislators after 19 other groups have testified and it's close to lunch time (p. 213). didn't o'malley realize his message was unlikely to be heard under such conditions? these lapses begin to add up. this combined with a longtime industry inclination to seek monopoly privileges and subsidies (in recent years it's taken the form of pleas for "slot machines") conjures an image of a moribund industry cravenly trying to use government to stay on past its time. thornton condemns this proclivity but that does nothing to erase the negative public image. besides byzantine systems brought about mostly because of government overregulation, horse racing today is suffering from its failure to embrace television 50 years ago (racing's fan base has grayed andthinned asa result). the sport of kings (or "king of sports" as thornton cheekily calls it) is also suffering from a revolution that failed -- simulcasting. the growth of imported televised simulcasting has drained crowds and money away from live racing to the point where simulcasting now accounts for more than 80 percent of revenue at most tracks. like "slot machines" today, simulcasting was touted as easy money by some track owners. in reality what it amounted to was a gamble involving an exchange of revenue streams. not surprisingly, it came with a cost. tracks don't get to keep as much of the simulcasting dollar as they do for live racing although overall handle has increased. now on-track casino-style gaming is doing to racing handle (simulcast and live) what simulcasting did to live racing. thornton recognizes this "potential" (it's more than potential) for "erosion" but offers no strategies for avoiding it. the quality of racing is something suffolk downs and other struggling tracks need to confront. horse racing has got to put its best product before the public as often as possible. running 200-plus days a year mostly so struggling horsemen can make a living is a recipe for continuing mediocrity. what would happen if the new england patriots played their second string for most of the game and only put in tom brady, randy moss and co. in the last five minutes? the fans would boo and then, after a while, they'd stop being fans. if the best way to get paying customers back to the racetrack to bet on racing is to shorten meets and boost purses then racing leaders should waste no time in doing this. the racetrack needs to cease being a welfare agency. the laffer curve works in racing. suffolk's original 1935 meet was only 28 days and crowds flocked to it. these days short meets at saratoga, keeneland, del mar, and pimlico do bang-up business. a shortened time scale brings urgency and pagentry back to the races, something thornton points out have slipped away from most tracks, replaced by numbing repetition of low-level races aimed at low-brow clientele whose mindset is summed up in (thornton's phrase) "what the f... can i bet on next?" thornton speaks up for smaller stables and mid-level racing. to be sure not every race can or should be the massachusetts handicap (suffolk's annual major stakes event) but the fact is that casual fans, bettors, and current and potential horse owners are losing interest in the lower end of the market. at the risk of sounding elitist, some folks in the maiden claimer colonies ought to consider finding something else to do. suffolk downs is not leafy saratoga or seaside del mar (as a training class incident related by thornton well makes the point) but that doesn't mean suffolk and other urban tracks are helpless. they can create new traditions (how about an opening day "welcoming back the horses" parade from revere beach onto the suffolk grounds?). suffolk may have found its sweet spot for race dates -- 2007's reduced 100 days (may to november) produced impressive gains in handle and attendance for new owner richard fields. yet suffolk racing is now menaced by slow-death-by-casino as proposed by fields. thornton's book pleasingly breaks down jargon. it offers insights aplenty. example: year-round racing destroyed handicap racing (that's not the only thing it ruined). what's most missing from "not by a long shot" (hopefully, thornton will tackle this in a future book) is a prescription for repositioning horse racing in american culture. let me try: gambling is what used to be unique about horse racing but that is no longer true. the climate has shifted and racetracks need to focus on the uniqueness of the horses. track managers and horsemen have to create a horse culture via new business combinations that treats gambling as subsidiary. las vegas and atlantic city are moving away from a gambling-centered culture in favor of a luxury-centered culture (fine dining, high-end shops). horse racing needs to move to a rustic-centered culture emphasizing animals and the great outdoors. racetracks should host horse auctions, dressage competitions, polo matches etc. to get people who already like horses interested in racing. public sadness over the loss of open space and agriculture would fuel interest in horse racing's new rustic culture. this will help blunt horse racing's big psychological problem with the public that thornton gets close to when he writes about animal cruelty. injuries to animals is a major liability to horse as well as dog racing. people don't fret about injuries to people in sports because it's acknowledged that people have free choice to participate or not. animals don't have free choice. they're trained to race. thus people are especially bothered by animal injuries, using phrases like "why dothey (the royal "they") make them (the animals) do that?" people further reckon..."since horse racing is mostly about raising money for government programs and we've got all this new fangled gambling now why not keep the animals safe by letting horse racing go into the dustbin of history?" it's a good argument. flawless logic. and g-d help horse racing if it continues to wear the image of gambling-centered government cash cow. there are no easy answers for horse racing. if the great sport survives it will be largely because of the energy and spirits of people movingly chronicled by thornton such as injured jockey rudy baez; executive lou raffetto, whose plan to revive the masscap "backfired" into appearances by the world's most successful horse -- cigar -- in two consecutive runnings of suffolk's big race; and backstretch "lifers" who get up early every day to tend the animals amid bleak circumstances. it will take boldness as well as love and belief in horse racing to revive suffolk downs. hopefully, wise men such as t.d. thornton will stay around and see it through. james mosher is a freelance writer who lives in ledyard, connecticut. his work on horse racing has appeared in daily racing form, blood-horse magazine, thoroughbred times, and other publications.