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Racetrack Attendance Plummeting

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

One of the best-attended events on the American sports calendar occurs tomorrow at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

The expected crowds will gather for the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. The derby is the first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, and for most fans it will be the first and only horse race they'll watch all year.

Joining me as he does most Fridays is our regular sports commentator Stefan Fatsis.

Hello, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's a field of 20 horses at the derby, and Big Brown, I gather, is the favorite but not by many lengths.

FATSIS: No, it's an unpredictable field. And one reason is that some of the horses will have run mostly on synthetic tracks up until now, which are mandatory in California because they're supposed to be easier on the horses.

But Churchill Downs is dirt, and horses respond differently to the two surfaces. Plus, the derby is always tough because these three-year-olds haven't raced at this length, one and a quarter miles, and 20 horses is just a big field, it means more things can go wrong. Big Brown, who last I looked, was the favorite at 3 - 1 has raced just three times, and no derby winner has raced that little and won since 1915. But all three of his races were on dirt and he won them all handily. The other favorites are Colonel John, 4 - 1; Pyro, 6 - 1; and there's a filly in the field, Eight Bells, who was listed at 20 - 1.

SIEGEL: Uhm-hmm. There will be more than 150,000 people, we expect, watching the race in person, that's not only big, that is an anomaly.

FATSIS: In horse racing, it sure is. Attendance has plummeted to the point that many tracks have closed. There's a good overview of the state of the industry in the magazine, Sports Business Journal this week, which points out that industry groups stopped releasing nationwide attendance figures 15 years ago. Even Churchill Downs angst(ph) stopped giving out those numbers for its tracks last year. Big events like the Triple Crown Races or the Santa Anita Derby in California or the Wood Memorial in New York still do attract a big crowd, but if you go to any track, on any other day, there aren't that many rail birds left, and the ones that are there are rarely under the age of 50.

SIEGEL: But, you can hear the argument made, that even with the extinction of the rail bird, a lot of money is being wagered on horse racing.

FATSIS: Yeah, that's true. Horse racing's handle, the total amount bet, began climbing in the early 1990s, when you started getting simulcasting for races from around the country and then later, online betting. More races to bet on, more money to bet. There's an interesting piece on the Web site Slate today, about how it's not only easier to bet if you're not at the track, but it's also more economical for big betters because they get rebates on a track's normal 20 percent commission.

Even so, the total handle has flattened at around $15 billion a year in recent years, and industry executives are pretty gloomy about growth prospects.

SIEGEL: And the remedies they turn to, one of them I guess, is slot machines at the tracks.

FATSIS: Some places have tried that, they're looking at simpler ways to bet. Shrinking the sport even more and focusing on destination locales like Saratoga in upstate New York, or Del Mar in Southern California, or Keeneland in Kentucky which offer short seasons and quality races, and do well at the gate end at the window.

And then, even more emphasis on the glamour events, like the Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup, or the Kentucky Derby's TV audience while it's nowhere near what it was in the 1970s, is up the last few years and NBC has expanded coverage this year, and if you get a Triple Crown possibility like Smarty Jones in 2004, or a dramatic story like Barbaro in 2006, the sport gets a lot of attention and maybe a few new fans.

SIEGEL: And even if it has business problems, we're talking about a sport, is the sport of kings, sometimes literally?

FATSIS: Literally. You know, the derby may be the most prestigious horse race in the world, but the Dubai World Cup is the richest race. And the ruler of Dubai is one of the biggest spenders in the sport. He drops tens of millions in dollars on foals, it's driven up the price of young horses with impressive bloodlines, and that creates pressure to breed horses who can win.

My colleague Jon Weinbach writes in the Wall Street Journal today that all 20 entries in tomorrow's derby are related to a horse named Native Dancer who never won the race himself and died in 1967. Breeders want a sure thing, and bloodlines help offer that. But there are risks. With so much in-breeding, fewer stallions are producing foals, and often they're producing fragile animals.

SIEGEL: So, it's a small world if you're a thoroughbred?

FATSIS: Incredibly small.

SIEGEL: Stefan, have a good weekend.

FATSIS: Thank you, Robert. You too.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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