Makeover needed: Professional horse racing

For a variety of reasons that have very little to do with an abiding interest in professional horse racing, I've been to the races quite a few times and in several different venues. My husband is from New York's North Country (that's about four hours drive north of "upstate" New York), and the historic Saratoga Race Course is on our route. We go sometimes. Also, we were put up in the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino when Mike was invited to the Delaware state book festival. And his prior day job held a summer outing for employees last year at the Belmont Park.

I've learned enough from these trips -- which have all included bringing my young children -- to proclaim with confidence that going to the races could be a fun, thrilling, even educational family outing. But first, the sport needs a radical makeover.

Foremost, gambling has to be taken off site. My husband tells me that without gambling there would be no professional horse racing, so I won't go that far (even though I think gambling is a vice that can be addictive and that is a regressive tax on the poorest people). But if people want to gamble, I think they can place their bets online or go to Vegas or to off-track gambling parlors. That would remove the aura of seedy desperation that some racing venues have.

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Second, make it seasonal. Saratoga is only in August, which gives the races a festival air. Having short seasons in different venues would remove the chronic gambler from the scene.

Third, make it family-friendly. Again, Saratoga is the model here. The races have plentiful picnic tables, vendors, and tents set up where kids can learn about horses. The experience of actually watching the races, however, is still marred, in my opinion, when you go to the stands and pass by the numerous gambling windows and some of the characters hanging out there.

Races are inherently exciting. Kids love horses. Jockey's, owners, the animals themselves, lead colorful lives that are fun to follow and read about. It is an amazing spectacle offering great pageantry and history. Going to the races could be an exciting past-time for millions of Americans. First, it has to part ways with its favorite crutch -- the habitual gambler.
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