The right ingredients

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

I'm not sure about the last time you attended a big horse race at a major venue – be it last week's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs or just about anything from Del Mar to Saratoga – but what drags in the crowds isn't the horses. It's the following combination:

1. Gambling.

2. Booze.

3. Beautiful women decked out to the nines.

This is what you call a recession-proof business model. Not to mention a scandal-proof one that is more than equipped to operate without a supposed "star," despite what everyone claims.

Horse racing is getting dragged through the mud this week by PETA's protests after Derby runner-up Eight Belles broke both ankles and had to be killed right there on the Louisville track last Saturday.

Commentators are noting how much trouble the sport is in as long as its "athletes" have to be killed after breaking down. Conversely, others are optimistically pointing out that Derby winner Big Brown might be the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, giving the sport a supposed much-needed shot in the arm.

Neither argument has much real-world merit.

The death of the horses can't be defended and if people want to protest, hey, go ahead. The industry over-breeds the thoroughbreds and then, because of fear of financially costly injury, doesn't train them long enough before pushing them ridiculously hard at too early an age.

All so some rich owner can hug women in silly hats and cry like they actually did something.

But as a business, horse racing is oblivious to these deaths. Yeah, everyone feels bad for a second, but then there is another race or another round of drinks or another sun dress walking by to distract.

To call the horses a secondary attraction for many fans is to vastly overstate their importance. It may be cruel and impolite to say but, for many fans, the horses are only slightly more valued than a bumper in NASCAR and only moderately more than a keno ball or an ace of clubs.

The horses are nothing but the means by which all the drunken gambling is made both legal and socially acceptable.

It would be humane and nice if this wasn't so, but, hey, did anyone weep for the cow that became the saddle?

As Fox Sports' Michael Rosenberg pointed out, Eight Belles' death was only a story because she finished second. If she had been killed after a last-place finish, almost no one would have noticed.

By placing, gamblers had to cash tickets on a dead horse. This was assuredly unsettling, although not unsettling enough to stop anyone from doing it.

Conversely, horse racing doesn't suffer from the lack of a "super horse" to excite the casual fan. Yes, if Big Brown wins the Triple Crown, the extra media coverage and casual fan attention won't hurt the bottom line, but his impact would be limited.

These are not the days of Seabiscuit, where a famous horse would tour the country for years drawing huge crowds to every two-bit track. If Big Brown wins the Triple Crown and is celebrated as an all-time great, he will, most likely, retire immediately. At most, he'd race in the Breeders' Cup in October.

His value is at the stud farm and risking death is an unwise business decision. You remember Smarty Jones, who won the first two legs of the 2004 Triple Crown and got everyone excited? He faded down the stretch at the Belmont and never raced again.

His impact – other than in breeding – was over.

No horse, no matter how great, is going to change the game for horse racing because once they do anything exciting they become too valuable to do it again.

Not that it matters. The people come to the track without knowing anything about any of the horses. It's the experience, not the participants, which bring people and their pocketbooks out.

Yet everyone says horse racing is suffering. Maybe in top-of-mind consciousness, but that's it.

In 2006, some $15.6 billion was wagered on horse racing. Sports Illustrated estimated that the tracks kept $3.1 billion of that. Therefore, its revenue, even before admissions, concessions, parking, advertising and merchandising already beat out the NBA ($3 billion) and the NHL ($2.3 billion.)

Who needs a LeBron James or Sidney Crosby? Let alone a Secretariat?

The future of horse racing is in the continued sprucing up of the facilities. The more opulent, clean and modern the track, the bigger (and some would say better) the crowd. And that's been the industry's push, even at mid-level tracks that see the potential in posh.

The well-dressed, well-to-do crowd that's ready to party is slowly replacing the old-school rail birds that look like Paulie from "Rocky."

That was the crowd at the Derby – 157,770 strong, the second largest ever. And that will be the scene at the Preakness and the Belmont and this summer all over the country.

The weather is great, the gambling and alcohol plentiful and the people beautiful.

For horse racing, neither triumph nor tragedy really matters at all.

What to Read Next