With the proliferation of major sports in the United States in the 21st Century, what with the NFL, NBA, College Basketball, College Football, NASCAR and the like, it might come as a shock to you that horseracing was a major draw in America at one time. In fact, from 1900 to 1960, the Sport of Kings trailed only Major League Baseball in total attendance, beating even boxing, which is another sport that has seen it's attendance decline over the years. Among the major sports at that time, what made horseracing such a wonderful draw was that it offered one thing that the other sports didn't: legal gambling. Now, if you think I'm going to pretend that the other sports are not bet on illegally, well let me just straighten out your mind for you right now; I'm well aware that illegal gambling was going on and continues to go on with respect to those other sports well into the current time. However, horseracing was the only sport that gives it's fans the chance to wager out in the open. In fact, it's the principle reason people go to the track in the first place. Someone once said, "There is no racing without betting," and it's very true.
So what's the story on the decline during the last fifty years or so? There are many factors. First of all, the popularity of other sports has grown exponentially. The NFL dominates sports ratings durings it's season, the NBA is wildly popular, and NASCAR has become the United States number one spectator sport. The introduction of simulcasting and the invention of Off Track Betting Facilities lessened the need for fans to actually go to the track to place their bets, as well.
But just because attendance is down does not mean that the sport is down for the count because the amount of money bet on the sport reached a staggering $15.2 billion in 2003. What this means is that one must remember that gambling, first and foremost, is the reason people watch horseracing, and as television ratings have consistenly shown, the way to get people in general and gamblers in particular to come running to the betting window is for there to be a legitimate Triple Crown contender. National interest is annually at it's highest in horseracing around Kentucky Derby time, and the tremendous attendance at Churchill Downs and the other two legs of the Triple Crown shows that those races are events that are immune to the general decline mentioned above, and the $100-plus million wagered on the 2009 Derby reflect the tremendous interest the gambling public still has.
What the sport needs to do, therefore, is to focus it's attention on maximizing quality during the five weeks that make up the Triple Crown, to provide incentives to owners and trainers to bring the very best horses in the world to shoot not just for the Run for the Roses, but for the elusive Triple Crown as well. Perhaps the sport will never be able to get back to those incredible attendance numbers of the first half of the 20th Century. That seems to be a fact of life. But if the lifeblood of the sport is gambling dollars, then a Triple Crown winner will provide the entire industry with an infusion of prosperity it needs very much.