Changing racing’s Luck?

There are a lot of movies out there about high school. Dead Poets’ Society. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Election. Clueless.

Some I like, some I don’t. In some, I see situations and students that look familiar; in most, what’s on the screen looks nothing like what I see in the classrooms and hallways in which I spend my days.

Still, I could watch Clueless on an endless repeat loop, even though the teachers in it are nothing like me. And while there are some endearingly familiar scenes that remind me of the students I teach and of the universality of teenagerhood, the movie’s success doesn’t, for me, lie in its fidelity to reality.

I hated Dead Poets’ Society and Election. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either, so I can’t speak about them with any specificity, but I remember being stymied by the critical acclaim for Election (maybe I need to watch it again?) and I found Dead Poets’ Society so cloyingly and emotionally manipulative that it just annoyed me.

My younger self wouldn’t miss an episode Welcome Back, Kotter; I couldn’t get through an episode of Saved By the Bell.

In dozens of discussions about these and other school-based movies and television shows over the years, no one has ever suggested that I like them to show support for my profession, or despaired because they present teaching and high school students in a negative light (though there’s certainly a case to make for the latter).

Racing, it appears, is different.

Watching Luck on Sunday, I and others tweeted our impressions.  A tour de force of style over substance, Luck is a sensual feast: music by turns languorous and intense; the beauty of Santa Anita; crisp, evocatively lit camerawork. My senses were enthralled.

My brain and my heart, not so much.  The “corruption at the racetrack” meme was in full force, at the betting windows and on the backstretch; the social misfit bettors were front and center. A horse died on the racetrack.  Give them credit: it took a full 47 minutes for that to happen.

Mostly, I was bored. Not because I spend a lot of time at the track, not because I thought the series was unrealistic, not because I was watching with “inside baseball” eyes. I was just bored. I wasn’t interested by the characters or the plot, and I didn’t see a lot that would make me tune in when the series launches at the end of January.

But the longest Twitter conversations focused not on who liked the show and why, but on the effect it might have on the sport. Hope sprang that Luck would bring people to the track and have a positive effect on the industry—lofty burdens, I think, for a simple television show.

Why, I wonder, do grasp so gratefully at any depictions in mainstream media of the sport we love? Why do we seize on each new production – the Secretariat movie, the ESPN program on Charismatic, Luck – as the next great hope that will expose to the world what a wonderful game we have?

And why are we always surprised and disappointed when the drama is found in the less savory elements of the sport–the suggestions of horses being drugged, of trainer chicanery, of bettors down to their last buck and pinning it on a big score? Last year, Jaimy Gordon took heat for her depictions of life at a small-town track in Lord of Misrule; Sunday night, no small number of people were upset at the breakdown scene in Luck.

Does this happen in other industries? Does law enforcement hope that Law and Order, CSI, and Without A Trace will depict their professions positively? Do doctors want ER and Grey’s Anatomy to make patients feel better about getting medical care?

I don’t understand the desire to put the burden of publicizing racing on television producers, on networks, and on authors. It’s not their job; if it were, they’d be in PR instead of the creative arts.

Just as we decry the reliance on slots money to fund our purses, we should decry the reliance on others to fill the seats. As we’ve seen after each Big Media Event, the attendance and handle needles don’t move very much. I don’t expect that luck to change.

17 thoughts on “Changing racing’s Luck?

  1. I have to agree. One would have to be pretty naive to believe that a TV program, movie or book could reverse the decline in our sport Milch is an intelligent man and HBO does pretty good work on these kinds of projects, but horse racing has become a niche sport and will always remain so. The days when we were the only game in town have been over for a long time. This doesn’t mean that the decline has to continue, however. What really is needed and has been for so long is consolidation. There is simply too much racing on the east coast to support the dwindling horse population. A number of tracks need to close so the survivors will hopefully be able to card fuller fields. People don’t want to bet on or even watch 5, 6 or 7 horse fields. Delaware Park and PARX are notorious for scratches galore that render the races unbettable. Unfortunately, this will continue because of the slot subsidies which perpetuate the uninteresting products these tracks produce. I mention these tracks as examples and they far from the only guilty parties. I think in this case less is really more.

  2. I’m going to withhold comment on the show itself. I’m waiting until the launch in January. I think it’s difficult to judge a TV series off of a pilot episode. And it sounds like this pilot, in particular, featured an awful lot of exposition. The best pilots (“The Shield,” “24,” “Lost” are all recent examples) offer very little in the way of exposition. Plus, other episodes won’t be helmed by the brilliant Michael Mann. The sensual feast that you cite is a staple of Mann’s oeuvre. Whether it’s “Heat,” or “The Insider,” or “Public Enemies,” his work always FEELS great, even if it comes up short in terms of story.

    But do have a couple of thoughts on some of your other comments. First, I disagree with your premise that members of other professions don’t care about the way they are depicted on TV. Firefighters were up in arms over their portrayal on “Rescue Me,” a show which made them out to be alcoholic womanizers. Though not quite as vocal as firefighters (who actually took their grievances about “Rescue Me” to the papers several times), I know that cops weren’t thrilled about their characterization on “The Shield.”

    Plus, the shows you cited do not take place in what I would consider “for-profit” industries (the medical industry absolutely IS for-profit, but since insurance companies aren’t being depicted, I’m chalking them up as not-for-profit for TV purposes). Very few TV shows, when you think about it, take place in for-profit industries. And even less of those are ABOUT those industries. From everything I gather, “Luck” will as much about racing as it is any of the characters. So I don’t blame anybody for being disappointed that the game is not shown in its most positive light.

    That said, I do agree with your last point. The makers of “Luck,” and HBO, owe racing nothing. It is a work of fiction. If we don’t like it, we shouldn’t watch.

  3. You comments on Luck probably not moving the attendance and handle needles is spot on. HBO is in the job of providing entertainment for a profit, not for providing PR for the NTRA.

    As far as the show, I liked that the track lingo (chalk, tapped out, bug, etc) was not dumbed down for a mass audience. I also liked the little details in the show-like how they showed the hard core bettors at the track watching the race on the simulcast TV sets and not the track itself-just like they really do at the tracks I frequent.

  4. It is a fictionalized account and drama based on the “cast of characters” that, we know inhabit and surround a racetrack. I never believed for one second that the “Luck” series would bring new fans to the sport, even though various hopes were raised for many. “Luck” is not “Let It Ride”.

  5. Hi Teresa,

    First of all, nice article in the current TB.

    As far as films about schools; “Blackboard Jungle” and “To Sir With Love” should be on your Netflix list. Do not have HBO so can’t comment on “Luck.”

  6. Good blog! I was disappointed with you analysis as I was hoping that “Luck” would be a positive view of the sport. Somehow it seems TV always portrays the negative, The bad cop, the sleezy lawyer, the greedy doctor etc. Too bad.

  7. It’s a big investment in time (13 hours) but the fourth season of “The Wire” is the best depiction of the American educational system I have ever seen.

  8. Teresa, you are, indeed, spot on. As usual.

    I envision asking Alicia Silverstone’s character in “Clueless” if the supposed edgy, hip, gritty portrayal of racing in “Luck” will be beneficial for the game. Her response: “As if!”

  9. I’ve always contended that popular culture portrayals of racing won’t ‘save’ the sport — anymore than a catsup commercial will ‘save’ Heinz (not that either need to be ‘saved’).

    But, companies pay millions for 30 second TV spots for a reason – and if 30 seconds can influence people, then certainly a one-hour TV show or two-hour movie can have an effect.

    A TV show or movie about racing might not translate into a mad rush on admission booths at racetracks – but it can influence people making choices about entertainment options — just like a 30-second TV commercial can influence a shopper to pick a certain brand of catsup at the supermarket.

    To the question: Do doctors want ER and Grey’s Anatomy to make patients feel better about getting medical care?

    “Nine out of 10 respondents to a MedPage Today poll say medical TV shows have an impact on the doctor-patient relationship.”

    Law enforcement?

    “The CSI effect… most often refers to the belief that jurors have come to demand more forensic evidence in criminal trials…”

    And from the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture

    “Research has suggested that a majority of people in the United States receive much of their impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system through the media, especially through entertainment television viewing… How then is the legal system, or crime and law enforcement, portrayed on television?”

    So I would contend that other professions DO care how they’re portrayed on TV. (It might not be as readily apparent because there aren’t a lot of doctor or cop fan forums on the internet!)

    Luck isn’t necessarily a ‘game-changer’ but it does present the possibility of raising the awareness of racing in the public consciousness – which should be a good thing.

  10. I’m no polyanna , but I think folks are really missing the boat on this.

    I see Seth Merrow has made the same point I was about to.

    Any PR in this day and age is good PR. Here’s a show that will be in the eye of the public for at least two seasons.

    That means racing gets exposure for more than the few weeks comprising the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup. What could be bad?

    Chances are , the show WILL bring at least some new faces to the track . How many? Who knows. It’s free publicity, so it’s all good.

    I’m grateful for another shot at seeing Milch’s work, that it’s about the best sport in the world, is only a bonus.

  11. I didn’t mean to suggest that other professions don’t care about how they’re depicted – but I don’t think that I was clear about that. I care, too, about how education is depicted, but I don’t expect Hollywood to have a responsibility to represent it fairly or accurately or in a positive light, to do PR for my profession. I was wondering whether law enforcement, lawyers, doctors expect television/movies to boost its image through those depictions.

    Stuart, not sure which article you’re referring to, but thank you!

    fb, that is an excellent question. I guess we look to Del Mar, Keeneland, Saratoga to answer it.

    Awesome comment, Stu!

  12. I didn’t see the pilot Sunday but comments I have read from those who did, seemed to focus more on the fact that they just didn’t like the program. As you said it didn’t engage their interest. And unless Disney decides to do a show about horse racing, any programs will always focus on the ‘dark’ side. That’s edgier and sexier and what attracts viewers. I call it the ‘mobster effect’. Italian Americans are usually depicted as gangsters because movies and shows about the Mafia make money.

  13. “I don’t expect Hollywood to have a responsibility to represent it fairly or accurately or in a positive light, to do PR for my profession.”

    We can’t EXPECT it — there isn’t an obligation or a responsibility — but, given the clear power of popular culture to influence, I think we can HOPE for it.

    And, no, I don’t think horse racing is alone in wanting popular culture to portray the industry/profession/sport in a way that might be attractive to potential fans/customers.

    * Chiropractor upset by a wacky TV scene involving the profession: “I was hopeful and eager to see how chiropractic would be portrayed because chiropractic is rarely featured on tv shows… [But] After seeing this, I wish the producers of Rescue Me would not have used chiropractors to tell this very silly storyline.”

    * Scientists and engineers fear that popular culture leaves a public perception that they’re geeky and nerdy:

    “According to one study of 1,500 television viewers, the more that people watch television, the more they think scientists are odd and peculiar.”

    And we’re (racing fans) not alone in hoping that depictions of the sport in popular culture draw in new fans:

    A boxing website laments the cancellation of a boxing-themed reality series: “Many people I know have really enjoyed it, and they have never had any interest in the sport before. Suspect this is true all over the country. That’s a lot of potential fans.”

    They add, “With ‘Million Dollar Baby’ last year and ‘Cinderella Man’ (the inspiring story of the life and times of James J. Braddock) this year, and very much increased boxing presentations all over the cable nets lately (in case you hadn’t noticed), the sport is being primed for a resurgence of popularity.”

    All that said, I didn’t find anything in Episode One of Luck to be particularly incendiary. Nothing struck me as a big turn-off — or a big turn-on. But, over time, like the Heinz commercial, I would expect the series to do something — however much – to raise the profile of the sport. A positive.

  14. interesting discussion. To Joe DePaolo: excellent comments on Michael Mann; he made the texture of Miami Voice carry the content.

    To Seth Merrow: A very acute understanding, sir. And excellent examples.

  15. I disagree with the premise that any publicity is good publicity, especially when HBO graphically portrays a catastrophic injury in the pilot episode. Horse racing neophytes watching this spectacle can only assume that these horrifying events must happen everyday at racetracks across America. And that’s a stereotype the industry already is struggling to live down.

    Putting a public spotlight on icnoic Thoroughbreds such as Seabiscuit and Secretariat is great, but whether it bumps attendance and handle is another matter altogether.

  16. Please remember your equine rescue groups this holiday season, I have been told the price of hay has risen and they need all the help they can get. As far as Luck goes, highlighting racing issues like horse health and retirement issues might serve to force the industry to take another look at itself.

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