Running strong?

Football will be the talk of the town this weekend when it comes to sports, but horse racing might make for an interesting sidebar during the halftime break of the Ravens game.

Earlier this week, at a dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., a horse named Havre de Grace, after the bayfront community in eastern Harford County, was honored as the Horse of the Year. The unfortunate thing about horse racing, at least as far as securing a large modern fan base is concerned, is that it has never managed to secure a TV audience. It's not hard to figure out why. A horse race lasts but a few minutes and you just can't sell advertising around a sporting event of such brevity.

Sure, they manage to hype the Triple CrownKentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — for an extended program on three Saturdays each spring when there's no football and baseball is just getting warmed up. But there's only so much excitement you can milk out of a bunch of fancy hats in the stands and crowds of debauched people in the infields.

Still, the races themselves are exciting. Each one is kind of like watching a really good, really long play in a football game, or a really impressive inning in a baseball game.

No doubt a major attraction for the horse racing crowd has long been the gambling. Sure, it's exciting to watch a race, but it's more exciting when you've got a few dollars riding on it. And unlike the clandestine, not-quite-legal betting that goes on in living rooms all across the country on football games, horse race betting is perfectly legal, indeed encouraged.

Another attraction of horse racing is that, like fishing, hunting and bicycling, it doesn't translate well once you've left the site of the sport. The horse track has a certain appeal and spending an afternoon there sounds like a lot more fun than an afternoon spent in a betting parlor watching horse races.

Still, it would be nice if there were a better way to package the excitement of a horse race to give the sport wider appeal. That way a key aspect of Harford County's heritage would have the chance to prosper as it once did. Havre de Grace the horse is named after Havre de Grace the city because of the city's legendary horse track, The Graw. Storied horses whose names remain household words, notably War Admiral and Citation, made appearances in Havre de Grace. Both were also named Horse of the Year by the same organization that honored Havre de Grace the horse on Monday.

The horse track is long gone from Havre de Grace, but the horse business remains a key part of Harford County's economy and, arguably, a vital component of agricultural and land preservation in the county.

Though thoroughbred racing has languished in Maryland in recent years, several breeding farms remain viable businesses. Unfortunately, they suffer from a lack of substantial local support for the racing business.

It may come to pass that horse racing in Maryland will experience a renaissance thanks to the sport's long association with gambling. A portion of the take at the state's new slot machine parlors is supposed to be fattening purses at horse races in Maryland. This is expected to draw more horses, making the races more attractive to those betting on the races. There's some evidence this has worked in other states with strong thoroughbred aspects to their economies.

But there's no guarantee. The bottom line with horse racing is it needs to have fans, or it won't remain an active sport. Having fans means making the sport attractive to new generations, which isn't necessarily an easy thing to do.

Still, there's something about the speed of the races, the legendary quality of the old tracks and the glamour of an event like the Horse of the Year announcement in Beverly Hills that make it seem like it has the potential to hold its own against video games.

Horse racing may face long odds against going the way of the old Havre de Grace track, but that the owners of a champion horse named their beast after the city shows interest in the sport and its heritage remains.

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