In a major front page investigation piece Sunday in the New York Times, horse racing is presented as a barbaric endeavor, more like dog fighting than crowning, with dead horses and maimed jockeys prominently displayed throughout the multi-page discussion of the sport.
A team of investigative writers from high school could make most sports appear guilty of something serious: the payoffs, the bounties, the junkies, the near dunce-level of communications by some college athletes on Twitter. Yet nothing is as sickening as a mistreated animal, old bones numbed by drugs, having run until they dropped for the benefit of a bunch of yahoos who know the number of the meat wagon by heart.
It’s almost as though the Times just uncovered the fact that horse racing was really dangerous.
But seeing a sport almost defenseless against charges of rampant incompetence and physical mayhem is more than sobering, it’s frightening.
The Times piece focuses most critically on quarter horse action in New Mexico, portraying that spectacle as more like jousting than racing. Going by the narrative of the investigative piece, and by the brutal numbers having to do with death and destruction, you might think only ex-cons and heavy drinkers could take a day of this kind of racing. Carnage seems routine. Representatives of America’s youth, the little kiddies out to see a real live race horse for the first time, stand horrified at the rail as bodies break and fall.
Here’s a tidbit that wasn’t prominently displayed in the expose, but might have something to do with the violent numbers in quarter horse racing. Really old people can ride quarter horses. I have seen with my own eyes cringing men in their 60′s hanging on for dear life as huge animals bolt and buck for a quarter of a mile or more or less.
The key points in this and other articles about the doomsday state of horse racing have to do with illegal drugs and slot machines, that new illegal substances are stirred up and glommed together and used faster than What’s-His-Name, the drug-testing office rolled into one, can keep up with the crookedness; that with no national set of rules, drug policy and testing vary state to state, and we all know of the buffoonery of some state agencies; and that fat slot purses are mostly responsible for empty racing grandstands, and are greatly responsible for broken down horses being pushed after the purses fed by casinos.
The truth is that the high end of horse racing is running strong — attendance is good at the vacation-type sites, Saratoga, Del Mar, Oaklawn Park, and for the hottest Triple Crown races and Breeder’s Cup events. And the TV ratings for the big races are great, even watered down by the fact that the sport’s best fans are unrated, they’re at the races, not home working viewing diaries.
Here’s why fewer go to the horse races: It has nothing to do with industry laziness caused by slot machine gold, it’s all about simulcast venues.
If you took the people at the simulcast halls and other race tracks playing Aqueduct or Belmont Park or Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, and put them in the grandstands where their bets were going, attendance would be fine. I used to drive a full day to play cheap claimers at tracks in the sticks. Now I drive five minutes to a simulcast building like what’s in Las Vegas and can play all the tracks. Who doesn’t wish for a Saturday afternoon back in the days when Belmont Park was full of guys in fedoras and gals in dresses, listening to the Mick on a transistor and marking up racing programs with tips and hunches galore. But as De Niro said in the near perfect motion picture “The Deer Hunter,” explaining the changing state of things to his pals up in those pristine hills just out of range of the soot stacks, “This is this.” And when it comes to horse racing action, it is what it is, it’s mostly simulcast business.
Regarding a downturn in handle, concerning global economics, what’s up?
Here’s what horse racing could learn from other sports: better testing for drugs and for the physical well being of all participants, and stricter penalties for cheaters. It seems that now too many rules breakers are just sent to bed without dinner.
As with other major pastimes, it’s not the sport breaking down, it’s some of the people.
Originally Posted on ESPN