Tough Times

by Ed Meyer

posted on October 18, 2008 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

By the time the Great Depression descended on the nation like a bitter cold front, horse racing in the United States was already in a deep freeze. It had gone cold during the first decade of the twentieth century, after a series of race-fixing scandals triggered a wave of legislation making betting illegal. The sport crumbled. At the turn of the century there had been 300 racetracks nationwide; by 1908, only 25 remained. The American bans proved a boon to the Mexican horse racing business, and Tijuana became a betting mecca.

In the 1930s impoverished state governments, in search of ways to increase revenues, returned to the potential honey pot of horse racing. In exchange for legalizing betting on the sport, one state after another exacted steep taxes on racing revenues. The deal was mutually beneficial to private investors and government tax collectors, and led to a 70 percent increase in the number of tracks across the country. Crowds as large as had ever assembled for the sport turned up at the racetrack.

People visited the track by the thousands every day, eager for the drama of a horse race. Horse racing, along with baseball, dominated the sports world. Sports were not the only diversions available to Americans struggling to grind out a living. Movie theaters transported viewers to places as appealing as Oz, attracting 85 million people a week. Others preferred to take their escape around the living room radio, listening to the heroic exploits of The Lone Ranger or Little Orphan Annie.

Fans, struggling to survive in their day-to-day lives, might have identified with the horse because of his underdog status. His stance was not regal; his body was rather low-slung. He had an awkward-looking gait. He had been mistreated as a young horse, raced and whipped too often, treatment which had turned him into an underachiever and a steady loser. He had his greatest success at a relatively old age, another reason for fans to embrace him. He also had what many thought would be a career-ending accident. Still, Seabiscuit came back to win the Santa Anita Handicap with his jockey┬áRed Pollard, who had a matching hard-luck story. That race, and a glorious win, was his last and it came in 1940, just as a trying decade was finally coming to a close. Says Gene Smith: “This is the story of every happy-ending fairytale that Mother read to us when we were in the nursery. And to a depression-ridden, anxious, frightened nation, it must have come like a great sunrise.”