The Dawn of a New Day

by Ed Meyer

posted on June 9, 2023 in General Discussion, Horse Racing, | Comments Off on The Dawn of a New Day

As you see the fluffy wisps of billowing beauty in the sky moving quickly, there’s something ominous behind pushing them away. The sport of kings lies upon these white clouds, and this time, we’re not sure where the rain will fall.

Horse racing, especially Thoroughbred racing, was a sport enjoyed by all during the progressive era, according to Steven A. Reiss (Wikipedia). Thoroughbred racing was a rare sport, trending among social and economic elites and lower classes alike. Horse racing was an enamored sport, popular for its time in all regions of the United States, which took a downturn as the economy, gambling reformers and some interests faded. Reiss states that post-Civil War America was the horse racing sport’s rebirth, relying upon the status of men who bred and raced horses, and those operating jockey clubs and racetracks. Many states, most notably, New York, saw tremendous growth within the racing industry. According to author Steven Reiss, “The powerful alliance between urban machine politicians and racetrack owners enabled Thoroughbred racing in New York to flourish for about forty-five years without interruption”. Horse racing endured several ups and downs throughout the eras ranging from socio-economic status & political gain to morality imposition.

Long story short: Thoroughbred racing was the perfect trifecta for money, investors, and those who enjoyed the sport. When the “Big Three” – Baseball, Boxing, and Horse Racing held court, movers and shakers gave average fans an enjoyable sport with a cold beer and wager. The lotteries were far off, as “The Numbers” racket had just started allowing penny players a chance at the golden ring. America loves good gambling, and racing was the perfect avenue of taxable, legal income for the state coffers. Racing was a sport, and when you opened the doors, people flocked there in droves. But, not anymore.

Fast forward to the present times. Rapid-fire gaming has replaced racing as a mere memory, resulting from outside groups’ pressure, advocating for an ostensible lack of animal care and their lives after racing. Subsequently, you could see the writing on the wall when electronic slot machines subsidized the sport because they were riding on the gaming licenses of Greyhound racing. Racing organizations were eventually de-coupled and stood alone to fend for themselves. Public pressure and financial hardships were the final nails in the historic sports’ coffin.

Thoroughbred racing has been documented in American’s Stud Book since 1868 when “The Sport of Kings” was officially organized. It’s among the few places in the country where you’d see the plumber and lawyer aligned equally, talking about the upcoming race’s favorite. Being the melting pot of legal gambling seemed perfect for growth. And grow it did. Initially, the era proved highly successful; but soon thereafter, ownership became complacent. Ownership neglected the facilities, and decay slowly replaced beauty and pageantry at the ovals. As racing continued, the throngs of fans dwindled by the year.

The black eye of racing became full of excuses, and before long, substantial segments of the public lost their interest in the Sport of Kings. Purse structures needed monies to function, and casino interests had to be partnered if we wanted to hear the “Call to the Post” on the marquee days. Ownerships that had been held for decades became a whirling dervish of who owned the old track. This time marked the beginning of the end, while the real fans held on tightly. Fans that would’ve driven hours one way to enjoy nine races had grown older, and the next generation didn’t have the patience. The new generation enjoyed gaming with immediate gratification and could lose the house payment in one race’s time. Every punch to the Thoroughbred racing’s midsection got harder, while racing had a white-knuckle hold to survive.

At first, new ownerships invested money into racing, and the game looked to be revived. It’s always funny how trouble arises when large monies are involved. Racing wasn’t ever impervious to cheating, and when some people cut corners, cheating grew quickly without a regulating body’s oversight. Tracks continually fought problems, and without a unified front or a self-governing body, it was only a matter of time before an entity would adopt a blanket plan to eradicate the problems of the sport by outlawing it. This is where we are.

It started with the organization PETA, which examined equestrian sports with the same disdain as Greyhound racing. PETA officials made incessant decries against the racing industry, catching public attention for decades. While PETA brings many reasonable, good ideas to the table, PETA’s current goals are clear: eradicate the Sport of Kings historically operating since 1868. Never before had racing tracks wanted to adopt an NBA, NFL, or MLB, board to oversee and govern itself.

Enter HISA. The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority. Finally, it looked like there was a new sheriff in town, and transparency was the key to the racing industry’s survival. At first, racing sounded promising, as Congress passed a bill to bring to light the problems and get us back on track. HISA was created to implement, for the first time, a national, uniform set of integrity and safety rules that are applied consistently to every Thoroughbred racing participant and racetrack facility, according to the HISA website.

Horsemen are having trouble understanding the rules, and many complain of unfair decisions, whereas others feel they have little say in how operations are run. I hope the first round of ostensible regulation is passing, growing pains, and we will have a hope-filled, promising sport, as history held. It’s been a tough beginning, and as I write this, I’m optimistic for the future. If so, we can plan for the sport to entertain us for the coming generations. If not, this is the beginning of the end; with pending decisions, our nation now watches the Kentucky Derby shift its meeting to another track while sorting the continuous problems plaguing Thoroughbred racing.

I’m sure there is tremendous good that will come from an effective, regulatory body overseeing the sport. I hope to believe the game will survive longer than my time as a fan. However, what we’re seeing could be the beginning of the end.  To the powers that be: please take your time and do what is right. I’ve loved this sport all of my life, and enjoy the thought of generations to come watching the beauty and pageantry that only racing could provide. Aside from the loyal fans who keep the lights on, think of the countless racing industry workers feeding their families from the sport.