Publish date:

The troubles of a prosperous sport

Sports Illustrated's Turf Editor, Whitney Tower (right), here begins a series of articles on what may be termed the hidden crisis in Thoroughbred racing in this country. The result of long observation and recently growing concern, this series will go beyond mere critical analysis to recommend constructive solutions—the first being true authority for a national racing body

"Thoroughbred racing is today the most popular and most prosperous sport in the country. Its recent growth indicates that it is also one of the most vigorous. Some 35 million people will attend racing in 1961, at 113 tracks. They will bet more than $2½ billion on the outcome of 34,000 races. In those races, 30,000 starters will compete for nearly $86 million in purses. All told, the Thoroughbred industry has a capital investment of $2 billion, and 50,000 persons earn their living in it. Impressive as these figures are, there is every reason to believe that all will continue to increase in the seasons immediately ahead.

And yet, despite such clear signs of vigor and success, racing faces a number of serious threats to its welfare. Race tracks are in fierce competition with each other for the most customers and the best horses, and in the heat of this continuing battle many of the traditional elements of the sport are slipping out of sight.

Before it became even a small business, American racing was truly a sport. Its founders began with a deep-rooted dedication to breeding a "classic" horse, that rare animal endowed with a combination of heart, speed and stamina. They trained their horses in the hopes of winning a classic race. As tradition still dictates in England and France, what little racing the young animal did was fundamentally to prepare him for the classics and cup events when he was 3 and 4 years old. Track management devoted itself to drawing together the best possible fields for purses that did not have to exceed $100,000 to be newsworthy. Programs were varied; distance racing, hurdling and steeplechasing carried considerable prestige and drew a wide following.

A dangerous trend

Today, racing is big business. Owners and trainers go for the quick purse. Young horses are overraced and often crippled before they are even old enough to compete in classic events. Some track managements devote their best efforts to squeezing in the extra customer by scheduling extra races on extra racing days. The publicity gimmicks multiply. Programs are a monotonous sequence of sprints. The trend, in short, is toward a vast numbers game conducted in the plush, air-conditioned comfort of a Las Vegas gambling hall or a Chicago clip joint. And soon, if the trend continues, the traditions will be gone forever.

The ultimate cause of much of what we believe is wrong with racing today is, paradoxically, the very thing that is responsible for its growing prosperity—gambling. Americans have never been able to decide whether betting on horse races is a sin or a sport. Periodically it has been banned, legalized here and there, and hedged about with special restrictions. Today it is permitted in 25 states whose governments have discovered that it is an extremely convenient form of tax revenue. (Racing contributed nearly $200 million to state treasuries in 1960.) Regularly, as the handle of pari-mutuel betting has risen, states have increased the amount of their take. Under this prod, track management has sought new ways to hypo the handle. In the race between tax revenue and business profits on the one hand and the sport of horse racing on the other, taxes and profits are the odds-on favorite.

This is not to say that racing is being bled to death by taxation, as many of its promoters loudly and often proclaim. True, in some states, like Ohio, there are clear signs that the danger point is being rapidly approached. The tax on betting in Ohio has been boosted by every General Assembly since 1951. In 1960, betting was down, attendance was off and, as a result, purses paid to horsemen were lower. The only item that has gone up is the state's revenue from the betting. Obviously, if the tracks are put out of business because of excessive taxation which leads to inferior racing, which causes the public not to patronize the sport—then the state will get nothing at all from horse racing.

In our major racing states like New York, Illinois and California, however, the problem is not excessive taxation as such. It is the combination of irresponsible desire for higher revenue and track management's abetting of that desire through single-minded concern with the betting handle that has led to a decline in the quality of much of the racing. We believe that the states that derive so much profit from racing must begin to assume genuine responsibility for the quality of the sport. They must take their eyes off the tote board occasionally and pay some attention to the standards of competition. They must stop using their racing commissions as suitable areas for political-patronage appointments. A pitifully small percentage of commissioners around the country today are knowledgeable racing men.

While closer and more responsible relations between the states and racing officials are essential, the sport cannot expect many of its problems to be solved by public commissions. What is needed right now is a national body of Thoroughbred sportsmen strong enough within the limits of antitrust laws to regulate racing's internal affairs. For many years The Jockey Club (SI, Nov. 11, 1957) performed this necessary function. Now stripped of much of its power, The Jockey Club's primary concern, aside from lending the sport some welcome prestige, is to maintain the guardianship of the American Stud Book.

The obvious group to become a national supervisory board is the Thoroughbred Racing Association, a voluntary trade association made up of 45 tracks for the original purpose of mutual guidance and exchange of information on race track management. The TRA, through its Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (SI, Feb. 1, 1960), enforces a strict code of ethics and standards at all member tracks. By allocating funds to the TRPB, it provides the individual states with an investigative body at no cost to any state.

A full-time job

The TRA has some money and a good deal of prestige. Its 18-man board of directors is made up of some of racing's most influential track owners, managers and officials. It has the respect of racing people everywhere, and yet the TRA has most failed the sport by its reluctance to take a firm and uniform stand on controversial issues. It is true that the TRA does not have legal power to enforce its decisions—that power being reserved by the 25 state commissions. Nevertheless, it must find ways of bringing its influence to bear on racing's problems. The president of the TRA (he has a one-year term of office) often is expected to serve as head of his own track and, in addition, may run a few other businesses on the side. Obviously it would be better to have a man who could devote full time to this important job and who could look forward through reasonable tenure to carrying out long-range policies. A first step in this direction was taken recently, in spite of some resistance, by the promotion of Spencer Drayton to TRA vice-president. As such, he may be able to obtain agreement on a number of important issues. These include some necessary reforms:

1) Cutting down on the extra racing day, the extra race per day, the eye-catching betting gimmick—all self-defeating innovations designed to give a quick fillip to gross business.

2) Abandoning the policy of publicity-conscious competition between member tracks to see who can provide the biggest single purse, in favor of a wider distribution of prize money to horses of allowance or overnight handicap class in justice to their owners.

3) Promoting more and better distance racing for horses of all classes. (America's classic mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes has been won only once in the past four years by an American-bred colt.)

4) Taking a close look at the practices of some racing secretaries and handicappers. Too often a secretary will virtually "order" a trainer to run his horse—to fill a race—under threats of various sorts. Promises of future weight concessions may be used as a lure. Many a trainer, in order to oblige a secretary, has replied that he'll race if he's so ordered, but he openly admits that he'll tell his jockey to take it easy because his horse isn't fit. The trainer who refuses to oblige the racing secretary may be told that his allotment of stalls will not be available to him next season.

5) Urging tough and uniform rules against the use of drugs, including the controversial butazolidin (SI, Aug. 1), until conclusive laboratory and field tests determine the drugs' immediate and long-range effects on Thoroughbreds.

These and other specific racing problems (the lack of an adequate training program for jockeys, the crisis in steeplechasing and hurdling, the need for an international racing policy) will be examined in future articles.



SPENCER DRAYTON has new authority to aid the expansion of TRA's influence.