When I was asked not long ago what it was that impressed me first about horse racing I instinctively answered, without a second thought: going to the races with my father at the age of 10 in Saratoga. I remember being completely awed at the magnificence of the beautifully turned-out horses that came to the paddock representing the leading stables in America. In the years since (and I am 44 now), I have been an owner, a breeder and a trainer. I have had a varied taste of racing in most parts of this country, in Canada and in England and France.
You hear so much about the old days of racing and the fun it used to be. In a sense, looking back on them today, they seem like Utopia. But I am not fool enough to think we're ever going to get back to Utopia or the fun and relaxation and the true sport of the old days.
And yet it's good to reminisce a bit. The thing that best describes the old days is that people were in racing because it was a challenge and because it was sporting—but, first and foremost, they liked the horse. Most of them rode themselves. They hunted or owned show horses, as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. Take, for example, the very early days at Newmarket, the start of racing as we know it. Needless to say, there were no grandstands then, but four or five people who had Thoroughbred horses would come out to that famous heath on a Sunday, and they'd match them up at a mile on the straight. And this is the part of the story I love—the spectators would ride out on horseback to see these four or five horses compete. They would sit on their own horses in the stretch watching the racers coming from afar, four or five of them, and when the racers got to the final furlong, all of them driving to the wire, the entire gallery would gallop with them to the finish.
This is, of course, a long way back, but you can visualize the color of it: everybody carefully dressed, mounted on horseback, watching the competition and being so fascinated and so enthusiastic that the last eighth of a mile was made up of five horses running in the race for a purse of 100 sovereigns and 100 spectators all galloping to the wire with them to see how the finish came out. It's a true and lovely vignette.
Since those early wonderful sporting days in England, Thoroughbred racing has grown tremendously throughout the world, and certainly in the U.S. But having watched it grow through the last few tricky decades, I'm more than ever convinced that American racing is growing in the wrong direction. I would not say that the game is all bad. The public is accommodated better in fancier grandstands, and everything is bigger. The money, especially, is bigger. And because of it, unfortunately, the emphasis here is less on the sport itself than on an ever-increasing handle earmarked primarily for the benefit of state legislatures. We are losing something, and not the least of this something is the number of U.S. owners who are now racing their stock in Europe, where the game is also getting bigger but has managed to save its pageantry, its traditions and its dignity. Those are the things I miss here. In England, France, Ireland and Australia there is an actual interest in and love of the sport and the horse as an individual. In the U.S. the interest is purely in numbers. Everything is in betting units. Whatever esprit de corps we once had in American racing is fast diminishing. The game has become permeated with a sense of fear and pressure. Everybody is afraid of somebody else today, and it only makes it tougher and tougher for any active participant in racing to enjoy the game. I am speaking for the owner, the breeder, the trainer and certainly the wearier-than-ever horseplayer.
The interlocking fear-and-pressure situation goes something like this: The growth and improvement of plant facilities have resulted in larger mutuel handles, which in turn have filled state treasuries with an ever-increasing tax bite. Naturally, the states have seized the opportunity to increase the number of days of racing—which is doing the sport no good at all. But, of course, the state couldn't care less about the sport as long as it is getting more of a tax income every year. So, in effect, the state runs racing everywhere, even in New York, where 10 years ago a group of intelligent men sold out to the state the individual franchises of the four tracks they owned or controlled for the price of a ham sandwich. Now you see the fear cycle. The racing commissioners are afraid of the state, because the job of commissioner is a political appointment. Track management is afraid of the state, because if the track doesn't put on a steady diet of heavy-betting races with full fields (as opposed to races of smaller fields made up of better horses but producing smaller handles) the state will notice a drop in its tax share. Owners and trainers are afraid of management, because if they don't ship in with horses ready to run—and then run them every three days—they won't get stall space next time around. Finally, trainers are even afraid of their own help, which is often inexperienced and unwilling.
There are also specific problems that face those of us who live as professional racetrackers. Bigger handles and bigger purses obviously make it more interesting for more people to get into racing. The breeder benefits, because there is a broader and higher market for his animal. The average yearling price in 1963 at the major auctions was an astronomical $13,000. Some shares in stallions are going for $50,000. A top broodmare can command a price of half a million. There is a market for every horse because there is so much racing that the poor stock finds its way to the half-milers and little tracks. In fact, there is so much racing that it is very hard today not to win a race with a horse. At one little track last year they were writing conditions for horses that had not been one-two-three at the meeting, and if you finished fifth or worse the track paid your jockey's fee. In other words, the track subsidized the race, so it didn't cost the owner anything at all to run.
Can you imagine what this does? It makes you go on with a horse that you should not be racing. You go on because every once in a while you find a new race and enough money to go on again. And this makes markets for those bad horses. It makes a man breed a bad mare and breed to bad stallions because he knows there is some kind of a market. He raises horses like cows, and he sells them for whatever he can get. I think this is inexcusable. It's the old story of putting a premium on mediocrity.
I am very much against programs in some states where bonuses are offered for horses bred in that particular state. I think it causes an overproduction of horses rather than selective breeding of horses. It results in giving away too much money to a bad horse, and when that horse stops racing it is bred as fast as it can stagger into the breeding shed. I believe that to the victor should go the spoils, to the best horse should go the money, and it shouldn't make any difference whether the best horse was bred in California, Kentucky, Illinois, Ontario or The Bronx.
The American owner and trainer are no better off than the breeder. Only in a few prominent stables, in the hands of veteran big-name trainers, can be found the relaxed attitude that goes with shipping horses in and out of a track when you want to and running them as you see fit. The big trainer still has some say-so. But the little trainer will run horses where they don't belong, and maybe too soon, before they are ready. He does this because he knows the track is marking down his every start, and if he doesn't start a horse every time the management thinks he should the word goes out: "We'll fix this clown. He'll get half the stalls he asks for next year." That's why management loves, and caters to, the public trainers with a barn full of cheap horses. Management loves the man who ships in ready to run five horses a day, who claims horses that are fit and ready and who keeps popping them in, walking them a day or two and popping them in again. It's that numbers game.
How sad do you think racetrack managements are over the death of any prominent owner of a traditionally famous stable? Publicly they will concede that Mr. So-and-so was the very backbone of the game, and they will send a big wreath to his funeral. Privately they will be thinking, "Hurray, So-and-so is gone, so we have 20 stalls to give to Joe Blow, who is bringing in 20 claimers ready to run every three or four days."
A stall shortage is a pretty common complaint throughout the major racing centers, and much of the problem revolves around finding stalls for 2-year-olds, especially early in the season. In some places trainers are told they can only bring a certain number of 2-year-olds, based on the number of older horses they are carrying—for example, one 2-year-old for every three older horses. This is because management believes that the 2-year-old is a bad betting proposition. In fact, when he gets to running, a 2-year-old's form is fairly consistent, and people like to bet on him. But the trouble is that early in the year 2-year-olds are being—or should be—saved for later on. Or else they are going through the usual baby diseases. This means that a good part of the time the 2-year-old is not useful to track management and he's just taking up stall space. Management naturally would like to give those stalls to somebody more valuable and forget about the trainer who has eight 2-year-olds and four older horses, the trainer who is hopefully looking ahead to the classics a year away and who has no intention of cranking up his 2-year-olds until August.
I agree with most racing men that we are vastly overracing our 2-year-olds today, and I am quite sure that too much early 2-year-old racing has a bad effect on what happens later on in the handicap division. Across the country today we have maybe 10 genuine handicap horses. We have something like 16,000 foals a year, and by the time these foals are 4 we are down to 10 top horses. And when I say top, not all of them are like Kelso. The next division consists of maybe 35 very useful allowance horses. These horses are now sneaking into the handicap division because there are so many places to run. I'd hate to sit down and pick the top 10. You start with Kelso, Mongo, Gun Bow, Saidam, Cyrano, and then you begin to stagger around trying to pick the next five, never mind the next 35. This is the result of overracing at 2 and a season so long that it is both dull and dangerous, ruining the overall quality of the sport.
Today's average trainer, faced with trying to get along with management so that he will be allowed in the park next year, has a barnful of other worries. First, he may be so short on stall space that he is forced to put his feed and tack out in the shed row. Next, he has incompetent help most of the time. In the old days grooms were men who had come up through an apprenticeship. They knew something about a horse and how to turn him out. In England today you still find them. In the paddock at Goodwood or Ascot a neatly dressed groom walks in with his horse turned out to a fare-thee-well. The horse's mane is braided, or at least combed and neat. It doesn't make any difference if that man is going to the Derby or to the last race. He is leading his little horse, and he has a pride in his work that everyone can see.
We don't have it anymore. We have a boy who was driving a bus yesterday and got fired. Or a guy who has seen a horse pulling a wagon three times. The trainer is half afraid to tell the boy to braid a horse's mane because a) the boy doesn't know how to braid a mane, b) maybe the trainer doesn't know how to either, or c) the groom is liable to say to him, "Go braid it yourself." Discipline has gone. I have seen lead ponies at Aqueduct that looked horrible, and attendants on them who looked worse off than Bowery bums. A trainer doesn't want his pony boy dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, but he should want him neat. If he suggests it to the boy, he's likely to be told, "Have you lost your mind? Go get somebody else." I wouldn't be surprised to see a groom come into the paddock at Aqueduct someday wearing a Beatle wig.
You have similar trouble with your exercise boys. Say you are a little trainer with two horses and you cannot afford your own boy. So you grab some freelance on the run. You say to him, "Take this horse, walk him out to the three-quarter pole, then jog a quarter of a mile and gallop him back to the five-and-a-half-furlong pole and pull him up and walk him home." The boy will look at you as if you were raving mad. Then he will get on your horse, ride him as far as the gap, kick him in the belly, gallop him around once, snatch him up, gallop him back to the gap and get him to the barn as fast as he can because he has to jump off and get on some other man's horse. Now, this isn't training the horse. This is training at a horse, and it must show up in the horse's performance.
We are getting new people in racing, which is all for the good, provided they care something about horses and maybe know a little about them, too. The trouble is you get people coming in who neither know nor care. Mr. Moneybags, unknowledgeable about racing, gets into the game. He gets his trainer, but he doesn't know how much his trainer knows either. Neither of them knows what the standard of excellence should be. And, believe me, the standard used to be wonderfully high. At Evening Stables in England even today the groom stands there in the box with his horse, takes the rug off him so the trainer can inspect him, lays out his brush and his curry comb and his equipment in the corner for further inspection. Then the trainer may use white gloves to run his hand over the horse's back to see if he has picked up any dirt. You still see a little of this elegance in the bigger stables in America. You see it most of all at Saratoga. Go around some afternoon at 4 o'clock and look into almost any stall. You'll find everything quiet all about you, and a horse is standing there perfectly relaxed and done up to his knees in bandages. His bed is level and it's thick. He has been done up earlier and his coat is shining. He is a pleasure to look at, and there is something very thrilling about it. But wherever else you are in the U.S. today, this is the exception rather than the rule.
The rule is that the horse has as skimpy a bed as possible, and he's got half a portion of hay in front of him. He probably hasn't got any bandages on, because if the trainer wants bandages he would have to put them on himself because the groom doesn't know how. The groom doesn't want to bed the stall down too heavy, because he's going to have to muck out too much in the morning. Furthermore the trainer doesn't want the groom to bed the horse down too deep either, because he's going to throw out too much, which is going to cost the trainer too much—and the trainer is only getting paid on a per diem basis. It is the system of the shortcut, and the only thing that counts for the trainer is to get that horse to the races and run him. Hell, the trainer says to himself, 10% of nothing is nothing, so run your horse 49 times a year if you can. Use a vet who will tell you only what you want to hear—instead of what the vet knows he should suggest to you—so that you can run, run and then run again. If you tell Mr. Moneybags his horses need a rest and should not run for a few months, he will go down the road and find a trainer who will run the whole stable, cripples and all, tomorrow.
As disturbed as I am, I still feel some i constructive action can be taken. First, to come back to the 2-year-olds, I am in favor of putting in a rule that says no 2-year-old can run before June 15—except in claiming races. In other words, if a man has a little gingerbread 2-year-old and he's got to run for a claim to win, then he should be able to. The man has bought the 2-year-old as a yearling and he's got some money in it, and he wants to run and get his money back and try to keep things going. Sure, why not? Let him run in claimers. But I would have no 2-year-old stakes before July 15, which would force people to save their best young stock until the late summer or fall meetings (when all of them have reached the true age of 2). This would give them a chance to overcome early troubles and allow their bones to set.
Next I would institute the quinella form of betting (betting on the first two in a race) as they have done in some places in Canada with great success. The quinella enables short fields to run, and because it does attract extra betting these short fields run at no loss to the management. With quinella betting in force we would help the owner and trainer with the middle-class allowance horse. You see, while the man with the claimers has plenty of chances to run—and with the tracks catering to him all the time, he certainly should have—the fellow with the rarer middle-quality horse does not. In most places today, if there aren't at least eight betting interests the race doesn't go, because management figures it is not going to be a good betting race. This is shocking.
Say you have a horse worth $25,000, eligible for an attractive race under allowance conditions. Six of you enter, and on paper it looks like a fine race. But management will not let it go, because it is more interested in catering to the cheap horse that will keep the fields full and the mutuels clicking. A typical breeder who is putting his life and money into the game because he hopes some day to win a great classic has paid a lot to raise his allowance horse. He may have paid a $10,000 stud fee, $10,000 more to get the colt to the races at 2 and another $7,000 at 3. He has invested $30,000 in that horse. He can beat a $15,000 claimer to death, but he cannot beat a Kelso. So he cannot put him in the big stakes and he can't run him for $15,000 in a claiming race. If the allowance race draws only six entries, his horse gets no race, and he may have to wait three or four weeks before he gets a chance. Here is an injustice that quinella betting—put on the card for one race a day at the discretion of management—would solve. (In England, of course, the system is still better, because when you put a horse into a race it doesn't make any difference if it comes up a walkover—that race goes.)
While we're on the subject of multiple-type betting, I'm against the twin double. The quinella has a use, but to me the twin double is a lottery, too much of a freak bet, liable to attract the wrong kind of gambling and the wrong kind of gambler. The peanut games they are running at some of the smaller tracks are not doing racing any good either. Some tracks can only exist through the use of gimmicks. They have a poor game with a small handle and try to milk it for all it is worth. When you get to giving away Green Stamps and things like that, you've lost me.
I am strongly in favor of a shorter racing season in most parts of the country. The exception would be in southern California, where the great increase of population in the Los Angeles area could definitely support more racing than there is now in the relatively short meetings at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. But I'm speaking mainly of New York, which now has 234 days at major tracks, from March 16 through December 12. The state legislature, I know, will howl about cutting days in New York, but I think it could be done very easily by instituting two things: 1) off-track betting and 2) Sunday racing.
I think it is hypocritical to be against Sunday racing. If you say it is immoral to see the moving picture Tom Jones on Sunday afternoon, then I agree with you it is immoral to go racing on Sunday afternoons. But it is perfectly ridiculous to say you can go see a baseball game or a hockey game or a professional football game—all of which are heavily bet—on a Sunday, but not a horse race. Most Catholic countries in the world race on Sunday. I'm not proposing we start the races at 8 in the morning. I propose we start the races at the normal time, after church, have lunch at the races and watch the horses run.
I would put in off-track betting, harnessed to the mutuels and run by the state. The New York season could be limited to April 15 to October 15 if you had off-track betting and Sunday racing (taking Tuesdays off), because you could average a $5 million handle every day, at least, and thus the state could realize in a shorter period more tax money than it received from 1963's 220 days. Nothing would benefit horses and horsemen more than a shorter season. Our fearfully long season, begat by greed, is hurting the overall picture of racing in America. In short, the horses are track-sore, the owners, trainers and breeders are track-sore, the track itself is track-sore. And I suspect, after this, when I apply for stalls I may be told that I am too sore to get any.
At traditional Saratoga the horses in the walking ring still draw knowledgeable spectators.
At commercial Aqueduct many fans never see horses, even watch races on closed-circuit TV.