Subsidize or Downsize - by Robert Laurence

I don’t gamble. Shoot, I don’t even fill out a March Madness bracket. I do follow the games to see how the seedings play out. The win-or-go-home format makes irrelevant that great artifice of the gambler—the point-spread.

I have no high-minded, moral principle against gambling; I just never caught the bug. I recall playing golf in my college days, when someone in the foursome said, “Let’s put something in the pot to make it interesting. ”Make it interesting? How much more interesting than trying to run a 7-iron shot against a crosswind onto a summer-hard, backward sloping green? Any more interesting than that, and I’d collapse under interest-overload.

I don’t bet, but I do like to watch Thoroughbreds race, whether across the south pasture, running for the sake of running, or around an oval for a handsome purse. Has there been a better match than Curlin versus Rags to Riches, head-to-head, eye-to-eye, for the length of the stretch at Belmont? Pick your sport, any sport, and beat that. Maybe, for some, racing is more interesting if the mortgage payment is on War Pass to show, but for me, the running is enough.

I also don’t know much about Kentucky politics. I have no opinion on why Steve Beshear disappointed the horse industry. I have no idea why some Kentuckians want to amend their Constitution and others don’t.

OK, so I don’t gamble and don’t know much about Kentucky. Still, maybe the observations of such an outsider can shed some light on the failure of the Kentucky casino bill. Here goes:

Horse racing used to have a virtual monopoly on legal gambling. It still does in some states, but by and large those days are gone, never to return. For good or ill, we live in a slot-­machined country. And the truth is just this plain—for the heart and the buck of the typical gambler, horse races lose out to slot machines. Don’t ask me why, but people would rather drive to Indiana and play the slots than stay in Louisville and play the horses.

Patrons at Oaklawn will sit for hours at slot machines, betting on the outcome of a previously-run horse race, and will hardly bother to walk outside and watch the live races.

And if our game loses the gamblers in a match with slots, can it win the hearts and dollars of the pure sports fan? Sadly, no. Betting aside, most Americans care about just two races in the spring. Three, if the same horse wins those two. A few will tune in to watch a day’s worth of championship racing in the fall, though getting them to watch two days’ worth is problematic.

There are many reasons for this. First, the sport is still packaged first and foremost as gamblers’ entertainment. Second, our heroes and heroines don’t stick around long enough for the fans to know them. Curlin versus “Rags” was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Real Quiet versus Victory Gallop was three times for a generation. Affirmed versus Alydar, three times for a century. It’s as if Magic and Bird had played one game against each other in 1979 and never set foot on the same court again. Or Ali and Frazier had fought once and then retired to open a restaurant together. Connors versus McEnroe, again and again? Forget it.

If I’m right, and we lose to the slots for the gamblers and to NASCAR for the racing fans (God knows why; maybe it’s the hats), then it looks like one of two things is going to happen—either we face a downsizing of the Thoroughbred industry or we need a subsidy.

The gaming industry in today’s market is so darned profitable that they can give the state a cut, subsidize the Thoroughbred industry, and still run out of places to put the money they have left. What do they get? An air of respectability, maybe, and our industry’s fabled influence with legislators. What do we get? A direct conduit from the slot machines to race purses, thence to owners, thence to trainers, jockeys, breeders, and the rest of us hangers-on. There may even be some support for the retirement operations.

So, a subsidy, or we downsize to about five or six tracks, nationwide, and maybe a thousand new foals a year. I have nothing against subsidies. Lots of industries get them, directly or indirectly. But let’s be honest enough to admit that that’s what we’re doing—getting money that, if the market were left free and unregulated, would be going elsewhere. Let’s drop the smugness and sense of entitlement. We aren’t owed a cut of the slot machine take. We’ll turn the clubhouses into casinos, and run races that will barely be noticed by the players. We’ll take some of the money poured into the slots in order to keep our industry going. And we’ll hope that it will be enough.

It would help to say “please” in advance, and “thanks” at the end.

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