Entertainment Value - By Martin Stiles

(Originally published in the January 16, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

The breeding and racing of horses has been financed by the profits from gambling for as long as anyone can remember.

In 17th century England, when races were organized at Newmarket, betting among the wealthy owners was often heavy, and a fast horse was a valuable commodity. During this period, horses with some Arab blood acquired a reputation for speed. In the year 1704, when the Darley Arabian was spirited away from his Bedouin owner’s camp near Aleppo (Syria) and installed on a stud farm in Yorkshire, the sportsmen who engineered that caper were not motivated by a desire to upgrade the quality of English bloodstock for agricultural purposes, although that was one of the long-term results. Their immediate goal was the production of runners to be used as betting tools at

In recent times, starting in the early 20th century, the mechanism for transfer of money from the gamblers’ pockets to the horse operation has been derived from the pari-mutuel system of betting. The betting pool for each contest is subject to a percentage “takeout” that is used to pay both operating expenses and the purse (prize) money, which is the source of support for horsemen. Thanks in no small measure to the fact that horse racing during most of this period has had a monopoly on legal gambling, the Thoroughbred industry has grown to become a major factor in the economies of many states. In Kentucky the horse industry (breeding, selling, training, and racing) is one of the state’s most valuable crops.

The system just described has come under fire from gambling interests not tied to horse racing. An increasing number of states have licensed gambling operations (casino games) that are perceived as providing more attractive wagering opportunities than horse races. Many observers believe that the racetracks cannot survive under those circumstances. The threat posed by these non-horse games is exacerbated by the fact that the building and operation of a modern racing facility (Keeneland Race Course, for example, has stabling for nearly 2,000 horses in its 57 barns) are far more expensive than the installation and servicing of an acre or so of slot machines.

The response of the horse industry to this threat has led to an impasse that begs for a new approach. It may be time for all of us to take a fresh look at the casino issue, in the hope we might find a consensus developing around a position that has not yet been fully enunciated.

In their struggle to survive, the horsemen must first learn to identify their real adversaries, who are not the religious groups and others who oppose gambling, but those who compete for the betting dollar, i.e., casinos. It was a mistake to tie those competing interests together by insisting that the licensing of slots be restricted to racetracks. By placing the two competing interests under the same roof, the competition for the betting dollar becomes an INTRAMURAL affair, rather than an open contest between the two kinds of gambling. The bottom-line profits for a gambling enterprise that utilizes a mixture of horse racing and casino games will no doubt be improved by increasing the proportion of the latter in the mix, owing to the lower production costs of casino games. In that setting, track management (the licensee) will offer a program that is dominated to an increasing degree by the casino games. Horses will play a diminishing role.
The sport of horse racing provides entertainment that is not matched by casinos. It is this advantage that should be exploited by horsemen. They should concentrate on improving their product, and the marketing of that product. A recent experiment by Churchill Downs showed that marketing can be improved by such simple changes as the adjustment of starting times for racing programs. Other similar experiments should be tried.

Highest priority should be given to the resolution of racing’s medication issues, particularly the matter of race-day treatment of runners. Modern analytical techniques have made it possible to ensure that illegal drugs are not influencing the outcome of races. Vigilant enforcement of the medication rules is essential to maintain the confidence that ours is an honest game. If we cannot accomplish that, we do not deserve to win. (Slot machines do not cheat; they only steal.)

Martin Stiles and his wife, Martha, bred group winners Hardgreen and Castle Green, and Canadian champion Buckys Solution at Stockwell Farm in Bourbon County, Ky

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