Human Cost

By Frank Vespe

Ran into my pal the usher the other day at Laurel.

That is, the ex-usher.

Because Laurel -- besieged by nearby tracks with slots-infused purses and battling the collapsing national economy -- no longer needs ushers on normal days.  And so my friend is an ex-usher.  After 50 years.

Once, a track like Laurel employed a small army of ushers to handle the crowds that thronged the facility.  Live racing -- the only gambling game in town -- regularly packed a Laurel grandstand that mystery writer Dick Francis lauded for its comfort and luxury.

Nowadays, the action is largely downstairs, in front of the endless banks of simulcast televisions.  On most days, decent seats at the main simulcast theater can be hard to come by.

And Laurel's grandstand -- suffering from too many years of not-so-benign neglect -- is no longer a place of comfort or luxury.  Even on days when big crowds visit the central Maryland track, the combination of insufficient air conditioning, too many years since a decent paint job, and streaky windows make the grandstand the seat of last resort.  Even in the cold, bettors will huddle outside for the races rather than take in the expansive, cross-track views from the grandstand.

And so, my friend the usher, another victim of our faltering racetrack economy.

"Creative destruction" is the term with which economists describe the workings of the capitalist economy. Creative, in that we're always on to the next big thing; destructive, in that it's the last big thing that is often left behind. From the ashes rises the phoenix.

These days, it can be hard to determine whether from the ashes of closing racetracks will rise a new, stronger game -- or whether the game itself is slated for destruction, the creative part leading to new types of gambling and different sports.

While we may intellectually understand the wisdom, indeed, the necessity of this creative destruction, we are also human.  And as humans, we find change unsettling; we inherently understand that what is being destroyed is not just a faceless company or an obsolete industry; there are lives here, and careers on the line.  And so we hope for creative destruction tempered with mercy, or at least compassion.

Racing is a labor-heavy sport.  It takes a lot of people to put on even one race: trainers, jockeys, backstretch employees, a gate crew, stewards, outriders.  The list is virtually endless.  Add in the labor needs of the venue -- wait staff, bartenders, customer service people, janitorial staff, tellers -- and you've got the recipe for bankruptcy.

It's one of racing's curses, this need for labor.  That won't change.  The vagaries of a dozen undersized people on a dozen skittish horses, coupled with the needs of thousands of hungry and thirsty fans, mean that live racing will always require lots of supporting labor.  Which means that tracks will find economies where they can: ushers, kitchen help, janitors, security.  They'll try to make do with less.

The need for labor is also one of racing's charms.  Racing attracts a potpourri of characters, half rogues' gallery, half Bowery Boys, that give it a raffish goodwill that is -- like so much of the game -- largely out of synch with modern life.

On Friday, as I sat in the grandstand, I couldn't fault Laurel for their decision.  As is the case at so many tracks these days, there was more than enough room for everyone.  Or ten times everyone.

On the other hand, 50 years on the job is a virtual lifetime; a man with such a history is a human archive of the shifting fortunes of a sport and an industry.  You wonder if alternatives exist.

"Call me when you have a horse in," he told me.  "I like to be there when my friends run."

I'll do that, of course.  But, still, it makes you wonder.  If we've learned one thing from witnessing capitalism's creative destruction, it's that everything is temporary: a company, a racetrack, an individual's job.  Perhaps even the old sport itself.

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