Some raw numbers for an industry in peril:
-national horseracing handle down 21.5% since 2005 (BusinessWeek, 5/5/11)
-unadjusted for inflation, total U.S. handle on pace to hit its lowest level since 1995 (Daily Racing Form, 8/4/11)
-inflation-adjusted NY handle 20% of what it was in 1974 (NY Times, 6/10/10)
-the NY Racing Association (NYRA) will lose around $11 million this year (Daily Racing Form, 7/20/11)
-Equibase reports that 1st Qtr 2011 wagering is down 27.8% from 1st Qtr 2004 (Daily Mail, 4/5/11)
-this past December, all NYC OTB sites (representing about 45% of NY’s total handle) were closed for good (NY Times, 12/8/10)
Writing in The NY Times in 2010, Bennett Liebman, former Government Law Center Director at Albany Law School and current Cuomo Administration gaming expert, said that horseracing “was almost the entire gambling market 40 years ago,” and “pari-mutuels (horse racing, dog racing and jai-alai) probably are down to about 3 percent of the gambling industry.” From everything to 3% in four short decades. Little wonder handwringing is the order of the day.
Last November, Governor Patterson’s office announced plans for a new Indian casino near Monticello Racetrack in Sullivan County. The racing industry reacted like the desperate entity it is. NYRA board member and prominent trainer Rick Violette said, (Daily Freeman, 11/24/10) “It’s just unconscionable.” Unconscionable? And Donald Groth, Catskill OTB president, remarked, “All of this gambling is destroying OTB.” The NY Post reported (11/22/10) that an analysis from Genting NY, the Aqueduct racino developer (slated to open this year) and major Monticello stockholder, “assumes the Monticello facility would be forced to close altogether.” On the more recent possibility of a Shinnecock casino on Long Island, Genting official Colin Au said, (Saratogian, 6/20/11) “It would be disastrous. We would probably have to close shop.”
And, of course, this crisis is not unique to NY. The Baltimore Sun reports (2/27/11) that Maryland faces the grim prospect of losing its four OTB locations, as total OTB betting from 1995-2009 dropped almost in half. The owner of the state’s largest OTB site puts it rather bluntly: “We’re hanging by our fingernails.” Another parlor owner says: “Everyone’s going to Charles Town and Delaware [tracks with full casino games] because that’s where all the action is.”
As Ohio debates whether to allow racinos, The Plain Dealer writes: (4/2/11) “Turning the state’s tracks into racinos is a matter of survival, say those who work in the horse-racing industry, which has seen betting fall almost 60 percent in the last 10 years, from $596 million to $253 million.” In Illinois, the situation is even more dire. State Rep. Lou Lang, who has sponsored legislation to allow the state’s five tracks to incorporate slots, is succinct: (Chicago Tribune, 4/6/11) “The horse-racing industry is dying on the vine.” Some, though, seem less-than-sympathetic. Elgin Mayor Ed Schock: “They’re already getting a subsidy [riverboat casinos are required to help subsidize racetracks]. If people aren’t interested in going to horse racing in enough numbers, it would seem horse racing isn’t viable anymore.”
More and more, racinos are becoming racing’s lifeline. When the NYS Legislature first approved them in the form of Video Lottery Terminals in 2001 (initially, stately Saratoga was to be spared this indignity but ended up opening the very first in 2004), Yonkers GM Bob Galterio said, (NY Times, 10/26/01) “I think it’s going to save harness racing in New York. Yonkers Raceway would certainly have closed down.”
The animal rights position holds that horseracing is nothing more than exploitation of the weaker and vulnerable for money. This position is born of facts. Racing proponents, in contrast, must resort to diversions, deceits, and outright lies in order to sell their product to an increasingly educated and disinterested public. They talk of pampered horses doing what comes naturally (whips and bits?); the beauty and elegance of equines in full stride; and their supposed sport’s regal history, complete with manipulative movies like Seabiscuit and Secretariat. The self-important wits at ESPN even named the latter the 35th greatest athlete of the 20th Century. If all this were true and horseracing was not merely a vehicle for gambling, then the industry wouldn’t find itself on the precipice; instead, it would be flourishing with those just there to watch. Vacuous nonsense.
If, as hoped, horseracing has entered an extended hospice stage, then the industry should look inward and not villainize government, which historically has been its most ardent supporter, and Indian casinos. For perhaps, just perhaps, the pervasive doping, catastrophic breakdowns, shameful neglect, heartless auctions, and gut-wrenching slaughter have affected public sensibility. Even former NYRA Director Liebman concedes that corruption, drugs, whips, and injuries “have contributed to the public perception that horse racing is a cruel sport.”
While I am not blind to the destructive nature of addictive gambling, sympathy for autonomous human beings has its limits. Besides, for most people, slots and scratch-offs provide harmless fun (and a boost to state coffers). So I say, open more casinos (not racinos, which subsidize racing) and create new lottery games. Exploit the hell out of poker chips, blackjack tables, and lotto balls; leave the animals out of it.