Frequently, in my time as a horseplayer, I felt depression, anxiety and anguish. This night I was at the bottom. I wanted to commit suicide.
—I Made My First Bet $25,000 Ago
(Sports Illustrated, Feb. 10)
There are millions of Americans who have never seen a horse race, and probably a few million more who have never placed a bet on one. I feel sorry for them, as sorry as I feel for the compulsive horseplayer who wrote the doleful lines above.
For I am a horseplayer and a lover of the sport, one of the finest and oldest sports in the world. And also one of the most misunderstood.
Last year 32,085,177 racing fans wagered a taxable $2,300,510,107 through the pari-mutuel windows at America's 116 race tracks. How many of them were helpless, hopeless addicts who saw $25,000 vanish forever through those same windows in the course of 15 years?
The truth is that racing is supported mainly by prosperous, normal Americans-working, professional and business people who spend no more on their favorite sport than does a hunter, a fisherman or a golfer. Yet, to most Americans, the racing fan is still the cartoonist's familiar picture—loud vest, cigar in mouth, fleeing from the rent collector, squandering his substance. Why?
Racing has a schizophrenic background in America. It is the greatest paid spectator sport in the country; yet it is shadowed for many with feelings of guilt and shame. It provides its fans with some of the most beautiful, most carefully tended plants of any sport; yet millions of Americans consider these lovely parks on the same level as the burlesque house and the cockfight pit. Most of our states profit handsomely from the tax money which the tracks bring in; yet some states will not allow a track within their boundaries.
Pennsylvania, for instance, is in the odd position of having its citizens support racing to the east in New Jersey and Delaware, to the south in Maryland and West Virginia, to the west in Ohio and to the north in New York—but the state itself has no racing whatever beyond a few annual hunt meets because betting is illegal there. And all the efforts of Pennsylvania fans over the years to have pari-mutuel betting legalized have been vain, because there are more people who recall the attitude toward racing of the Puritans than there are sensible citizens who realize that a day at the track and a fling with the bookies was one of George Washington's favorite sports, too.
All this has stimulated a curious guilt complex about racing which extends even to enthusiasts themselves. Every turf writer in the country can tell stories about the elected officials, clergymen or prominent pillars of the community who have asked him kindly not to mention their presence at the track in his newspaper. The classic example occurred when President Truman's private railroad car was parked once in 1948 on Belmont's special siding. When the President went out for his early morning constitutional and gravitated toward the track where the horses were working out, he was hastily steered away from it by advisers who were afraid a news photographer might catch him leaning on the track railing while a horse went by.
It all seems rather silly, but it's so. And it's time that we grew up and recognized racing for what it is. It is an adult sport, with an honorable tradition going right back to the dawn of recorded history. It is a sport followed and supported by adult and intelligent people who do not go to the track merely to earn money—although, being human, they are happy if they do—but for entertainment. And as entertainment, it is fun. It's fun to stroll beside the walking ring at Del Mar, or to dine in the airconditioned clubhouse at Arlington Park, or to admire the nobly bred steeds amidst the tropical fauna at Hialeah. It's fun to doll up and play the sport of kings for a day—as much fun as going to a wedding when the bride's old man is rich.
But to get the most fun out of it, you've got to be adult, intelligent and bear some things in mind.