In contrast to the simplified racing calendar in vogue 35 years ago—when even the most enterprising stables packed off for a winter on the farm because there was no race track worthy of their attention until New York reopened in the spring—the modern Thoroughbred racing season knows neither beginning nor conclusion. It has become a year-round operation of tremendous magnitude and permanent importance to millions of people, from the wealthiest owners to the unsuspecting tots in communities where taxes from racing provide financial support to bolster educational programs.
Racing nonetheless does have a sort of tapering-off period each year before attention can seriously be focused on the major winter events in Florida and California; and this is a good moment to devote some reflection to the problems and trends of the most popular paid spectator sport in the United States.
It is easy to think back on the 1958 season and exclaim with smugness that it has been a great year. True, attendance and mutuel handle were down in some areas, but the dip usually was negligible and could, more often than not, be directly related to some phase or other of the country's general 1958 recession. It can certainly be said that 1958 had its full share of racing excitement and thrills: the colorful antics of Silky Sullivan, the mastery of Tim Tarn and Neji, the successful cross-country jaunts of Round Table, the hopeless confusion at the Laurel International and the prospect that in First Landing we may have another great American champion to carry on the tradition of Count Fleet, Citation, Native Dancer and Tom Fool.
Nevertheless, racing, the matured sport and the thriving business, has reached a treacherous crossroad; it could easily make a wrong turn, and will, unless there emerges very soon a more spontaneous sense of responsibility on the part of the people who run it.
Racing was a sport long before it ever became a business, and fortunately, thanks to the minority of sportsmen still operating in positions of influence, there is still sport left—but not enough. If business ever gets completely the upper hand, it will be a sad day for many of us, and perhaps also for the businessmen.
A group of men who substantially share responsibility for the future of racing met last week in San Francisco to exchange ideas. As representatives of the 41 member tracks in the Thoroughbred Racing Association, they took a hard look at a series of problems ranging from basic management (how beneficial, for example, is valet parking?) to the ethics of the sport and the professional qualifications of top officials empowered with jurisdiction over its conduct. This 17th convention was the most successful of all TRA meetings, if only because mutual back-patting was abandoned in favor of ardent discussion of racing's shortcomings and ways of repairing them.
A hot topic was the excessive early racing of 2-year-olds. A lot of these youngsters (who years ago wouldn't have raced until at least midsummer of their 2-year-old season) are campaigning strenuously through January, February and March; often, for the sake of winning a comparatively meaningless $15,000 stake at three furlongs they can kill off whatever chance they might have had to develop into more rewarding colts later in the season. The cold business approach of many an owner and trainer to this problem is that a $15,000 winning purse in February (when there is less competition than in August and September) looks just as nice on a bank statement as $15,000 won anyhow—or anywhere—in the fall. And besides, as many are quick to point out, although the big-name stables can afford to wait with their young stock, today's average owner is operating in a field where ever-increasing costs make it almost mandatory for him to "get out" on his investment with as quick a return as possible. Nevertheless, the San Francisco conference considered legislation against early 2-year-old racing, and it is to be hoped the discussion was not purely academic.
American racing, in the tradition of the English sport on which it was patterned, used to place clear and rightful emphasis on "classical" 3-year-old stakes: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and the Travers. The following season a horse could further prove himself by entering stakes such as The Suburban, The Brooklyn and The Jockey Club Gold Cup. It mattered little or not at all whether he was successful as a 2-year-old, for it was generally understood that during this period of his life he was merely readying himself for the more productive years ahead. If he showed adequate form he was brought to the races first at Saratoga in August and then might be given a crack at The Belmont Futurity in September. If not he was kept away from competition entirely, as are many of the Calumet 2-year-olds even today, and given more time to prepare for the 3-year-old season, which is the big one in a Thoroughbred's career.
But today racing quite wrongly emphasizes the importance of a 2-year-old season by offering such inflated purses that few owners—including the remnants of the old guard of sportsmen—feel they can pass up such enticing opportunities. Distorted thinking has led many an owner to believe that a financially successful 2-year-old must be a pretty good horse. His monetary reward often even helps to ease the pain when the following year the colt either breaks down or turns out to be quite ordinary, if that.
The competitive inflation of purses, for older horses as well as 2-year-olds means overwork, which in turn means injury. A list of horses which have broken down this year reads like a roll call of our great or might-have-been-greats: Tim Tam, Cavan, Bold Ruler, Gallant Man....