When I was asked not long ago what it was that impressed me first about horse racing I instinctively answered, without a second thought: going to the races with my father at the age of 10 in Saratoga. I remember being completely awed at the magnificence of the beautifully turned-out horses that came to the paddock representing the leading stables in America. In the years since (and I am 44 now), I have been an owner, a breeder and a trainer. I have had a varied taste of racing in most parts of this country, in Canada and in England and France.
You hear so much about the old days of racing and the fun it used to be. In a sense, looking back on them today, they seem like Utopia. But I am not fool enough to think we're ever going to get back to Utopia or the fun and relaxation and the true sport of the old days.
And yet it's good to reminisce a bit. The thing that best describes the old days is that people were in racing because it was a challenge and because it was sporting—but, first and foremost, they liked the horse. Most of them rode themselves. They hunted or owned show horses, as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. Take, for example, the very early days at Newmarket, the start of racing as we know it. Needless to say, there were no grandstands then, but four or five people who had Thoroughbred horses would come out to that famous heath on a Sunday, and they'd match them up at a mile on the straight. And this is the part of the story I love—the spectators would ride out on horseback to see these four or five horses compete. They would sit on their own horses in the stretch watching the racers coming from afar, four or five of them, and when the racers got to the final furlong, all of them driving to the wire, the entire gallery would gallop with them to the finish.
This is, of course, a long way back, but you can visualize the color of it: everybody carefully dressed, mounted on horseback, watching the competition and being so fascinated and so enthusiastic that the last eighth of a mile was made up of five horses running in the race for a purse of 100 sovereigns and 100 spectators all galloping to the wire with them to see how the finish came out. It's a true and lovely vignette.
Since those early wonderful sporting days in England, Thoroughbred racing has grown tremendously throughout the world, and certainly in the U.S. But having watched it grow through the last few tricky decades, I'm more than ever convinced that American racing is growing in the wrong direction. I would not say that the game is all bad. The public is accommodated better in fancier grandstands, and everything is bigger. The money, especially, is bigger. And because of it, unfortunately, the emphasis here is less on the sport itself than on an ever-increasing handle earmarked primarily for the benefit of state legislatures. We are losing something, and not the least of this something is the number of U.S. owners who are now racing their stock in Europe, where the game is also getting bigger but has managed to save its pageantry, its traditions and its dignity. Those are the things I miss here. In England, France, Ireland and Australia there is an actual interest in and love of the sport and the horse as an individual. In the U.S. the interest is purely in numbers. Everything is in betting units. Whatever esprit de corps we once had in American racing is fast diminishing. The game has become permeated with a sense of fear and pressure. Everybody is afraid of somebody else today, and it only makes it tougher and tougher for any active participant in racing to enjoy the game. I am speaking for the owner, the breeder, the trainer and certainly the wearier-than-ever horseplayer.
The interlocking fear-and-pressure situation goes something like this: The growth and improvement of plant facilities have resulted in larger mutuel handles, which in turn have filled state treasuries with an ever-increasing tax bite. Naturally, the states have seized the opportunity to increase the number of days of racing—which is doing the sport no good at all. But, of course, the state couldn't care less about the sport as long as it is getting more of a tax income every year. So, in effect, the state runs racing everywhere, even in New York, where 10 years ago a group of intelligent men sold out to the state the individual franchises of the four tracks they owned or controlled for the price of a ham sandwich. Now you see the fear cycle. The racing commissioners are afraid of the state, because the job of commissioner is a political appointment. Track management is afraid of the state, because if the track doesn't put on a steady diet of heavy-betting races with full fields (as opposed to races of smaller fields made up of better horses but producing smaller handles) the state will notice a drop in its tax share. Owners and trainers are afraid of management, because if they don't ship in with horses ready to run—and then run them every three days—they won't get stall space next time around. Finally, trainers are even afraid of their own help, which is often inexperienced and unwilling.
There are also specific problems that face those of us who live as professional racetrackers. Bigger handles and bigger purses obviously make it more interesting for more people to get into racing. The breeder benefits, because there is a broader and higher market for his animal. The average yearling price in 1963 at the major auctions was an astronomical $13,000. Some shares in stallions are going for $50,000. A top broodmare can command a price of half a million. There is a market for every horse because there is so much racing that the poor stock finds its way to the half-milers and little tracks. In fact, there is so much racing that it is very hard today not to win a race with a horse. At one little track last year they were writing conditions for horses that had not been one-two-three at the meeting, and if you finished fifth or worse the track paid your jockey's fee. In other words, the track subsidized the race, so it didn't cost the owner anything at all to run.
Can you imagine what this does? It makes you go on with a horse that you should not be racing. You go on because every once in a while you find a new race and enough money to go on again. And this makes markets for those bad horses. It makes a man breed a bad mare and breed to bad stallions because he knows there is some kind of a market. He raises horses like cows, and he sells them for whatever he can get. I think this is inexcusable. It's the old story of putting a premium on mediocrity.
I am very much against programs in some states where bonuses are offered for horses bred in that particular state. I think it causes an overproduction of horses rather than selective breeding of horses. It results in giving away too much money to a bad horse, and when that horse stops racing it is bred as fast as it can stagger into the breeding shed. I believe that to the victor should go the spoils, to the best horse should go the money, and it shouldn't make any difference whether the best horse was bred in California, Kentucky, Illinois, Ontario or The Bronx.
The American owner and trainer are no better off than the breeder. Only in a few prominent stables, in the hands of veteran big-name trainers, can be found the relaxed attitude that goes with shipping horses in and out of a track when you want to and running them as you see fit. The big trainer still has some say-so. But the little trainer will run horses where they don't belong, and maybe too soon, before they are ready. He does this because he knows the track is marking down his every start, and if he doesn't start a horse every time the management thinks he should the word goes out: "We'll fix this clown. He'll get half the stalls he asks for next year." That's why management loves, and caters to, the public trainers with a barn full of cheap horses. Management loves the man who ships in ready to run five horses a day, who claims horses that are fit and ready and who keeps popping them in, walking them a day or two and popping them in again. It's that numbers game.