Horse racing has
been highlighted by two notable happenings this year. One was the arrival of
Canonero II, who spared us a long wake just when we had begun mourning Hoist
the Flag, the magnificent 3-year-old injured prior to the Triple Crown races.
The other was the establishment in New York City of off-track betting.
Not since Native
Dancer has a horse had the mass appeal of Canonero. In a single afternoon—Derby
Day—the $1,200 castoff from Venezuela renewed public interest in racing, put
the sport front and center in the news and made off-track betting a
million-dollar wonder. Spurred by the interest in Canonero and the Triple
Crown, OTB is on its way to being a huge success. Maryland, New Jersey,
California and Illinois are talking of establishing their own OTB businesses.
Something new and significant has surely come to U.S. sport.
should have had the right to wager on horses without going to racetracks or
dealing clandestinely with bookmakers. For quite a while the Australians,
French and English have bet off the track. But in this country the right was
denied, in part because as a form of gambling it was viewed as an immoral
pastime but also because racetrack operators feared this kind of wagering might
diminish attendance and mutuel handle, their sources of profit.
Actually, if it is
properly administered, OTB can make the $7-billion-a-year horse racing industry
lastingly secure. It can, and it should. There need only be a fair sharing of
revenue among the four partners involved: state, municipality, racecourse and
horsemen. Unless such a relationship exists, tracks and horsemen will be unable
to operate because of their loss of income.
For example, at
New York's Belmont Park an average customer bets $100 a day. Seventeen per cent
of this $100 is deducted, with the balance returned in payoffs to the bettors.
The $17 is divided as follows: $10 goes to the New York State treasury, $4 to
the New York Racing Association, which operates the track, and $3 to the
horsemen for purse money. The same $100, when bet through OTB under present
law, yields $15.50 to state and municipal treasuries (specifically, New York
City gets $12.40 and New York State $3.10), $1 to the NYRA and a mere 50� to
The inequity is
obvious; the division is unfair. In addition, there is no provision for any
distribution to either horsemen or tracks in the case of separate pools, such
as the ones New York City conducted on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
This amounts to taxation without representation. The recently formed Horsemen's
Advisory Council, composed of men professionally identified with thoroughbred
and standard-bred racing, did prevail upon OTB Chairman Howard Samuels to turn
over 1% of the off-track Belmont Stakes handle—a sum amounting to $11,770—to
the NYRA and its chairman, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, graciously earmarked this
amount for purse money. Although a pittance, it was at least something and it
points up the possible benefits off-track betting has for the horsemen, who
are, after all, the men who sustain the sport.
It would be unfair
to criticize either Kent Brown, who is charged with instituting off-track
betting in New York State, or Samuels, who holds the responsibility in New York
City, for their often naive approach to the problems. Both men are
self-admitted neophytes with little knowledge of the operations of the
thoroughbred and standardbred industries. Brown and Samuels are simply doing
their best to get OTB started and are under extreme pressure from the state to
do so. As a result, some of their decisions have been hasty and made without a
thorough understanding of the mechanics of the sport.
Since OTB is
almost certain to become a nationwide phenomenon, the concern among horsemen is
that these same mistakes will be repeated elsewhere in the mad scramble to get
a piece of the gambling pie. Within five years, according to conservative
estimate, most of the 30 states that have legalized pari-mutuel betting will
have off-track wagering facilities, and some states without racing (viz,
Connecticut) are already attempting to cash in on the bonanza. So it is vital
that the lessons Of the pioneer state, New York, be carefully studied in order
to set up the fairest possible return for all concerned.
There has been for
some time a struggle for revenue between horsemen and tracks on one side and
exceedingly greedy state treasuries on the other. States obviously want all the
tax moneys they can get. Horsemen and tracks are faced with annual cost
increases averaging 8%. National attendance figures are on the decline,
probably due to the economy of the country as a whole. Extended racing dates
increase costs and often tend to decrease the average attendance per day. A
track's net profit is largely dependent upon admissions, concessions, sale of
programs and parking fees. The horse owner's profit, if any, is dependent upon
the good fortune of owning one or more stakes performers. And there are
precious few of these.
In short, everyone
is scrambling for funds, and little cash remains to be spent on some very
necessary improvements in the sport, i.e., for better working and living
conditions for stable employees, including facilities for the ever-increasing
number of females (now 10% of the backstretch labor force at Belmont Park).
Educational programs should be established for the growing number of Latins
entering the field. There should be more adequate backstretch pension and
welfare programs, increased health benefits, emergency hospitalization
facilities, schools for apprentice jockeys, harness drivers and grooms and
equine hospitals and research, particularly in communicable diseases—an
epidemic could close down U.S. tracks within 72 hours.