For years I had been known among my more classical-minded admirers as baseball's Cassandra, forever leaning against a Doric column and warning that doom was close at hand unless we lifted the game out of the horse-and-buggy age and brought it into line with the quickening rhythm of American life. The horse itself is an anachronism. There is no other way to put it. If the horse is an anachronism, what docs that make horse racing, except an exercise in ancestor worship, an outdoor museum with betting windows?
Almost from the beginning of recorded history the horse was the center of the economic, social and military might of every powerful nation. In our own country the horse was a partner to the winning of the West. The wagon train, the stagecoach, the pony express. To the cowboy the horse was so vital to survival that horse stealing was a hanging offense, with or without judicial sanction. To the settler the horse was the power that pulled the plow. To the military the cavalry was the elite striking force. If you're not very much under 50, you can still remember, however dimly, the horse-drawn ice and milk and junk wagons as a routine part of daily life.
If you're under 40, you don't know what an ice wagon is and you never saw a milk truck that didn't come equipped with an internal combustion engine. The last faint signature of that longtime partner to man's destiny is in the word "horsepower." A kid growing up in the city today could spend his whole life without seeing a real live horse except for a trip to the racetrack. So, for that matter, could a kid growing up on a farm.
An anachronism. An old champion hanging on. The mystique that once surrounded horse racing has passed on to automobile racing and turned it into one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S., especially among young people. And while it is true the stock cars that appear on the big-time circuit have been "modified" out of all relationship to anything you see on the road, it is also true that events are being conducted on fairgrounds around the country for models right off the highways. The guys who race against each other on Sunday morning will be driving those same cars to work on Monday. I have absolutely no doubt that we will have pari-mutuel betting on automobile racing one of these days—and sooner than you think. If it weren't for the historical accident that set the hotbed of auto racing in the Bible Belt, we would have had it already.
I don't know for sure the average age of the spectators at stock-car events, but I feel pretty safe in placing it at no more than 25. I do know what the average age at the racetrack is. Over 30? Yup. Over 40? Yup. Over 50? Yup. It's 50 years, six months. Nationally.
When you think a little about it, this is not as surprising as it may have seemed at first glance. The average man gets married at 22. Before he knows it, he has a mortgage and a couple of kids. He is not only immersed in family life but he has the feeling—which isn't really true—he can't afford to go to the track because it is a place where you lose money. For the most part, then, racing does not draw men like these until they are in their mid-30s. With the vast and varied opportunities that are available these days to develop an interest in other forms of recreation, the sport may very well have lost them forever.
No matter how one viewed it, our clientele was aging fast and we weren't doing a thing to attract anybody to replace them. I could see nothing wrong and a great deal right with permitting minors on the premises.
Four days before our opening we sent out a press release to announce that minors "accompanied by their parents or guardians, and under their direct control at all times, will be admitted to view the horse races" at Suffolk Downs. Children under 12 were to be admitted at half price. The wording was very carefully couched to defuse any possible objections. "The state racing commission rule prohibiting minors from betting is an excellent one, obviously, and will be strictly adhered to," I said. "In fact, we're going to make sure the rule is enforced.
"At the same time," I added, getting in a blow for my own side, "we feel children are tremendously interested in horses. I think it's wrong to deprive them of the chance to view the colorful pageantry that surrounds the sport."
From his unofficial headquarters in New Bedford, the head of the state racing commission, Dr. Paul F. Walsh, issued a bristling manifesto of his determination to fight our wicked design. The statement was most disheartening. And most revealing. We had a chairman who believed in his bones that betting was evil. So evil he took it as his duty to protect the innocent children of the commonwealth from the indifference and neglect of their parents.