Pulling Back The Curtain

Looking back on the 2017 that was, it’s safe to say it’s been a testing one for the sport of horse racing.

Takeout rates were once again at the forefront with notable rises resulting in vociferous responses from horseplayers. Now, it isn’t surprising to see business entities attempt to take a bigger slice of the pie and not publicize it. That’s part of the game. It’s also not surprising to see a tight-knit community of horseplayers be vocal about why they disagreed with said changes and call for a boycott.

But, the sobering reality of horse racing in its current state is that instead of calling for changes which would benefit the sport as a whole, we waste our time making a barrage of excuses.

“Bad weather. That’s why handle was down.”

“The field sizes were smaller this year, so there was less wagering.”

Or the latest evolution, which involved media members receiving flat out incorrect, inflated figures from management bodies.

Facts are facts. There’s no need for the song and dance.

And yet, with every bump in the road which the sport of horse racing had to traverse this year, the excuses grew more fervent.

Trainers around the country winning at alarmingly high percentages? They get the best bloodstock.

Horses testing positive for performance enhancing substances? Food contamination.

Injuries to horses during race meetings? Fluke.

The issue at hand is not whether any or all of these explanations are true, but the fact that we as a community are so afraid to face these questions that we respond by giving  a benign explanation and sweeping the mess under the rug.

“Talking about sad or negative things doesn’t bring new fans to the sport” is a popular response, but one that in today’s digital age certainly isn’t true. With websites and features dedicated to the cruelties of horse racing or the dark side of gambling easily accessible on the internet, the gig is up.

The questions are being asked and accusations are being made by the sport’s customers and onlookers. The party line, which essentially tells us to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” is not only insulting, but also disregards actual opportunities to grow racing’s fanbase through education.

Have there been cases of trainers giving their horses performance enhancing substances? Yes, but strides have been made in recent years to create stricter testing, including out-of-competition testing for Breeders’ Cup horses.

Do some tracks raise the takeout on their wagers? Yes, but in America we have nearly a hundred racing facilities, so you can choose to wager on which product best suits your needs.

Do people become addicted to gambling? Unfortunately, yes, but there are programs in place to aid those who are struggling.

What’s good about horse racing, you say?

Watching some of the most athletic individuals in the world.

The sense of community and excitement you feel in the stands when you and the people sitting behind you that you met five minutes ago hit a winner together.

The thrill of an epic stretch dual or a dominating ten-length victory.

The intellectual puzzle analyzing the races brings to the table.

Witnessing fairytale stories become reality in only two minutes’ time.

Spending a day out at the track, making friends and eating lunch off the top of a trash can as you run from the paddock to the starting gate between races...okay, maybe that one is just me.

Nevertheless, there are endless reasons why each and every person who loves, is a fan of or wagers on horse racing. None of those reasons involve holding an oblivious attitude towards negative aspects of the sport.

It’s time to bring in Toto, open up that curtain and see that horse racing is facing the same pressures as every major sport around the world. It’s when we admit the flaws and vocalize the steps that we are already making toward change  that we’ll take the sport from a leftover of America’s past to a living game poised to garner new fans in the future.

Thanks to Nicolle Neulist for grammatical edits. Her work can be found at Blinkers Off.
Photo by Donnie Ray Jones

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