Bennett Liebman, a professor at Albany Law School and an authority on racing law in the country, speaking at the annual Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing and Gaming Law presented by Albany Law School described the roots of this problem. Although likely everywhere in the county, he used New York State, a leader in pari-mutual wagering and gambling as an example. The political payoffs were enormous. With the beginning of pari-mutuel wagering in New York (late 1930s) harness track ownership was a plum for influential politicians, labor and gangsters. Shares in the growing number of tracks were doled to these groups for pennies on the dollar according to Liebman. Speculation was it was for support or no interference in their game by politicians. Racing seemed to more about the money and political influence than the horse and sport. And perhaps, still is.
From this beginning racing grew to one of the most popular sports in the country. In the late sixties, New York was at it again; leading the Off-track-Betting (OTB) movement with the establishment of regional betting corporations that facilitated gambling, but profited local governments and politicians. They continue to exist today. Yet with internet wagering, ADWs and off-shore gambling, they are as valuable to the sport as an abacus is to a mathematician. Yet the political paradigm underlying OTBs' hold by on squeezing every nickel from the game possible in the name of local government subsidies is alive and well.
In the last decade the industry is struggling with the control of illegal medication use. As fast as action is taken to stop a drug's use, a new and improved drug surfaces. Although the industry recognizes the problem and its ugly perception in the public's eye, it can't seem to find a collaborative path to a solution. Meanwhile, fans suffer when wagering on a game that chemistry controls and only insiders have knowledge. Why?
In light of this torrid past, why do we continue to play and enjoy the game of horse racing? If not an insider to the corruption or a professional who makes a living in this wild-west-activity, it can only be for the love of the horse, excitement of the race and the entertainment of a day at the track.
Track owners are tormented by the percentage of players that erode each year. Studies suggest the sport is losing about 4% of its fan base per year. Keeping people in the game and finding new ones is the challenge. The odds are low given the competition with other forms of gambling becoming increasingly available. They become abysmal when the sport is examined through the glass of corruption and unethical behavior. Why would anyone play this game with such a beleaguered past, becomes the question?
Perhaps, if we want racing to succeed we need to understand our fans' interests better and focus on them, not on the gambling aspect of our game which is being poisoned by self-interested entities. A racetrack is a unique theme park that allows for a range of entertainment opportunities. A day in the park, picnicking, socializing and watching equine athletes perform is part of the experience. Unlike other sports in the county on-site wagering is available for those who want it. Perhaps wagering should be seen as just a cherry on the sundae, not the entire desert.
Tough game, so why do we play it? Fans love the sport and the equine athletes, that's why! When the industry understands this passion, the sky will be the limit. Until they we must be satisfied with terra firma.