One thing the daily restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic has taught us is how to live with less. We accept it, because as my wife tells me, “At our age, if we get it, we’re dead.” Living with less beats not living.
America’s horse racing industry has actually been adjusting to less for more than 30 years now, ever since Ronald Reagan’s second tax reform of 1986 killed off many of the tax benefits of being a horse-owner. The legalization of state lotteries, the rise in off-track betting and video simulations have made horse-racing’s unplanned shrinkage go even faster.
Then came the horrible year 2019, when a series of horse deaths, many on full view, mid-race on the track, some captured and endlessly replayed on video, had people asking if horse racing – the so-called “sport of kings” – deserves a future at all.
Three statistics from the last 30 years tell the tale of American horse-racing’s decline: since 1990 the number of horse races run at America’s tracks has dropped by roughly half and the money bet at the tracks has dropped by roughly two-thirds. Ouch!
But the third set of numbers may actually point to the heart of the problem that has the horse racing industry living in fear of extinction: the number of thoroughbred foals bred for racing has also been cut by a bit more than half since 1990, leaving even the diminishing number of racetracks with not enough horses to fill out a full daily bill of chances for customers to bet their money.
There is a simple solution to that problem: run that smaller herd of horses more often. The problem with that solution is – it destroys horses.
Are there other solutions? Of course, but all of ‘em involve getting by on less: running fewer horses less often, even if that means smaller fields or shorter racing cards, even if that means smaller handles and smaller profits.
Some say this smaller world implies a different culture from the entertainment-industrial mentality that has dominated horse racing for decades, an old culture of horse racing as a sport devoted to nothing more than exciting competition and the best interests of the animals.
Not at all the present-day culture of the horse-tracks so well covered by our guest today, reporter Tarpley Hitt of The Daily Beast.
Tarpley Hitt is a reporter at The Daily Beast. She has worked for Miami New Times, the Miami Herald, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.