The simple, appealing idea behind horse racing is to discover which is the best horse. What makes it interesting—and worth betting on—is that on a particular day, Horse A may be the best, and on another day Horse B may be the best. That's all there is, really, to horse racing, and to most sports when you come right down to it—Who is best on a given day?
Now every so often, in these complicated times, this basic idea is either forgotten or ignored by the people who stage horse races. On such occasions, the idea of the promoters becomes: How can we get the greatest number of people to attend our horse race?—or, more to the point, perhaps: How can we assure that a very large amount of money will be bet on our horse race? In other words, and to put it bluntly, the horse race becomes a means for making money, without regard to its sporting aspects.
Only the most naive, of course, will cherish the notion that sport and business can be completely disassociated, or even that they should be. Horse races and other sporting events must be presented attractively to the public, so that people will attend and there will be money for prizes, to pay the salaries of the athletes involved and to provide a reasonable profit for the promoters. But when business supersedes sport altogether, it is time to call a halt, and such a time came for harness racing at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway last Thursday with the presentation of the annual Cane Pace for 3-year-olds. The Cane is no ordinary race. It carried a purse of $65,000 this year, and it is the first leg in pacing's triple crown, which also includes The Messenger Stake and the Little Brown Jug. Surely this is a race in which the prime object should be to determine the best horse.
Fifteen pacers went to the post in the Cane, on Yonkers' half-mile track, requiring a two-tiered start, eight in the front row and seven behind. This is a disgraceful situation. There is not enough racing room for 15 horses and sulkies on a half-mile track, the stretches are too short for a true test of horsemanship in such a field, the public is denied the opportunity to bet intelligently and the drivers are subjected to the very real risk of serious accident in such close quarters. Stanley Dancer, who was driving High Walter in the race, said: "I've just become the father of a nice baby boy and I'd like to spend some time with him before I get killed on a race track."
July 26, 1959
"Even if I win by five lengths," said Joe O'Brien, driving Meadow Al, "I'd say this is not a horse race. There's Adios Oregon out in 15 post position in the second tier. A lot of people think he's the best horse in the race. Well, they'll never find out tonight—he doesn't have a chance to show his real ability."
"Into the valley of death rode the six hundred," said Del Miller as he got up behind Adios Day. Every driver in the race—the Cameron brothers, Johnny Simpson, Clint Hodgins, Tom Crank—and all knowledgeable horsemen echoed these sentiments.
The fact is that the Cane went off without an accident. But it is likely that only the presence of the most skilled drivers in the sport brought about this happy result, and even the very best drivers cannot avoid trouble when a gaited horse decides to act up. Finally, though a good horse, Adios Butler, and an expert driver, Clint Hodgins, won the race, it is still true that the Cane was not a fair contest. From start to finish it was a mad scramble.
Where does the fault lie for such a fiasco? Track spokesmen claim that horse owners enlarge such a field by entering mediocre animals, hoping that luck will bring them a share of the purse. This is certainly true and to be deplored. But the ultimate responsibility belongs to track management. According to Trotting Association rule, a track may split a race into divisions when the field exceeds 12. The Cane should have been raced in divisions—eight and seven horses each, with a race-off to decide the winner. Perhaps the option on the size of fields should be taken out of track management's hands entirely. It is a subject with which New York State's incoming Harness Racing Commission should concern itself, instead of wasting time on rules barring children from race tracks.