The field is turning for home and heading down the stretch. It might be the Kentucky Derby or it might be the first race at a little track in the boondocks. It makes no difference. The spectacle is always the same in thoroughbred racing. So here they come, digging in and matching strides as they pound for the wire, the afternoon sun glinting off the jockeys' silks and the sweat that glistens on the horses' flanks as they strain against each other and the clock and even history, precisely as they have been bred to do for generations. The crowd's roar swells, all but drowning out the hoarse rasp of the public-address announcer and the thunder of the hooves.
This is the magic of horse racing, the reason millions of Americans have been drawn irresistibly to the nation's tracks for almost a century. It has helped, of course, that until the last decade or so, the racetrack was virtually the only place outside Las Vegas where gambling was both socially acceptable and legally permissible, but that's only part of it. Americans always have been suckers for horses and horse stories, not to mention romance, mystery, danger and luck. The racetrack has them all.
In its heyday, the 1920s through the late '50s, the thoroughbred game was arguably the nation's second-most popular professional sport, behind only Major League Baseball. Racing's heroes, horses with marvelous names like Gallant Fox and Whirlaway and Count Fleet, were wildly popular, as were jockeys like Earl Sande and Eddie Arcaro. And the nation's major tracks—Belmont Park in New York and Hialeah in Florida and Santa Anita in California—were what Caesars in Atlantic City and the Mirage in Las Vegas are today, monuments to high rolling and high living.
But after decades of tranquillity and prosperity, thoroughbred racing in America declined sharply in the 1980s. Old tracks closed and new ones flopped. Track attendance dropped nationally from an average of 8,907 a day in 1965 to 6,834 in 1989. Even in New York, whose tracks have long been the sport's centerpiece, attendance declined so steeply that at Belmont Park and Aqueduct—facilities that were built to accommodate masses of people—the cries of losing bettors echoed in near-empty stands.
April 21, 1991
And that was not the only problem. Stricter tax laws forced many longtime owners out of racing and discouraged new ones from coming in. The thoroughbred sales market dropped so sharply that FOR SALE signs are out in front of horse farms everywhere, even in the hallowed bluegrass country of Kentucky. A serious credibility problem developed because of racing's inability to resolve its drug crisis. These are not the signs of a healthy industry.
The reasons for the slump aren't hard to detect. In the 1980s, home videos mushroomed into a $10 billion industry, taking patrons away from the track. The proliferation of state lotteries and their seductive promises of instant fortune hurt every phase of the gaming business. The movies boomed. So did football, basketball, baseball and golf. And, most vexing of all, racing found itself competing against itself when it embraced the brave new world of high-tech TV gambling, which takes fans away from tracks and pulls them into off-site wagering facilities, raising serious questions about the future of live racing.
Can racing survive? Or has it become a quaint anachronism that the video/entertainment/gambling boom will eventually kill as surely as the automotive revolution of the early 1900s rendered the horse obsolete as a beast of burden? An odyssey made in an attempt to answer these questions begins in the state that for decades has been the winter home of the most prestigious New York stables and their well-bred stock.
It is so overcast at Gulfstream Park on opening day, Jan. 14, that even from the upper press box it's impossible to see the Atlantic Ocean, less than a mile away. Even so, a crowd of 20,000 has turned out for the races. Some may have come to see the 3-year-old debut of Oregon, a Kentucky Derby contender trained by D. Wayne Lukas, but most were probably lured by management's promotion: free admission and a free two-dollar bet.
Edwin Pope, the sports editor of the Miami Herald, is sitting in the press box. According to his readership surveys, he probably should be writing his next day's column about the Dolphins, the Heat, the Hurricanes or almost anything but thoroughbred racing. "Once, horse racing was the king in South Florida," says Pope, "but now it ranks way down the list." But because he loves thoroughbreds, Pope always tries to make the opening of Gulfstream.
When Pope began writing for the Herald, in 1956, Hialeah, nearer than Gulfstream to downtown Miami, was No. 1, and Gulfstream was Avis, trying harder in order to catch up. Opened in 1925, Hialeah was a veritable palace, with its spacious terraces, marble staircases and towering royal palm trees. Hialeah had about it the air of a Riviera casino, which made it the perfect winter playground for the old-money New Yorkers who were the pillars of the racing establishment. But after years of bickering over the choice winter tourist racing dates with Gulfstream, which opened in 1939, Hialeah closed in 1989 and now sits idle, its future as a racetrack uncertain at best.
The Hispanics who came to inhabit the neighborhoods around Hialeah never supported the track, but when the state lottery prize reached $106 million in September 1990, more tickets were sold in the city of Hialeah than in most other locations in Florida. That made Pope and other thoroughbred fans shake their heads in dismay.
"The fragmentation of sports in South Florida has been prolific," Pope says, "and everybody's piece of the action has been a little bit smaller. We sure as hell have too many pari-mutuels, with the thoroughbreds, the standardbreds, the dogs and jai alai. Then comes the lottery. That and, particularly, dog racing have hurt everybody. There's not much romance to scratching numbers off a lottery ticket, but people do it. And as for the dogs, well, it's just a numbers game."
A few hours later, about a mile up U.S. 1 from Gulfstream, a different crowd of bettors files into the Hollywood Greyhound Track. It isn't nearly as big or impressive as Gulfstream, but it's clean and bright. And Hollywood's admission prices are lower, which is one reason the greyhounds always do so well when they go head-to-head with the thoroughbreds. In addition, greyhound tracks are smaller, making the races easier to see, and the breaks in the action are shorter, with only 15 minutes between races instead of the usual 30 as at thoroughbred tracks. With the recent opening of Melbourne Greyhound Park, near Orlando, Florida now has 19 dog tracks, which do a total of nearly $1 billion in business annually and make up the largest segment of the state's pari-mutuel industry.
Craig Fell, Hollywood's publicity director, only shrugs at the suggestion that thoroughbred people generally look down their noses at the greyhounds. He knows that thoroughbred racing may afford a greater intellectual challenge to a handicapper, but he also knows that in a society that's growing steadily less literate and more impatient, the simpler and quicker games get most of the action. In 1989 less than 10% of U.S. gross gambling revenues were generated by racetracks. In 1974 it was 35%.
"We're the blue-collar sport," says Fell. "Plus, I think people relate more to dogs than they do to horses, because almost everybody has a Spot or a Fluffy at home."
Fell, who is eating dinner in Hollywood's clubhouse, calls over one of his regular customers, an attorney named Walter Blackwell. "My dad owned some horses," says Blackwell, who wagers a portion of his $175-per-hour fees on the dogs four or five nights a week. "But I think you've got a fairer shot with the dogs. No jockeys involved, for one thing. Plus, if you follow the dogs, you'll see you get a fairer run out of them every time."
That evening the bar at Manero's Restaurant, which is just down the street from Gulfstream, is crowded as usual with horse trainers. The walls are covered with sports photos, many of them winner's-circle pictures from Gulfstream and Hialeah. On this night one of the topics of conversation is how the freebie promotions helped Gulfstream draw such a big opening-day crowd.
"I think they ought to do that in New York," says John Veitch, one of the New York-based trainers who winters at Gulfstream. "Free admission every day. They also should kick out the caterer and bring in McDonald's and Pizza Hut. That's what you do when you've been a very private game that's now trying to increase its fan base."
The next day, with no promotion, the crowd at Gulfstream is 8,000, less than half of what it was the day before. Up in the executive offices, track president Doug Donn talks about the future. Over the years, no track has tried harder than Gulfstream in the area of promotion and marketing. On Florida Derby Day, for example, there is always an exhibition race of ostriches or other exotic creatures. But that hasn't been enough. Gulfstream's attendance and handle have still dropped.
"Tradition, exotic promotions and increased comfort in the plant are fine as far as they go," Donn says, "but to compete, we have to project out of our market and make our game convenient to the public. The public is calling the shots, and that's where we've failed to respond."
He is talking about TV gambling, the business of sending or receiving races, which is known as simulcasting. When one track's races are sent to other tracks in the same state, it is known as intratrack wagering. When they are sent to or received from tracks out of the state, it is interstate wagering. When races are transmitted to betting parlors in the state or to Las Vegas, it is offtrack betting. Donn is one of the growing number of track executives who believe that racing's main hope for the future lies not in the live product but in TV.
To that end, Gulfstream this year is beaming its races to 26 sites, including dog tracks and jai alai frontons. In effect, that makes the various pari-mutuel games partners instead of competitors. But some of the dog and jai alai people are fretting that they're cutting their own throats by promoting thoroughbred racing. This is typical of the kinds of squabbles that have accompanied the advent of offtrack betting everywhere.
"The dog tracks and jai alai frontons are apprehensive," says Donn, "but they need to look at it as having another product, horse racing, added to their existing package. We have to do something, because the lottery alone did $2.2 billion in sales last year, and it's bigger now. That's a lot of money, and it doesn't come back into circulation." He frowns. "There's one chart that tells you you're doing a bad job: The one that says there's been a gambling explosion in this country, and you're getting less than you had before. That's what has happened to horse racing."
Ozone Park, N.Y.
It is another cold, gray, cheerless winter day at Aqueduct, the New York Racing Association's (NYRA) factory—there's no other word for it—in Queens. The track, so close to the JFK airport that jets constantly fly overhead, is surrounded by neighborhoods in which the houses all have a drabness about them, a depressing sameness, and the streets are full of potholes and debris. A subway brings players from the city, and their breath steams in the cold air as they hustle to get inside.
To be honest, Aqueduct's plant is not so bad. NYRA has spent millions gussying up the place, creating all sorts of cozy little bars and eating areas, nooks and crannies where the bettors can feel comfortable. Nevertheless, racing at Aqueduct in January and February is about as grim as it gets. It is the other end of the spectrum from Saratoga, in upstate New York, a lovely and historic track where NYRA is still able to put on the best racing in the nation for four weeks every August—it will be expanded to five this year—and pack the old grandstand to overflowing every day.
But Aqueduct in winter? Few people really want to be there. The horseplayers look old, jaded, tired. The place should be closed. The reason it isn't is that the state legislature in New York, like state legislatures everywhere pari-mutuel betting is legal, wants to grind every dollar possible out of racing. This is why there is racing somewhere in New York State every day except Tuesday, Easter, Palm Sunday and Christmas.
"Racing here exists, as far as the government is concerned, only as a reasonable source of revenue," says Gerard McKeon, president of NYRA. "We have saturated the market here, which is why the demand is down. We need to create a season, like any other sport has, and in our sport, the season begins in the spring and ends in the fall. Racing in New York used to be a great source of government revenue, but now we're insignificant, only about $180 million in a budget of $29 billion. So the way for government to look at racing now isn't so much as a source of tax revenue but as the source of 600 breeding farms in the state and 40,000 jobs. The state just can't keep on sucking us dry."
At this moment, McKeon is sitting in his office at Aqueduct. On the wall behind him is a picture of Custer's Last Stand, which is interesting in light of the fact that New York's governor, Mario Cuomo, is making noises about selling Aqueduct to JFK for airport expansion. Should that happen, Belmont Park, situated just 11 miles from Aqueduct, in Elmont, Long Island, and Saratoga would be NYRA's only tracks.
Belmont is a beautiful, stately racetrack. When it was rebuilt in the mid-1960s, it was designed to accommodate crowds of more than 50,000. Nowadays it might enjoy that kind of attendance only on the day of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in racing's Triple Crown, in June. Some of New York's most prestigious stakes races, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the fall, draw only 18,000 or so.
Ah, but don't think nobody is watching. It's estimated that every day, more than 100,000 people bet on racing in the 32 Off-Track Betting shops around the state, and every day they account for about half of the racing handle, which lets New York take in $408,000 in purses a day, the nation's highest average. But these aren't racing fans; they are gamblers. The only good that can be said about them, from NYRA's standpoint, is that at least they aren't blowing their dough on the lottery. Or going to the Meadowlands, across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Or heading down the Garden State Parkway to the casinos in Atlantic City, which opened for business in 1978.
"I don't for one minute believe that OTB generates any new fans for our sport," says Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs, in Louisville. "We may regenerate some old gamblers, but that's about it."
New York is the best example of OTB at its worst. In 1971, when New York became the first state to have OTB parlors, NYRA was so opposed to the idea that it refused to have anything to do with it, forcing the state to create a separate OTB authority. "In retrospect, this was sort of like refusing to recognize Red China," says Stan Bergstein, executive vice-president of Harness Tracks of America. Instead of regulating OTB as a partner, racing had to fight it as a competitor—a tragic mistake that must be corrected soon, says McKeon, "or one or the other of us will die." The politicians who came to run OTB built parlors willy-nilly, with no regard for what impact they might have on the sport of racing and its fan base.
As grim as Aqueduct is on a January afternoon, it's downright cheery compared with the OTB parlor on Hempstead Turnpike, just across the street from Belmont Park. The shop's windows are streaked with dirt, and the floor looks as if it hasn't been swept in weeks. The 25 or so bettors lean against tables (there are no chairs) and grimly stare at the Daily Racing Form or the racing pages torn from newspapers. There are only two betting windows and two TV monitors. When it comes time for a race, all that comes over the monitors is the track announcer's call. There is no picture.
And yet here the patrons are, blankly watching the odds on the screen. One guy snaps his fingers and urges on the No. 6 horse. When the race is over, a bettor bangs his hand on the table and says to no one in particular, "Can't buy a winner." Whatever this is, it is not the Sport of Kings.
When this scene is described to McKeon the next day, he nods grimly. "Sometimes I worry that permanent damage has been done to our fan base," he says. "People have been introduced to racing through the OTB stores, which are often distasteful. You should duplicate the racetrack environment—the sights and smells of the track—as best you can with electronic equipment. That, to me, is the future."
New Castle, Pa.
This is a bleak old steel town where nothing seems to have changed in 25 years. It's located 45 miles north of Pittsburgh and 18 miles east of Youngstown, Ohio. The closest thoroughbred track is Thistledown, in Cleveland, and yet, believe it or not, New Castle (pop. 30,000) is where you can see racing's future.
Outside town, in the Westgate shopping center, tucked between the Cinemas Three and the supermarket, is a sprawling betting parlor. That's right, a betting parlor. And not a dingy, drab place, either. On the contrary, the parlor cost $3.2 million to build in 1989 and is strictly up-to-date, from the four satellite dishes on the roof to the thick carpeting inside.
On this night in January, the 12 TV monitors in the main lobby are showing replays from that afternoon's thoroughbred card at Philadelphia Park, live action from the Meadows harness track in Meadow Lands, Pa., and CNN's latest news from the Persian Gulf. The building has two wings, one labeled clubhouse and the other grandstand. As at any racetrack, the clubhouse is the better appointed and more expensive section. However, both areas are warm, bright and comfortable. All the things a bettor could want—food, beverages, TV monitors, betting windows, restrooms—are only a few feet from any seat in the house.
"The people who come in here for the first time are really shocked at how nice it is," says Ted McKenna, the manager. The parlor is owned and operated by Ladbroke Group PLC, a multibillion-dollar corporation based in London. Ladbroke operates several businesses, but it's mainly known for booking sports bets throughout Great Britain. Whatever you want to bet on, chances are that Ladbroke will accommodate you. In the U.S., sports betting is legal only in Las Vegas and the Oregon state lottery, but in Britain you can bet on horse races, soccer matches, rugby scrums, whatever.
Since 1985 Ladbroke has paid more than $100 million for five American racetracks—the Meadows, Detroit Race Course, Golden Gate Fields (Albany, Calif.), Canterbury Downs (Shakopee, Minn.) and the Valley Greyhound Park (Harlingen, Texas). Speculation in the thoroughbred industry has it that Ladbroke is positioning itself for the day, should it ever come, when sports betting is legalized in the U.S. "[Sports betting is] our business in Europe, so I'm sure we'd want to be involved if it ever happens in America," says McKenna.
But there's another more immediate and practical reason for the company's moves: Ladbroke saw the future of American racing and began buying racetracks so it could be on the cutting edge of the movement toward offtrack betting. Since it opened last June, the New Castle parlor has averaged 1,100 patrons and $118,000 in handle per day. Ladbroke is doing so well that it recently opened a larger, more expensive facility in a Greensburg, Pa., shopping center.
Talking about the offtrack phenomenon, McKenna is smooth and confident, as if he knows things that haven't yet dawned on the rest of the racing industry. All around him are the happy sounds of bettors having fun—and not broken-down, degenerate gamblers, either, but middle-class, hardworking Americans just out for a night at the parlor. The mayor of New Castle is there. McKenna pauses to shake his hand, then continues to talk.
"The way the company looks at it," he says, "the racetrack is a sort of necessary evil for OTB. You can't make money with racetracks anymore. Racetracks are money sponges."
That sort of talk scares the racetrack people, who view Ladbroke as an insidious force. They see a day when there will be a need for only 10 or 12 tracks in the nation, each providing daily matinee and evening programs for a nationwide network of betting parlors. Big tracks such as Gulfstream, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita don't have to worry, because they will be among the survivors.
However, if small tracks begin to find it more convenient and economical to stop live racing and just take the cards from larger tracks, the breeding industry will be devastated, because fewer horses will be needed. "The results could be catastrophic," says Gene McLean of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, an organization of owners and breeders. When this is repeated to McKenna, he laughs.
"OTB is helping a lot of tracks stay open," he says. "Facilities like ours will enable racing to become competitive with those things in the entertainment industry that are putting racing out of business."
A fire is roaring in the office fireplace of Brereton C. Jones, the master of the Airdrie Stud Farm, a 2,000-acre spread 20 miles west of Lexington. It's 7:30 a.m., but Jones, wearing a suit and tie, is well into his busy schedule. A farmer-politician in the Jeffersonian tradition, he's running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Kentucky in May. As the incumbent lieutenant governor, he's the front-runner. He laughingly admits that as a thoroughbred breeder and owner, he often dreams of being the first governor to present the Kentucky Derby trophy to himself—or to his wife, Libby.
Tall and tweedy, Jones has to be careful about how he presents himself to the electorate. He doesn't want to be perceived as some rich snob breeder who doesn't have the little man's concerns at heart, so he sells himself as a farmer more than a horse breeder. But everybody in the state's racing industry knows that if Jones is elected, he'll be the strong advocate that the industry so desperately needs.
"At both the state and federal levels," says Jones, "the government has to realize that we're not talking about a sport for rich people but about an industry that creates thousands of jobs. We're talking about tourism and agriculture. The health of the horse industry benefits the pocketbook of every state that has racing, and we had better realize that racing needs incentives from government to stay healthy and exist."
Though racing may lead the world in seminars, symposiums, conferences, forums, conventions and roundtable discussions, nothing ever seems to change. There's always a lot of talk about sacrificing for the common good, but when push comes to shove, racing remains a sport of loosely connected fiefdoms, each jealously guarding its own turf.
There is no effective national umbrella organization. The groups that come closest are the Kentucky-based Jockey Club, which is mainly in charge of registering the 50,000 or so foals that are born in the U.S. and Canada every year; the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, an organization of 52 North American tracks that from its home in Lake Success, N.Y., oversees the annual Eclipse Award balloting; and the American Horse Council, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and represents all breeds.
Even with organizations such as these, racing doesn't have an effective lobbyist. In 1986, for example, racing failed to prevent federal tax-code revisions that took away most of the incentives for individuals investing in racehorses. The changes forced many of the sport's most ardent supporters to either drop out or cut back. In the last five years, dispersal sales were conducted by such big racing names as Gene Klein, Warner Jones, Tartan Stables, John Franks, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Ryehill Farm and Calumet Farm. And potential new owners are discouraged by the fact that only one of every five makes a profit.
The dearth of owners has driven down prices at the various thoroughbred auctions. Also, breeding fees have dropped from a high of around $250,000, which is what it cost to breed to a top stallion a few years ago to the $30,000 or so that it will cost this year to breed a mare to Criminal Type, last year's Horse of the Year. So many owner-breeders have gotten out of the business, even in Kentucky, that horse farms now are relatively cheap.
But here's the kicker: "The only way to sell horses to owners is to sell them on the pageantry and romance of the game," says Lukas, the game's preeminent trainer. "But how much pageantry and romance is there if all the fans are stuck off somewhere in betting parlors?"
The answer, says Jones, is for racing to have a national commissioner, a Pete Rozelle, to pull all the disjointed parts of the industry together and provide a single spokesman who can set policy, arbitrate disputes, testify before Congress and the state legislatures, oversee a national marketing campaign and, most important, come up with a master plan for the game's future.
Jones has even mapped out a tentative plan. As he sees it, racing should establish a 15-person council consisting of five track operators, five representatives of the breeding industry and five horsemen—either owners or trainers. The council members would be selected by their individual constituencies according to a voting formula. A breeder's vote would be weighted according to how many foals he registers, an owner's by how many horses he has in training, and a racetrack's by how many dollars it handles. The council would select the commissioner, who would be responsible to the council.
"If the council didn't like what the commissioner was doing, it could fire him and get somebody else," Jones says. "But racing has got to speak with one voice. The handwriting is on the wall, and I think racing has enough smart people to see it."
Jones also believes that racing is still paying for the mistakes it made in the 1950s and '60s, when it owned the franchise on legal gambling. This created a feeling of complacency that bordered on arrogance. While Major League Baseball and the National Football League were breaking new ground in marketing and promotions, racing often treated its patrons with an indifference ranging from benign neglect to utter contempt. Racing visionaries such as Louis Wolfson of Florida, who bred '78 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, often warned about the probable consequences, but nobody listened.
"It used to be," says Jones, "that you would get shabbier treatment at the racetrack than at any other public event."
It is a bright afternoon, and the sun is streaming through the windows of David Vance's corner office at Remington Park, the classy new racetrack on the outskirts of this state capital of 440,000 people. Vance, who is tall, mustachioed and handsome, oversees three tracks—Remington, Thistledown and Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La.—for billionaire developer Edward J. DeBartolo. Each facility has a different set of problems and needs, forcing Vance to be a sort of philosophical chameleon. What's good for Remington is not necessarily good for Thistledown, and vice versa. But of the three places, Remington is Vance's baby, the track he helped design and oversee from its first day on the drawing board. On this day he is looking out his office window and smiling.
"When I designed this office," he says, "I wanted to have a good view of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame over there. Well, look at what has popped up on the horizon since then: the golden arches of another McDonald's. That spoiled my view, but it makes me wonder about the future of racing. We're living in an age of convenience, and I wonder if the day will come when bettors will pull up to a drive-through window and say, 'Gimme a Big Exacta, an order of Daily Doubles and a small Twin-Trifecta.' Then they'll pull up to the next window and pay for it."
Remington, which opened in the fall of 1988, is one of racing's most heartening success stories. One reason is that it has no competition from local professional sports, or a lottery or any form of offtrack betting. But another reason is that Remington is a state-of-the-art facility geared to accommodate players of every socioeconomic level. At Remington it's possible to park your car, pay your way in and buy a program for a grand total of $4. That should be good news to Roger Newell, a track regular in California who is so upset with the high cost of racing in the state that he formed a group called Horse Players' Revolt, which protested the prices at Santa Anita.
"You've got to get the new, young blood to the tracks," Newell says, "or otherwise there is not going to be anybody to replace the fan of today. Now, before you can make your first bet, you've already spent about $18. Gas for your car. Three dollars to park. Three dollars to get in. Two-fifty for a Racing Form, a dollar for your program. Add in the cost of food and beverage, and you've eliminated the young fan right there."
Besides making racing affordable, Remington also has an up-to-date information center in the main lobby designed to give newcomers a rudimentary understanding of the sport. Says Vance, "Consumer education has been a big part of our philosophy at Remington, where we're developing new fans; at Louisiana Downs, where we have an established track; and at Thistledown, where we have a mature clientele."
Remington also provides a racing experience for the high and mighty that's second to none. On the top level of the four-story grandstand/clubhouse is a row of 20 luxury boxes that are leased for three-year periods for $175,000 apiece. The appointments are so plush that it's difficult to believe you're at a racetrack. One box has Santa Fe-style decor; another has the look of an English club. Don Reynolds, a newspaper mogul who lives aboard a 727—and owns seven houses—decorated his suite at Remington to duplicate the interior of his plane. The tab for decorating many of the suites has to be $250,000 or more.
"We think we have something special," says Vance. "I think we're a role model, and I'm not saying that boastfully."
But, of course, the secret to Remington's continued growth is limiting the competition. That's why Vance is opposed to any form of offtrack betting in Oklahoma but thinks it might be Thistledown's salvation in Ohio. His boss, DeBartolo, lives in Youngstown and has carefully followed the progress of the Ladbroke betting parlor across the Pennsylvania border in New Castle. With all of its population centers, Ohio seems to him to be a natural for intratrack wagering.
"How many OTB parlors could you put into Ohio without infringing on your primary market?" Vance asks rhetorically. "The Number One problem for racing is oversaturation, and you have to control the growth of OTB. If you do that, racetracks around the country don't have to die. We've seen some attrition, and there might be more, but I don't think it'll ever be as dramatic as some people think."
Santa Anita Park, which opened in 1934 as a kind of Hialeah of the West, lies hard by the San Gabriel Mountains, which give the track a majestic beauty unrivaled in American racing. The first reaction of newcomers is to gasp at the lovely scenery. It's almost incidental that Santa Anita happens to be the home of what is arguably the nation's best daily racing.
But on Wednesday, Jan. 23, the crowd of 25,241 wasn't there to admire the mountains or cheer the thoroughbreds from the stables of Lukas, Charlie Whittingham, Ron McAnally and other leading trainers. The Pick Six pool (in which one attempts to pick the winners of six consecutive races) had reached $1.8 million. The Pick Six and the Pick Nine are racing's numbers games, the sport's answer to the lotteries and the greyhounds, and they appeal to a public that values constant action only slightly less than instant gratification.
By day's end, the crowd at the track had bet $3,000,493 in the Pick Six pool, a U.S. record. Another 9,856 bettors put down $1,826,672 at the state's 11 intratrack wagering sites, for a total Pick Six pool of $4,827,165, also a U.S. record. There were eight winning ticket holders, each of whom collected $469,885. Interestingly, however, only two of the eight winners were at the track. Four had bet with the Las Vegas sports books, one was at Canterbury Downs in Minnesota and one was at Mountaineer Park in Chester, W.Va. (The last two tracks take Santa Anita's full card via simulcasting.)
"I think this is where many of us [smaller tracks] will wind up, commingling our bets with the pools at four or five racing centers where the live racing is held," Canterbury spokesman J.G. Preston said in the Feb. 1 Los Angeles Times. "We're always hearing complaints about too many sore horses because there are too many racing dates. This is a way that tracks can avoid those pitfalls and still stay in business."
But to Santa Anita president Cliff Goodrich, the good news is that so many people came to the track. As he talks about it the next day in his office, Goodrich looks as pleased as if he were one of the Pick Six winners.
"I'm sure a lot of those people were just betting numbers," he says. "But when you looked at the people walking around, studying the Daily Racing Form, you could see that they were a little more involved than somebody who buys a lottery ticket. That's how people get racing in their blood, getting hooked on the challenge of doping out winners."
Bad choice of words there. When doping is mentioned in California, everybody immediately thinks of the cocaine scandals that have damaged the sport's credibility. In February 1989, the entire industry was embarrassed when the California Horse Racing Board announced that horses handled by six trainers, including Lukas and Laz Barrera, who trained Affirmed, had tested positive for cocaine, which in theory might have boosted their performances.
It was a no-win situation for racing. If the test was conclusive, the game would have a black eye that wouldn't go away quickly. But if, after all that publicity, the test could not be said to have proved the horses were given cocaine, racing would be held up to public ridicule. (In the end the test was judged inconclusive, and charges against Lukas, Barrera and the other trainers were dropped.)
Lukas is one of the horsemen calling for some kind of national uniformity regarding testing and permissible medication. So is Carl Nafzger, who trained Unbridled to win last year's Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. But many people in racing don't think uniform rules will work.
Last year's Triple Crown was overshadowed by a controversy over Lasix, an antibleeding medication that either enhances a horse's performance or doesn't, depending on whom you talk to. Lasix is legal in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but not in the Belmont Stakes, because New York doesn't allow any race-day medication.
When Nafzger brought Unbridled to the Belmont Stakes, he was horrified by the Lasix publicity. Unbridled had used Lasix for the first two Triple Crown races but could not use it for the Belmont. "One story in the Daily Racing Form made it sound like [Unbridled] was some cheap horse that would be headed for a detox center as soon as the Belmont was over," Nafzger says. Unbridled finished fourth.
Lukas has a better handle on racing's myriad problems than most people in the sport. One night at a small, elegant Italian restaurant near his home in Arcadia, Lukas talked about it.
"The problem with this game," he said, "is it's so competitive that nobody wants to get down and hold hands."
Besides a uniform national medication policy, Lukas favors 1) a national commissioner; 2) giving OTB players "the atmosphere of a Vegas sports book"; 3) educating legislators to consider racing as an entire industry instead of just a gambling machine; and 4) giving tax incentives to owners. But mostly he thinks efforts should be refocused on developing new fans for racing the sport, instead of racing the high-tech TV gambling game.
As Lukas talked, his dinner companion began to reminisce about one of the great races of all time, the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs. On that gray, drizzly November afternoon, there was a transcendent performance, one for the ages. Midway through the stretch, Lukas's great roan filly, Winning Colors, who had won the Kentucky Derby on the same track six months earlier, seemed a cinch. But then, from way back in the pack, in the final strides of the race, here came Personal Ensign, bidding to become the first thoroughbred since 1908 to finish her career unbeaten. Personal Ensign began eating up ground, and Winning Colors fought with all her might to hold the lead. Despite Personal Ensign's effort, it seemed the race was lost to her. And yet, at the wire, somehow, her nose was in front.
On the track, a misty-eyed Lukas said, "That's what racing's about." It is indeed. This is why it's called the Sport of Kings. Up in the press box, veteran turf writers, people who see thousands of races a year, rose to their feet and applauded, eyes brimming with tears at the courage and excellence of the performance they had just witnessed.
Now Lukas was sitting in a restaurant in California and talking about the problems that will haunt racing as the sport moves inexorably into TV gambling and high technology.
"We always have to showcase the game, first and foremost," he said. "It's a wonderful game, a game you can fall in love with. What other game has the drama and feeling that this one does? That's what we have to sell. The pageantry and the romance of horse racing. We need to concentrate on that instead of trying to satisfy some guy in a betting parlor."
He looked grim. He looked as if he wasn't at all sure if racing understood its problems, or had any idea of how to stop itself from galloping out of control toward a destination too dreary to contemplate.