Racing depends on horseplayers for its survival

Racing depends on horseplayers for its survival

Skip Dickstein/Albany Times Union

Bob Barry: Horses and Horseplayers

Bettors need to believe in the product

Originally published in the Aug. 11 edition of Blood-Horse Daily. To download the Blood-Horse Daily smartphone app or to receive the edition in your inbox each evening, visit

Not long after the end of World War II, Joe Palmer left his job with a group called the American Trainers Association to become the racing editor of the New York Herald-Tribune.

In a column introducing himself to his new readers, Palmer acknowledged that "Thoroughbred racing is an unusual sport in that anyone who goes past a racetrack feels privileged to throw a rock or two over the fence." He figured this was on account of the betting.

Now, nearly 70 years later, the betting is no longer the problem. Gambling in America has not merely been de-stigmatized. It has been commercialized, localized, and supersized, like here in my home state of New York. All the same, rocks continue to sail in over racetrack fences.

The racing-bashers of Palmer's day were anti-gambling Puritans, haunted, per cultural critic H. L. Mencken's famous phrase, by the thought that "someone, somewhere, is having a good time."

It's different today. I've met people who are critical of racing, and I can certainly vouch for their general lack of puritanical virtue. But I can also vouch for their general understanding of the American racing scene, including the indeterminate number of sore and doped-up horses with unscrupulous connections, and the all-too-predictable number of disastrous results (that "fatalities per 1,000 starts" metric that has barely budged in recent years).

Further along in Palmer's introduction column, the former longtime employee of the Blood-Horse (during the period sandwiched between his salad days as an English professor at the University of Michigan and his later stint with the ATA) pledged to his new readers that he would refrain as best he could from letting his many friendships in racing—ranging from stable hands to owners—"tug at his typewriter" too frequently.

My perspective comes from the grandstand side, and my associations are not with trainers and racing secretaries but with horseplayers and figure-makers. Back when racing was a sport conducted by wealthy men for their own amusement, horseplayers were mere extras. Today, racing is a business that will endure only so long as there are players who believe it to be an on-the-level sport worthy of a wager.

Horseplayers never asked for oversight that is feckless; for medication rules that are lax; for testing that is ineffective; or for sanctions that are toothless. But that's what we got.

Anyone paying attention has seen many suspicious equine breakdowns, positive drug tests, and suspensions in some states, incompetent lab results in other states, and "miraculous" reversals of form after trainer changes. Is it any wonder that bettors must assume rampant drug abuse as a means of pari-mutuel survival? You may not like what this says. But racing's real problem with bettors is that there are too few of them.