Still Just Farmers?

"We are farmers!" These words from a horse industry leader summarized the strategy used before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC). Focusing on its agri-business aspects, racing presented wagering as incidental. Also, the strategy camouflaged racing's long neglect of problem gambling.

The American Gaming Association (AGA) used a different strategy: making gambling disorders its own. Anti-gaming forces reeled as AGA established the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG) and countered unfavorable research findings with Dr. Howard Shaffer's Harvard Meta-Analysis. Peer-reviewed research, along with prevention and training programs, dutifully implemented by AGA members followed, signaling that problem gambling was "covered." NGISC's attention was kept focused on gaming's benefits.

Nobody laid a glove on the AGA. Racing also escaped unscathed as is usual for the "Teflon Garden," to which criticisms just don't stick.

In the future, racing's changing perception of itself, as gambling-based, may not permit relying on Teflon. Action may be needed.

"The fact is, pari-mutuel wagering not only primes the pump for this industry, but keeps it going...At the end of the day all of us should know the people who wager on the outcome of a race are the ones who pay the freight." (Ray Paulick, The Blood-Horse of March 25, 2000, p. 1977.)

Similarly, Professor Richard Wilcke wrote:

"Betting is neither a separate face nor a separate product to racing; it is an integral instrument...Gambling is not some cursed burden, but a vital part of racing's success. Like it or not, gambling is racing's integral instrument. (The Backstretch of May/June 2000, p.15-16.)

How might these views make horse racing vulnerable today? Unlike casinos, lotteries, and other gaming, racing still has a legislative battle regarding Internet and in-home or account wagering.

The most important information is the commitment of the racing industry to implement programs dedicated to promoting responsible wagering and assisting those employees and patrons who have developed problems. We are pleased to say that the four major racing organizations are joining together in this effort.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and American Quarter Horse Association have endorsed an Employee and Patron Responsible Wagering Initiative and will urge their member and supporting organizations which conduct wagering to adopt and implement this initiative in their facilities.

Was the proffered Responsible Wagering Initiative implemented? Some racetracks posted helpline numbers and some do training. State gaming regulatory boards, as in New Mexico, have mandated programs although racing commissions, except New York's, have been silent.

Horse racing has a unique leftover from the NGISC. The National Opinion Research Council (NORC) found pari-mutuel patrons to have the highest rate of pathological gambling among gambling patrons. Although criticized, the "NORC Patron Study" is neither refuted nor forgotten. It surfaced recently in an Attorney General's opinion. The AQHA advocates an alternative patron study but few agree. Therefore, the "NORC Patron Study" stands. Might Congress ask: "If racetrack patrons have the highest rate of gambling disorders, why put racing in homes?"

Whatever the industry's intent, Responsible Wagering Program "roses" are rare in the Teflon Garden. One of them is the TV Games Network AWARE (Always Wager Responsibly) Program for which I have been a consultant and advocate. Remarkably, AWARE's elements were in the initial business plan and present CEO, Mark Wilson, has ordered similar priority. Even so, keeping AWARE on schedule has been difficult. TVG deserves praise as an exception and as a promise keeper from the "We Are Farmers" campaign.

Racing need not rely on Teflon armor regarding gambling disorders that afflict patrons and employees. Promises to the NGISC can be kept. As well, the AQHA-proposed patron research can be completed. As always, the obstacle will be finding leaders who want racing, a gambling industry, to do something about its afflicted gamblers.

Dr. Curtis L. Barrett is a professor emeritus at the University of Louisville's School of Medicine.