By Morton Cathro
The recent appearance in movie theaters of “Charlotte’s Web,” a charming film based on the children’s classic by E.B. White, prompted my visit to the bookshelf to dust off a lesser-known story by White, a small gem entitled “The Decline of Sport.”
White probably is best known today for The Elements of Style handbook for writers, and for crafting the fable about Charlotte, the benevolent spider who spins magical words to save the life of Wilbur, a runty pig.
A half-century ago, White, as its chief essayist, was largely responsible for putting The New Yorker on the literary map. His short pieces on a wide variety of topics consistently snared the reader with their provocative thought entwined with subtle wit.
Such an essay was “The Decline of Sport,” a satire in which America’s sports fans, overwhelmed by too many attractions and frustrated by trying to keep up with all the accompanying distractions, finally abandon sports altogether and turn to life’s less complicated pursuits.
White’s spoof included only brief references to horse racing. But were he alive today, the recent status of the Sport of Kings might prompt him to write a serious sequel to what he himself called his “preposterous parable.”
Too many days of racing. Too many short fields. A multitude of breakdowns. Too many drug issues, with prominent trainers under scrutiny. Too many top horses retired prematurely to the breeding shed. Squabbles, lawsuits, and the ethics of dual agency...Are these and other concerns threatening the viability of racing and the loyalty of its fans?
Back in White’s time, a prescient sportsman, John Hay “Jock” Whitney, sounded a warning that echoes still. In the autumn of 1963, as the first stirrings of off-track betting were heard in the land, Whitney addressed the Thoroughbred Club of America as Honor Guest at its annual gathering. Before racing’s most powerful movers and shakers, the owner of Greentree Stable and a member of America’s foremost racing family decried what he called the conflict of interest between commercialism and sport:
“We cannot,” he declared, “allow the spirit of racing to be bought.”
While acknowledging the need for commercial involvement, Whitney asked, “Where do we draw the line that keeps commercialism within safe bounds? We draw it, I submit, at the point at which the horse begins serving the ends of commercialism, rather than commercialism serving the needs of the horse.”
Off-track betting, he believed, would exploit racing. States would become increasingly greedy for revenue—“not to advance the interests of racing but to fatten state treasuries.” Moreover, he asserted, gimmicked-up wagering combinations “will increase the temptation to treat horse racing as a giant lottery rather than a sport.” (Listen up, Pick Six addicts.)
Whitney further worried about racetracks operated by businessmen with scant backgrounds in racing.
“The spirit of racing,” he said, “is in jeopardy whenever sportsmen lose control. Lose this spirit, and there will be no racing—only races.”
The emphasis on big purses to lure 2-year-olds was a direct result, Whitney said, of treating racing as a business and not enough as a sport, “a trend that needs watching lest racing devour its young.”
Those were strong words—and noble ideals—a half-century ago. They’re worth pondering today as we witness growing corporate sponsorship of prominent races, expansion of “racinos,” advertising on jockeys’ breeches, cheap promotion giveaways, and so on.
Will time and circumstances prove Jock Whitney (and E. B. White) prophetic? Or simply “preposterous” in their idealism? In a perfect world racing would need no commercial underpinning, no off-track betting, no slot machines threatening to eliminate the horse from horse racing. But fierce competition from today’s multitude of athletic attractions has forced racing into a compromise.
Recent developments offer hope that the decline of sport can be halted and the spirit of racing revived. Safer track surfaces, shorter seasons, tougher legislation, stricter enforcement, and improving care for horse and rider signal a genuine concern for the future of the sport we all love. But the issues are many.
To quote Sir Walter Scott, himself pretty handy at spinning words, O what a tangled web we weave!Award-winning newsman Morton Cathro, now retired, has been a sports fan since the late 1930s.