"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, RAGE against the dying of the light."
- Dylan Thomas
Those who do not know and understand history, are destined to repeat its mistakes. There are lessons to be learned from the past, and I am not referring to an unmitigated glorification of the past, but rather an acknowledgement and examination of both the good and bad.
In 1963, John Hay "Jock" Whitney delivered a speech to the members of the Thoroughbred Club of America on the state of racing. "The spirit of racing," he warned, "is faced with this conflict of interest between commercialism and sport."
Prophetic words that seem to emanate from the viewpoint that the horse increasingly serves the ends of this commercialization. The end justifying the means, as it were.
In order to put on the show of horse racing there is an immense capital investment from horse owners. Furthermore, it is erroneous to believe that they conduct their endeavors for the pure sport of it, without any hope of return while acknowledging the inherent risk. Horse racing represents an economic juggernaut that operates at an enormous cost of time, money, emotion, blood, sweat and tears. Yet, in the world of both sport and business, horse racing continues to be, in my mind, profoundly unique.
Whitney's version of the "spirit of racing" is threatened wherever and whenever horse racing is conducted as pure, unadulterated business. American racing has long been predicated on the need for substantial purse money to encourage investors, while providing a living for the myriad individuals that populate the backstretches of America's racetracks.
Purse money is generated by the daily pari-mutuel handle. And what drives the pari-mutuel handle? The willingness and faith of fans and gamblers alike to wager hard-earned dollars on competitive racing with sizable fields, while perceived to be played on its own merits. Fans seek entertainment, gamblers seek value and horsemen and women graft to earn a living.
During the "golden years" of American racing, state governments began encroaching into the daily conduct of racetracks, where enormous sums of money were being wagered. Racetracks were viewed as veritable cash machines that could inflate state coffers with tax dollars. It became increasingly compulsory to card races with eight or more separate betting interests to generate suitable handle.
The logistics of carding nine races per day with reasonable quality and quantity are significant. How baneful must the efforts of the racing office today, to produce entertaining and value-laden races, when faced with the glowing disparity of stable sizes on American racetracks?
The reduction in the annual foal crop size notwithstanding, there is a glaring disproportion in the number of horses spread throughout individual stables at American racetracks. Curiously, Whitney expressed alarm at the growing nature and size of public stables in the early 1960s. The sculptors of American racing, people named Whitney, Phipps, Widener, Belmont, Vanderbilt, DuPont and others, were acutely aware of the danger posed to competitive racing by unrestrained public stables.
The temptation, many believed, was to treat horses as pure business commodities and simply play the numbers. In common sense terms, therefore, a public stable armed with 50 to 100 fresh 2-year-olds each year possesses a glaring advantage over stables with one to five 2-year olds each year.
In practical terms, if one stable possesses 50 maidens while another has three, how often will the stable with three maidens be pressured to run in order to "fill" races?
The stable with 50 has the luxury of spacing their races, while only racing the fittest and fastest, and subsequently securing a high win percentage.
More maidens will yield more winners, more allowance horses and more possibilities for stakes horses. It's a numbers game, pure and simple.
Therefore, how is it possible for racetracks to offer full fields and competitive races?
Wherein lies the incentive to wager when faced with one or two obvious and very short-priced horses, over four or five remote outsiders?
Wherein lies the incentive to compete when confronted with such inequality?
It has been proven that pari-mutuel handle improves with full fields, of reasonable quality and competitiveness. It is more challenging for the gambler, and offers a better opportunity for profitable odds. The casual fan appreciates a field of 12 competing, with jockeys trying to negotiate a better trip and outmaneuver each other.
Perhaps it will be argued that placing restrictions on stable sizes runs afoul of free enterprise. But it can also be contended that such restrictions will protect the public interest.
We exist in a capitalistic society, thankfully. Within a capitalist economy there will be inequality. There will be rich and poor. It is inaccurate though, to suggest that the gulf between the haves and have nots is representative of some divine right, or overwhelming intellect, or work ethic, when it can be just as easily achieved through timing and luck. Good or bad.
In this respect, racing has always mirrored the tribulations facing the national economy.
The disappearance of the middle class, the backbone of a strong economy has been dramatic and alarming. Furthermore, the evaporation of the middle-class trainer, the medium-sized outfit that was once the backbone of competitive racing, has had a direful effect on the health of racing. On the backstretches of American racetracks, the widening chasm between the haves and have nots is quite evident. And why?
It has been suggested that a trainer exhibiting a 20 percent or more success rate is somehow superior. Perhaps a reflection of a stronger work ethic, more vociferous attention to detail and insatiable appetite for victories.
Yes indeed, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing!
Racing is infected by an avarice and tenacious rapacity that is cultivated by a dedication to commercialism and has undermined modern Thoroughbred racing. When a sport is reduced to mere statistics and standings, it loses an intangible yet fundamental attraction. The pure joy and unpredictability of competition. The true source for growth and prosperity in racing, lies in the re-emergence of the middle-class trainer. Those horsemen who are dedicated professionals and are more than capable of training winners.
The insipid proliferation of "program" medication as a means to display a horseman's acumen has utterly distorted the perception of horse racing and subverted any notion of true horsemanship.
We must recognize, however, that racing is a contact sport. Injuries occur, despite our best efforts to prevent them. However, modern racing has become a war of attrition and fans perceive racetracks to be a veritable "no man's land."
What is the price for victory they ask?
Ignorance is bliss, whilst knowledge is but folly.
Horse racing, without a doubt is teetering upon the precipice of extinction.
Yet, the economic impact of horse racing is very real and far reaching.
Teddy Roosevelt was a man of wealth and privilege, yet he intuitively understood the absolute need for equitable competition and was widely acclaimed for his progressive "trust-busting" policies.
Racing must incorporate a similarly equitable economic vision, and embrace dramatic reforms to revitalize interest in the sport.
The racing hierarchy needs to begin by limiting the number of horses in public stables. Sure, it will be controversial, and the resistance shall wail like the banshee. But there was a time in New York racing when stables were limited to between 35 to 40 horses, and the health of the sport significantly transcended modern racing.
One might recall Woody Stephens, who operated his stable of 36 horses from Barns 3 and 4 on the Belmont Park backside. He won five Belmont Stakes in a row during the 1980s.
The only living trainer to have won the Triple Crown, Billy Turner trainer of Seattle Slew fame, had a stable of 17.
My own father, Leo O'Brien, had a stable of 15 when he made history when he won the Irish Two Thousand Guineas.
Limiting the size of public stables is not to denigrate any trainers, but to insure a more even distribution of equine talent, encouraging participation from horsemen and owners. Field size would grow and with it interest and wagering.
I would venture a new and greater fan base could be cultivated, and once again a sport be celebrated. If not and the rulers of the game continue on the present path, and we watch with absolute complicity as the "spirit of racing" fades into the darkness, then who is next?
On Dec. 23, 2013, 25,837 fans attended the funeral of Hollywood Park. On Oct. 4, 2014, a small crowd payed their last respects to Suffolk Downs. In 2014, Colonial Downs never opened for live racing, but simply departed during the night while racing slept.
"Do not go gently into that good night."
"Rage, RAGE against the dying of the light."
– Dylan Thomas
Keith O'Brien was born into horse racing. His father, Leo was a successful steeplechase jockey and is currently a trainer on the New York circuit. Keith earned his Bachelors or Arts in Political Science from Holy Cross and for a short time rode steeplechase races and later trained. An accredited racing steward, he currently works alongside his father at Belmont Park, training in the morning and in the afternoon plies his trade as a voice actor.