Horse running through field

Racing as Business

The Saturday Evening Post ran a feature article in its February 13, 1932 edition about how racing was being transformed into a business. The article quotes “a wealthy sportsman who operates a big racing plant in the North,” thus:

‘”We may find ourselves with too much money,” he said. “When that happens every politician will want to own a track. And when racing is commercialized it is spoiled. It should never be a business.”‘

Too much money? Let’s see. In 1932, depression had gone well beyond the looming threat it poses in 2010. Unemployment was well on its way to 25% while plans were on the drawing board to employ 60% of the unemployed in public works that would, at bargain costs, develop infrastructure so crucial to future economic prosperity. The no-deal-at-all had yet to be replaced by the New Deal. It was three years before Social Security, which offered dignity and a decent quality of life for the elderly, all paid for by the working generation, would begin its tenure as an enduring, socially integrating, inter-generational, American public trust.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine racetrack operation as anything other than a business, but you can get a feel for the sensibilities of the past by retrojecting something from the present. Let’s take the current notion that it would be a good public policy move to privatize social security and transform it from a highly successful public trust into a Wall Street investment scheme. Now, retroject.

If dignity and a decent quality of life for the elderly are commercialized, . . . .

Well, perhaps that goes too far, but it does approximate how those whose interests lay in racing strictly as sport felt about the change that was afoot.

The new scheme then was not only to make racetracks capable of sustaining themselves during hard times, but also to make them progressive (things like public address systems, electronic totalisators, tote boards, photo-finish cameras, electric starting gates, the trifecta, etc.)–quite a new idea in the operation of racetracks. The lynchpin was to induce states to authorize a 10% takeout from wagers (only in your dreams, you thought), 3% going to the state and 7% retained by the racetrack.

The trouble was that the large purses that could be offered by a racetrack like the ultra-swanky upstart, Arlington Park–the one that burned down in 1985, I mean–would draw horses away from that “big racing plant in the North,” operated strictly for sport–you know the one I mean.

Thus was racing sucked into the business-competitive vortex. You can blame that on FDR, too. Where do you think those American workers who built the Chicago lakefront went for entertainment after cashing their public works paychecks? Back then, you couldn’t see the great horses run unless you went to the racetrack, but Arlington Park was also a window into a brighter future.