Horse racing - still viable?

Here, in Montreal, our racetrack has sat abandoned for the last 10-15 years - waiting for development to be approved (the old parking lot is already full of a Wal-Mart and other big-box stores). I’m sure many others have suffered the same fate. Image: Google Maps

I would say its decline started in the mid-70’s when lotteries and casinos were introduced, Prior to then - betting on horse races at the track was the only legal form of gambling.

Some tracks still seem to be going strong - e.g. Churchill Downs and Saratoga. CD is a publicly-traded company, and I’ll bet it makes more money from its casinos than its racetracks. Saratoga’s season is only about six weeks long, so it needs a lot of tourists’ money to stay alive.

Is your local track still in operation? What keeps it going? Was it shut down due to lack of business and other gambling competition?

Northville Downs down the street appears to be packed all the time, even when they don’t have races there. I assume that they are watching races in other places and betting on them. Not sure if they have other gambling there since I have no interest in gambling of any sort, so I have never been inside. It’s been extra busy since they closed the Hazel Park track just outside of Detroit two years ago.

It is in downtown Northville and was slated to be moved next year, but due to Covid its now there until 2024. The towns people hate it because it brings in a lot of what are considered undesirable to an otherwise upscale town, but it also brings in a lot of tax money. There are plans to renovate the track area into condos and shops as it sits right next to a vibrate downtown district and the land is very desirable and valuable, but that imitative has stalled for now.

Pennsylvania (and some other states) has racinos, combination race tracks and casinos. My understanding is that while horse race tracks had been in decline for many years the opening of casinos brought about a great increase in the purses available to race tracks, thereby attracting better horses which has rekindled interest in the sport. Some of the racino tracks are doing very well.

The fate of dog racing in North America might be coming soon for horse racing, too. When the tracks brought in slot machines, people migrated over to them from the track. It’s a lot easier to win (even if it’s a small pot) on a machine than on an animal. The dog tracks eventually started to financially subsidize the track operations with the casino profits.

That, tied with animal welfare issues, is now rather rapidly closing down all dog racing in USA.

Horse racing in the US, along with its other problems mentioned above, has been extremely resistant to humane regulation, being crooked from the get-go, as it were. The combination of breeding for an ever-lighter-built horse (faster) and a skinful of dope to make that fragile horse run all out even when in pain, has lead to an increase in track fatalities, wherein horses keel over dead in the middle of a race or shatter their legs and are euthanized on the spot. This is real bad for PR, and the Animal Crusaders are panting up their asses.

The horse racing culture, I believe, will not adapt, it will be forcibly driven to extinction. And unlike dog fighting and other ugly sports involving cruelty to animals, it’s hard to have a horse race in somebody’s basement.

I’m not far from Saratoga, probably the most successful track in America. It’s mobbed every day of the meet.

In NY, at least, people still bet the horses at OTB. Revenue for racing was down last year for obvious reasons, but tracks can still stay afloat from betting and racing fees. Once the pandemic is under control, people will be coming back.

And rich people love to own horses and race.

I think racinos will continue to help subsidize the purses and facilities. Combined with the horse racing exemption in the UIGEA that has effectively extended paramutual betting to be worldwide and possible from home or on your smartphone, the bettors doing it for fun (as opposed to those who spend lots of time at the track, watching mornings, and so on) can pump a lot of dumb money into it.

The longest stretch of “what the hell are they doing there?” was at Santa Anita a couple years ago, and yet the racing still goes on.

The demand for legal gambling is nearly infinite. As long as that’s true there’ll be a market for horse racing. The small local tracks that can’t attract a national handle are doomed. But the big city tracks can syndicate their races to the national books. Which will eventually truly be nationwide, rather than sold through Indian casinos, riverboats, and other gimmicky outlets.

Our local scene includes a successful thoroughbred park and a harness park. Our dog racing is long gone.

I personally think that animal racing, betting on animals of any kind ought to be illegal, on account of humanness. I used to not have much of an opinion on horse racing until about the past few years. Forgot which track, but so many horses with broken legs getting euthanized, and for what?

When I was younger I used to go horseback riding and trail riding. Horses are just beautiful creatures. They’ve got their own personalities. The thought of having them wasted over a “sport” just twists my gut.

Where I live, the local fairgrounds track stood idle for about five years before they finally got around to tearing down the grandstand. What used to be a couple of large tracks (Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields) and a handful of fairgrounds tracks are now down to three, and two of them are used only 3 weeks out of the year.

Still, horse racing has a place, and it won’t die out entirely. It may be reduced to certain areas, and the widespread availability of “satellite betting” may be a cause of this; why bother with everything involved with maintaining a racetrack (I can only imagine how complicated the tote system was before computers) if you can just place a bet and then watch the race on TV - and you no longer have to wait 20-30 minutes for the next race?

Remembering that, just like food animals, if there was no horse racing the vast majority of those animals would never be conceived, birthed, fed and housed. They’d simply never exist.

Consider all the oxen we don’t use to plow the crop fields of the USA. That’s one hell of a lot of un-alive critters. And all the horses that don’t pull our carts, farm wagons, surries, beer wagons, and all the rest of our wheeled vehicles.

That’s what our local track does. It only has roughly six weeks of live racing annually, but all year round, it is possible to go there to watch and wager on racing from all over North America. And, as someone mentioned above, it is also a racino, with a number of slot machines. Add a restaurant and bar to the revenue stream, and it manages to survive pretty well. At least, in normal times.

During live racing, the local track tries to make it a fun day out for the entire family. There is usually a Dixieland jazz band playing between the races, and events for the kids–the kids particularly enjoy the “stick horse” race, where they run on the track, starting twenty yards or so behind the wire, while the race caller announces the race, just like it was a real one. There is often a petting zoo for the kids as well.

Our local track will never host a graded stakes race, and it is unlikely that our live racing is offered at any race books outside our province. But it is still viable enough that Equibase (a horse racing database) lists its entries, offers past performances for horses entered at it, and presents results; so it must be doing something right.

I agree with you. After adopting a retired racing greyhound and then volunteering with the adoption group, I started researching dog racing issues and along the way I learned a bit about horse racing also.

Horse racing is/was considered a wealthy man’s recreation while dog racing was the working man’s recreation. This classism is part of why dog racing faded out (and is now finally nearly gone) while horse racing persists. There’s a lot more money in horse racing, for obvious and non-obvious reasons not limited to the cost of the animal itself. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase a well-bred horse, compared to maybe ten thousand for a well bred dog.

The animal welfare people were able to lean more heavily on the dog racing industry to improve the welfare of their animals, improving details that ranged from crate size to turnout frequency to cleanliness of the kennels. (Side note: these improvements didn’t make the animal welfare groups happy, they continued to fight for the elimination of dog racing.)

One interesting note on the drug issue: all dogs that are signed on to a race are drug tested (urine samples), however only the winning horses of a horse race are tested. This caused the near elimination of the use of drugs in dog racing (with a few exceptions because there are always assholes willing to risk it) because you were nearly guaranteed to be caught and then you’d have your winnings forfeited.

And I’m not sure how this impacts the future of horse racing but it’s a difference: also in response to animal welfare pressure, the dog racing industry started working with adoption groups, simply handing the dogs over to them instead of killing them. (This did take a while, of course, but over the last 15 or so years it’s been a healthy and willing relationship.) Dog whelping rates have plummeted due to the declining interest in dog racing while dog adoption has skyrocketed so for the last 10 or so years no racing dog was killed simply because it was injured or no longer wanted. Nearly all were adopted out to families. Contrast this with horses - even adopted as pets or for family/casual riding, horses are bloody expensive. There’s next to no adoption ability of retired horses because of the cost.

A citation:
Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism and American Popular Culture

Hell, they’ve had five deaths this year already, and they keep going. Though five might actually be an improvement.

There was always a steady market in what are called OTTBs – off track Thoroughbreds – for english-style disciplines like dressage, hunting, and arena jumping. My riding instructor, now retired, put herself through college and grad school by flipping OTTBs – buying cheap, fresh off the track youngsters, training them up for normal riding, and selling them at a good profit. However, several things are conspiring to dry up this market.

One, pleasure riding in general is in decline. Mainly because it is so damn expensive, and you need a lot of land to do it on, yours or someone else’s, and a lot of leisure time. Back in the day, I kept my horse in my back yard and rode in the hills behind my house. That’s the story for a lot of people who rode 40 or 50 years ago. That world has mostly vanished.

Two, OTTBs are out of fashion. The disciplines you used to see them in, as listed above, are now dominated by what are called Warmbloods, a purpose-bred type from continental Europe which are heavier-built and less skittery than Thoroughbreds, which are looked down on as too nervous and prone to breakage.

Three, the racing industry squeezes horses harder than than they used to, and even fewer come out of it with any hope of a second career. They are used up and fit only for horsemeat.

Without the racing industry, there would hardly be any place left for the glorious Thoroughbred, which transformed the European horse world in the eighteenth century when it was imported from Anatolia and the Middle East (its forebears still exist in the Akhal-Tekhe, Berber, and Arabian breeds).

Horse racing can continue to feed the need for gambling. Dog racing didn’t have that kind of appeal. Even if it ever was available OTB or online it didn’t have great appeal. I have no idea why anybody liked it, you can barely tell which dog is which, who knows which one was really in the race or won?

But horse racing has the Triple Crown as a major marketing triple event, and still a number of old well known tracks and traditional stakes races that will attract enough interest to keep the game going. Will it last another 40 or 50 years? Maybe not, but it will take at least that long to fade away.

I think that horse racing appeals to a different kind of gambler. They’re not willing to put their money on a random chance, such as a roulette wheel, a pair of dice, or a slot machine. They’d rather study all the numbers, and make an educated guess at which horse(s) will win, before they make their bet. They won’t always win–indeed, even the professional handicappers whose selections appear in publications like the Daily Racing Form are correct only about a third of the time–but in their minds, they’re gambling, but not on pure chance.

Besides, it’s a leisurely pursuit, which appeals to some gamblers. It is nowhere near as rushed or hurried as a crap table or blackjack game. You’ve got twenty minutes or so between races, giving you plenty of time to visit the washroom, get a drink at the bar, study the Form, and place your bet. As a fellow horseplayer once noted, “I can lose $20 in three to four hours at the track, or I can lose $20 in five minutes at a slot machine.”

Horse racing also provides spectacle. A horse over the course of the race can go from last to first or vice versa. There’s strategy on how best to run the horse or to neutralize the advantage of the front runner or of the horse’s ability to come from behind.

The actual race is a sporting event, so can be enjoyed like any other sporting event for the athletes involved. Here’s the famous race between Jaipur and Ridan, for instance, the two of them running neck and neck for almost the entire race.

There’s also Forego’s Marlboro cup victory where, when carrying 137 pounds (a ridiculously high amount – in the Derby it’s 126), he came from nowhere in the stretch.

So the interest is more than just betting. It’s watching a sporting event where you never know when you’ll see a great performance.

It’s certainly not dying here in the UK, although some smaller tracks may well not be viable.

How much of a difference do you think the popularity of various types of racing in the UK help? The US is basically thoroughbred and some harness. I’ve watched a fair bit of steeplechase and hurdles from the UK but I couldn’t tell you of a single course in the US. It happens, but I’ve never seen it covered on any of the networks like TVR or when Fox Sports has horse racing coverage.