David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (owner of the prestigious Woodbine Racetrack), gave a 2001 speech on the then-state of Ontario Horseracing (which has since taken a significant turn for the worse). With uncommon candor, at least for horseracing, Willmot, a racing-executive legend, shatters horseracing’s greatest myth:
“During the first month that I was CEO, I had a meeting with about eight or ten of our biggest gamblers. During our discussion, I used the word ‘fan,’ and talked about our ‘fans.’ And one of these guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I am not a fan of anything that you or your rich friends do around here. And don’t call me a ‘patron’ either, because I’m not a patron. I am a gambler. …And you think the only reason we are here is to watch you, your friends, and your brown furry animals enjoy your elitist activity.'”
Mr. Willmot concedes: “The truth of the matter is, racing is a gambling business 99.8 percent of the time and a sport the other point-two percent. A $20,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon is not a sport.”
Still, there are holdouts who liken horseracing to pro football, a sport with a gambling component. But disregarding for a moment the conspicuous absence of whips, on-field kills, and ex-player abattoirs, 80,000 people do not flood a football stadium to follow office-pool picks. Simply put, the NFL’s success is explained by fandom while horseracing’s, such as it is, by $2 bets (and increasingly by corporate welfare). To the gambler who drives racing, the horse is inconsequential beyond that day’s program; any fleeting emotional bond is the same felt for a blackjack card.
So please spare us talk of ambiance, tradition, the beauty of equines in full stride, and competitive athletes honing their craft. People don’t go to the racetrack for any of that. Horseracing is no more sport than taking a quarter to a scratch-off. It is unadulterated gaming, nothing more, nothing less. Problem is, VLTs have no bones to shatter, roulette wheels no carotids to slash. Gambling in and of itself is not immoral. Gambling on the backs of suffering horses is.