Congress, Horseracing, Integrity

Racing’s biggest problem, according to the racers themselves, is the perception of a pervasive drug culture. They fret on this for good reason: The New York Times says (10/31/13), “Nearly four in five bettors — 79 percent — factored in the possibility of illegal drug use when handicapping races at certain tracks or in certain states. By a 9-to-1 margin, bettors said they bet less, not more, as a result.” For years, especially since Eight Belles, the industry has reassured the (betting) public of its commitment to cleaning house. Yet this morning, a Congressional panel meets (again) to discuss an intervention.

Beyond the absurdity of Congress, yes Congress, threatening to parent American horsemen, the larger questions are why: Why does government think it within its charter to save a second-rate, ever-so-slowly-dying “sport”? Aren’t the patently unfair racino subsidies enough? And why can’t (hasn’t) a 150-year-old industry police(d) itself?

I submit that American racing isn’t overly concerned about a higher-than-most breakdown rate – it’s just the cost of doing business. Nor is it too dismayed that, as The Times reports, 19 of this year’s top 20 trainers (in cash) have at least one career drug violation – the rules and regulators, you see, are inane. What it does care about, and all that matters in the end, is what the gamblers think.

In this, there is wonderful irony. To restore confidence – save itself, really – in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, baseball imposed draconian penalties on players who fraternized with society’s “seedier elements.” The gambler’s stain on baseball had to be removed. Today, racing, facing its own (unique) “integrity” crisis, considers harsher drugging rules in a desperate attempt to keep – or woo back, as the case may be – those very same elements exiled from baseball so many years ago. One sport’s pariah is another’s lifeblood.

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