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The Tentacle


May 15, 2007

Ailing Sport of Kings

Roy Meachum

Growing up in New Orleans horse racing simply could not be avoided. The bangtails ran for their prizes from about Thanksgiving until spring signaled colder climes were in the process of thawing out.

The local track was known as The Fairgrounds, which suggested it was once located outside city limits and hosted an agricultural show, at least once a year. Before I came along, nothing remained except the racing meet.

Arriving with the thoroughbreds, the people known as snowbirds scattered throughout New Orleans. I knew a few. The impression remains that many slept in their cars, saving their money for the pari-mutuel tellers. They were men with obscure means of financing their lives; but that applied to lots of folks during the Great Depression. Few women belonged to their ranks.

At a time when $25 represented a decent weekly wage, the track's odds glittered with the promise of escape. The glitter, and for only a couple of bucks, kept alive what was once called "the Sport of Kings," presumably because owning, feeding and training horses required a personal treasury.

Sunday's (Baltimore) Sun began this Preakness week by lamenting the state of what this state was once famous for. The story suggests that things might go so far as to take Maryland out of the middle of racing's Big Three; the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes bracket Pimlico in the competition to name the horse of the year.

As we have heard so often lately, the easy solution for the state's decline can be found in slot machines. They are presented - wrongly - as a panacea. Proponents of the one-armed bandits love to cite West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware as places where slots revenues have brought prosperity to horse breeders, owners and trainers.

Nothing is mentioned about the addiction that spawned Gamblers Anonymous. No one summons up other means to keep the Sport of Kings alive. Those who would personally profit from higher racing subsidies delight in pointing out how other sports have received large sums to build stadiums and such. And they're right.

Nothing is ever said about the decline of public interest. The big names that once publicized, for example, the Kentucky Derby were conspicuous by their absence. England's queen doesn't count; she owns and breeds horses, don't you know? She has a personal interest in competition coming from these shores.

One thing the slots' proponents have right is the popularity of casinos in our neighboring states. Take a trip to Charles Town one night and you could be amazed at the clubhouse action, which has little if anything to do with action down on the track. But, in a real sense, racing has much to do with legitimatizing the twirling machines.

This became apparent to the horse industry years ago, which is why the bombardment in the media continues. Stop to think: What would your reaction be to the suggestion that you put up your money, in donations or taxes, to support an industry owned by fat cats? People, in it for the money.

Frankly, my dears, I don't give a dam whether the bucks go to hay and oats or to trainers and exercise riders. Racing is a sport without a scintilla of democracy. Owners rule. Period.

What these slick, finely tailored dudes want is a sizable subsidy to underwrite their passion or hobby - they are both the same in this context. Any and all attempts to "fix" the industry, by whatever means, receives categorical rejection; the players don't want "outsiders" messing with their game.

That argument works solely when the money they play with belongs to themselves. Because it is a help to genuine assets like tourism, racing gets the guttering leftovers in the form of tax revenues. But not enough.

Under the present system, could it ever be enough? Not when education gets first crack at public revenues. The slot machine gimmick would set up a separate system that would fund, for example, new schools; the race boys are not totally voracious in their greed, they're willing to share.

Nothing said here should be interpreted as opposition to gambling; I'm not that hypocritical. Long ago in New Orleans I learned suppression merely encourages vices. The Noble Experiment, otherwise known as prohibition, acted chiefly as a spur for people to find new ways to break the law.

Reporters who cover sports tend to disagree; they are naturally reluctant to see diminished any of the fields they cover, especially something once accurately described as "The Sport of Kings." So, naturally, that branch of journalism willingly fosters the notion of slot machines (a non-sport) underwriting racing. That's no skin off their noses.

Let me end this essay by recounting my first job.

Those wartime years I remained underage for drafting or recruiting, but my height made other people believe I was older. In any event, when I followed a newspaper ad's directions and ventured into a French Quarter restaurant that day, nobody asked if I were a minor. That was simply not New Orleans way, when I was growing up.

Somebody at that address had advertised for an office boy, as the jobs were then known. Before setting out that morning I took a Haspel seersucker suit off its hanger and carefully tied a tie. I meant to give a good impression on the first job interview I had ever had.

Inside the restaurant a waitress waved in the direction of a back door, down alongside the bar, and watched me as I followed her directions. Inside the door, there were walls with huge sheets of paper, chairs lined up row on row and a man with a very nice smile. I got the job.

First thing every morning I took an envelope obviously stuffed with money to the other side of Canal Street and handed it over to a woman who sat at an ordinary desk in an ordinary office: no names were exchanged. That was extraordinary in that culture. But I knew better than to ask.

In afternoons loud speakers in the room broadcast races from around the country and my real job was to mark on the sheets, besides the winning horses' names, their order of finish. To this day 1, 2 and 3 are the clearest things I write by hand.

In the chairs sat the flowers of the local judiciary and law enforcement; the federal courthouse was directly across the narrow Quarter street. Some of the faces I thought I recognized from newspaper photos; I acknowledged none.

So it went for the first weeks and then my boss decided to teach me why betting on horses was a fool's game. He demonstrated with simple mathematics. After the various suppliers, including the tracks, pulled out their shares, the majority of each bet had vanished. In the end bettors were paying for the sake of winning. I got the point.

A few days later mother found a betting slip left in the pocket of my Haspel jacket; she knew what it was. My job was terminated on the spot, but she did allow me to call my ex-boss to thank him for the experience and most of all for the lesson.

In all the years devoted to vices that ensued, I always managed to stay shy of betting "the family farm" on any bangtail or filly. All gambling became a monster that chewed up my bucks even while I thought I was winning them back. I rarely went along.

That's the prospect Maryland's hopeful will face with every expansion of the betting industry. And I'm "agin" that.



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