Horse racing was one of the "big three" sports at the turn of the 20th century - along with baseball and boxing - before an abolition movement shut down tracks in all but three states. But it made a comeback in the 1930s, as states turned to pari-mutuel wagering as a means of raising revenue in difficult economic times. No less than ten states legalized parimutuels in 1933, the biggest "liberalization" of gambling on record. Racing quickly returned to the forefront of national attention. In the late 30's and 40's, horses like Seabiscuit and Citation would travel by railroad from one racetrack to the next, and be met by cheering crowds at stops in between.
No more. Racing had accepted a devil's bargain, accepting the chains of state regulation and taxation in return for its right to exist. While other sports developed dynamically in the post-war period, horse racing remained stuck in a time warp it is only now attempting to crawl out of.
Two routes are being followed today. The short term route is to beg the state for the right to run "racinos," i.e. to install slot machines at the tracks and split the take with the state. The long term route involves consolidation of ownership, and integration of the top level of competition - to have national figures making the rounds across the country as Seabiscuit and Citation once did. Churchill Downs is pursuing both routes throughout the country (Churchill now owns tracks in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, and California, in addition to Kentucky). This is no mystery: Churchill states its business strategy here for all to see.
In today's Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein gives a fine account of racing's decline and current dilemma. He believes that the short term fix is a "fool's game." Racing - particularly the folks in charge at places like Churchill - should take this warning seriously.