“Big Brown had a bad day, but things have could have turned out worse, as we all know. Horses humble men on a regular basis. Here is to the smooth and steady Da’ Tara, the sweet-riding Alan Garcia, and a superb conditioning job by Nick Zito. The beauty of horse racing is overcoming great odds to win, rising out of the dust to prevail in the big race. The Da’ Tara team did just that.” -Sid Gustafson, “Horse Racing Prevails,” The New York Times
In the paddock, the mutuel clerks watched the Belmont Stakes play out on peoples’ faces. They’ve taken most of the televisions out of the bays – a futile attempt to curb employee gambling – so we leaned out our windows and watched the crowds gathered in small groups. There were cheers with the starting bell, but they faded quickly. “Who won?” the clerk next to me shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth and sounding like Rosie Perez. The silence was unnerving, the kind of hush that accompanies a horse’s fall. The race ended without ceremony and people dispersed, muttering and tossing ripped tickets on the asphalt. “It was the six,” someone called out from down the row. We pulled up the odds; the six was a long shot, largely ignored by my customers. “What about Big Brown?” someone else asked. “Last,” a man near the windows announced, grimacing as he flipped through his losing tickets. “Dead last.”
The 140th annual Belmont Stakes marked the start of my sixth year as a pari-mutuel clerk. I can’t think of many things I’ve done for six years; certainly not any other job. If you don’t find yourself at the racetrack very often, mutuel clerks take bets and cash winning tickets. Money changes hands very quickly, and it requires a fair amount of skill to be a consistently good clerk. I spend half of every summer taking bets six days a week, and on the first Saturday in June, I get on a bus at 4:30 in the morning, head down to Queens, and spend one long, hot day taking bets for the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. This year, all hopes rested on Big Brown, a previously undefeated three-year-old who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He would have been the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed thirty years ago. But as my mother always says, it wasn’t meant to be.
The racetrack is a part of my secret summer life, one that I was initially reluctant to reveal in college. These days my ears perk up when I hear or read a racing story that isn’t on the sports pages or in the Daily Racing Form. So this past month’s extensive media coverage of the Triple Crown has been pretty exciting, though the largely negative look at racing worries me. Moments after her second place finish in the Derby, the filly Eight Belles broke her leg and was promptly euthanized on the track. It’s not uncommon, and many trainers and handlers argue it’s the humane thing to do. It’s nearly impossible for a horse to recover from that kind of injury, a fact that was heartbreakingly illustrated by Barbaro’s eight month struggle to recover from breaking both front legs in the 2006 Preakness. If you have three minutes, listen to Scott Simon’s eulogy for Barbaro – it’s the most beautiful speech about horse racing I’ve ever heard.
Animal rights groups – notably PETA – are up in arms, and their petitions have piqued the interest of a Congressional subcommittee. We might see hearings on Capitol Hill, steroids-in-baseball-style, within the month. I think that a lot of the issues at stake are important: why are horses breaking down – breeding practices, turf conditions, steroid use, cruel treatment – and is there anything people can do to fix the problem? Charlie Hayward, the CEO of the New York Racing Association, has been called to testify, something he should be used to by now. NYRA’s been under intense scrutiny for as long as I’ve worked for them; in the past decade, dozens of clerks have been arrested for theft, money laundering, and tax evasion. A few years ago, everyone’s favorite, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer led the charge, and NYRA almost lost control of the tracks. For the past few years we’ve had to sit through anti-corruption training – essentially three hours of detailed instructions on how to launder money. Just as DARE made millions of children curious about drugs, these state-mandated sessions have shown me how easy it would be to commit major fraud.
Big Brown, the heavy favorite to win the Belmont this year, suffered from a hairline hoof fracture a few weeks ago. In light of Eight Belles’ death, people were worried. But it wasn’t enough to stop them from betting on him; a standard Saturday bet went something like this: “Um…I’d like twenty separate $2 win tickets on Big Brown.” After a few minutes, I knew that he was the one horse in the 11th race. They weren’t hoping for a big pay out – if Big Brown had won, each ticket would have paid $0.50. There was lots of talk about sentimental value and selling things on eBay; in the end, it was just a lot of wasted paper.
Big Brown came in last because his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, deliberately pulled him up. It was probably a smart move, but my customers were angry. “Fuck this!” a man shouted at me, his sober friend patting his shoulder reassuringly. “Fuck NYRA! I’ve been a racing fan for thirty years. I’ve had enough!” What he’d had enough of remained to be seen, but the frustration at the track was palpable. A story at the end of Friday’s Marketplace mentioned that in New York, attendance has dropped by 20% in the past decade. At Saratoga, they blame high gas prices. But maybe something’s missing. Or maybe what was once known as the Sport of Kings just doesn’t have what it takes to entertain a modern audience.
A Triple Crown winner would have been a huge boon to the industry. A few horses have captured the national interest in recent years, that deep, inexplicable love that’s part nostalgia, part something else entirely. But Barbaro was euthanized, Seabiscuit ran nearly a century ago, and horses like Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown failed to deliver in the end. Horses – and yes, horse racing- are a part of our national heritage. If the American public had a horse to root for, maybe that emotional connection could save the sport.
Sid Gustafson’s elegant analysis of the race, quoted above, gave me pause. Things he mentions, the appeal of the underdog, the way “horses humble men” – these are the beautiful things about horse racing. They almost make you forget about the seediness of the track and the dangers of the sport. Just look at Da’ Tara – the winner of this year’s Belmont Stakes went off at 38-1 and fought his way to commanding win. I grew up ten minutes from a racetrack and, until I got a job there, I had stepped inside the gates no more than three or four times. Now, six years down the line, I think there’s something extraordinary about horse racing. If we fix the problems – protect the horses, curb the corruption – then maybe the rest of America will start to feel the same way.