The Exhaustion of Basic Illusions: The New Horse Racing

As the calendar has turned to 2020, it’s impossible for horse racing enthusiasts to forget the extremely controversial year the sport had in 2019.

Updated: Jan. 7, 2020 • 7:05 PM ET


The sport of horse racing received plenty of scrutiny in 2019.

I am often reminded of one of American playwright Arthur Miller’s pithy phrases from a 1974 issue of New York Magazine: “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.”

For the sport of horse racing, the year that just wrapped was one of the most difficult and challenging to date — hence, the reference to exhaustion.

That’s a bold statement for a business that predates the Civil War and Reconstruction era, survived two global conflicts and somehow made it through drug scandals and declining viewership during the second half of the century. Now, after two decades in the 21st, more questions remain than answers concerning its future.

In the same right, the sport isn’t on life support. Handles are up at major racetracks, and we have to face facts: maybe the controversy at Santa Anita and at the Kentucky Derby were a positive for the sport.

This is the new horse racing.

I spent most of 2019 being highly critical of the direction the sport is headed, an entire year of my life writing a piece a week that I hoped would expose inequities and point out hypocrisies. I believed this passion I have for the sport would be a positive means by which to call attention to the notion that horse racing is facing major challenges.

Along the way, I heard from a variety of folks that expressed passion, anger, regret and even hope in a flurry of emotions. For a piece I did on the initial deaths at the Great Race Place, some fellow writers were skeptical that I should be calling for a suspension of activities. An open letter to Tim Ritvo, the Chief Operating Officer for the Stronach Group, yielded an email where he expressed his love of the sport and the desire to give back to the game that did so much for him.

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In a much different vein, I received some nice comments from the horse racing community about an editorial regarding St. Croix-born jockey “Pede” Prentice, who we lost back in May. He died in a car crash, far from the track that was just as dangerous as any highway. His smile and work ethic will be missed around Turfway this winter, but we will remember how he chased his dreams to the end.

As 2019 unfolded, I felt an increasing sense of negativity concerning the sport. I became enveloped in the lack of organization at the national level and was frustrated by the runaway news coverage that used tropes as weapons against the industry. On the other hand, the very members of the business that were being attacked seemed powerless and at times, unresponsive. One aspect was exceedingly apparent, noble instincts and illusions for this sport could no longer prevail.

After what happened at the Breeders’ Cup with the death of the horse Mongolian Groom in the Classic, and the eerie silence that followed from the BC front office, I decided to take some time off from penning pieces. Getting away lends perspective and allows ideas to move in directions unthought of prior.

In December, as I readied myself to start writing again, I learned that around the Breeders’ Cup, turf writers lost Ben Massam. For those who don’t know his name or work, he was the News and Features Editor at Thoroughbred Daily News (See the tribute that TDN amassed; very impressive thoughts).

When I started out as a turf writer, I reached out to him seeking freelance work. What I got was a speedy response that was both kind and supportive — he treated me with respect. Each time I sent him a new piece to peruse, he wrote engaging comments. Our dialogue flowed naturally, even though he was battling cancer. In an industry where doors readily close, he was open and incredibly pleasant.

Ben’s passing made me think about the fluctuating and sometimes untenable paths that we walk. All melts away when life is concerned. In this sport, all we have in the end are the relationships that we leave behind; the memories that fill the air are as thick as mosquitoes on a paltry summer night.
Petty squabbles and delusions of grandeur fade with time. Massam’s example to us was that he was the personification of humility. I didn’t get to meet him in person or know him long, but I will remember him.

Moving forward, I think it’s incumbent upon turf writers like myself to shine the light wherever we can on the negative and the foolhardy. However, we also must remember to seek hope and promote the very best aspects of our subjects.

For my part, as 2020 departs the gate, it’s time to get back to focusing on the positive aspects of this great sport. Twenty-nineteen was the end of an era. The lessons learned about racetrack surfaces, infractions by stewards and equine health serve not only as lessons, but as reminders of where we have been. We lost friends and colleagues, both human and not, and these are the tough truisms with which we grapple.

I would argue, as others have before me, that the events surrounding the racetrack serve as a guide and reflect on us as a people. We find that all sorts of emotions and values are afoot. Ovals and totes are seemingly democratic; and for the most part, they certainly offer social-leveling experiences.

In 2020, it’s time to allow our basic illusions to be exhausted. A new era of horse racing has arrived.