Horse racing is not about the horses


As long as you keep doin’ what you been doin’ you’ll keep gettin’ what you been gettin.’

— radio announcer, Washington, D.C., 1995


Elizabeth Ellis The Good WifeHorse racing, according to Kavitha A. Davidson (Bloomberg View) is an “excuse to drink, a vice kept afloat by gambling.”

When we were young our grandmother took us to the Hippodrome at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to watch the horse shows. It was a glamorous, elegant, white-glove affair. It was an honor to be chosen.

Barfly is a 1987 movie about Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Bukowski wrote, “People think that all they have at the racetracks are horses. It’s not true. That’s why I come home so tired.”

A woman invited me to attend the racetrack in Charlestown, WV. I was the only person sitting on one of two park benches outside where the horses ran. That bench needed a paint job.

The bench wasn’t the only tawdry thing. The air reeked of cigarette smoke. Inside the annex to the track, men sat riveted to chairs, eyes glued to betting results on TV monitors.

No one noticed or cared about the horses running outside. No one paid them any attention. It wasn’t about the horses, it was about the betting.

When we were young, Atlantic City had aura. Brainy dads travelled there for serious business conventions. The sparkle of the Miss America contest was broadcast from New Jersey. Those men’s faces were as stoic as folks in Atlantic City casinos nailed to their one-armed bandits and gaming tables, bells ringing, lights flashing.

At the casinos in Atlantic City, Elmore Leonard wrote in Glitz, “Your room, your food, your drinks are all complimentary as long you gamble…We want you to keep coming back.” My friend Scottie frequents these casinos and gets “free” hotel coupon incentives in the mail. They’ve got his number.

“Gee,” I said, “I’ve never got any of those.” The casino was somewhere to go, something to do, retirement money to spend. He never questioned it.

In Decider, Dick Francis wrote, “Horses are beautiful and betting is an addiction.”

In 1998, the jockey riding Real Quiet said, “At the turn, I felt the horse was telling me, ‘I’ve got these guys any time now. You just tell me when to go.’” I read somewhere, “Horses are intelligent, intuitive animals which respond effectively to kindness and understanding. If you gain your horse’s trust it will go to great lengths (or heights) to please you.”

The temporary relief of beating the odds by gambling can affect our long-term discipline. Betting, like all external influences, affects the brain, and a book on hoarding reminds us that certain (illegal) substances influence the brain’s reward system (e.g., pleasure) in the way that gambling does.

A 2012 newspaper article said that people are not likely to self-regulate when they get a positive boost, from social media for example. Like gambling, we “give [our] selves a free pass to indulge in something.”  A “momentary [psychological] boost in self-esteem” relaxes self-control (discipline), e.g., our willingness to give up on accomplishing something that is difficult.   “We can judge but as we feel, not as we are taught and told to do,” Bukowski wrote.

Are any of us immune to temptation? Bernie Mac (1957-2008) wrote, “I ain’t got no outside woman, I ain’t got no outside kids. I ain’t got no vices with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, stuff like that. Matter of fact, I’m clean. All I need is some sandals, a robe and a stick, and I’d walk on Lake Michigan.”

“How often,” Thomas Moore wrote, “do we talk about alcoholics or drug addicts as if they were not part of our community, as though their problem had nothing to do with us?” Paul, the bartender, doesn’t give a damn as long as he keeps his bar under control. He’s young. He could never be a drunk. The ultimate downer would be there is no up.

“Punishment,” John Gray wrote in Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars, “never rehabilitated anyone.”

Parents can “starve [a child] of affection or reward with approval,” John Lahr wrote. “What a child gets from parents — rapt focus, adoration, [is] a sense of self.” What a person gets from betting is reward; bragging rights, even.


Elizabeth Ellis is a Baby Boomer with a BA, born in Minneapolis and mother of three grown children. She welcomes reader responses to

One Comment on “Horse racing is not about the horses”

  1. Throughout my 15+ year career working at racing’s biggest tracks and farms and covering horse racing for everyone from the New York Times to NBC TV and Fox Sports Radio, my only response to this “racing isn’t about horses – it’s about a bet” argument has always been simple… without the animal, there is no reason to make a bet.

    Like most sports, the business side sometimes muddles the message, but I wouldn’t exactly point to an unpainted bench at Charles Town as the surefire sign of racing’s decline (though I’ve sent a note onto their General Manager to make sure their maintenance guys are on that). The industry that was America’s original favorite past-time does have its problems – competition for the entertainment dollar, declining foal crops, a lack of millennial interest, in-fighting among the major corporate players – but it’s lasted through wars and recessions and is still the only sport you can legally wager on in America.

    And I – along with the 146k+ people who work in a sport that accounts for $10.6billion of the country’s GDP ( – am glad that people are happily coming out to the races or turning on TVG or NBC/NBCSN or Horse Racing Radio Network on Sirius/XM.

    Just like Las Vegas or Atlantic City (before so many of the casinos went bankrupt), going to the races should be about having a great time. It’s why tracks have better-than-restaurant-quality food and casinos comp drinks: to keep you happy while we entertain you. If you want to bet at the windows: bet. If not: not. I always encourage folks to make side wagers with their friends: “wager” a hot dog or a beer or who pays for the valet parking. Have some skin in the game. Care about the sport just a little.

    Because horse racing has one key advantage over sitting at a slot machine or card table: we have the horse. And I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t feel the power of an animal doing what it’s born to do.

    So – yeah – it actually is all about the horse.

    Molly Jo Rosen

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