Are we seeing the fading of a sporting tradition?

February 21, 2011 

The disappointment felt by the Tri-City Horse Racing Association is unfortunate and widespread.

And probably inevitable.

Instead of its usual 10 days of racing, Sun Downs will get just six this season -- April 23-24, 30 and May 1, 7 and 8.

At that it is comparatively lucky. Dayton, Waitsburg and Walla Walla got no dates at all.

Across Washington and the United States, horse racing is in trouble. Unless racing fans return in significant numbers, there is no way to save the sport. We hope we are wrong, but the trends show otherwise.

There might be enclaves where the majesty of the thoroughbred and the scrappiness of the quarter horse still reign -- we doubt Churchill Downs is in serious difficulties -- but at smaller tracks, the outlook is not good.

There was a time when being a good judge of horseflesh was a necessity for the pioneers of the West and the entrepreneurs of the East.

And wagering on horse races has been a part of our country's sporting life since before the Revolutionary War.

But gamblers seem to be drifting away from the kind of wager that weighs an animal's character, stamina and competitiveness and choosing other betting options, most of which require little thought or skill.

Trying to guess what numbers will be drawn from a globe or which punch board or pull tab is "hot" barely requires consciousness, let alone knowledge or thought.

We find it discouraging.

Sport is about heart.

Horse owners, trainers and riders have a lifestyle of their own, and its continued existence is threatened by reducing the number of days they can put all that training, cajoling and savvy to the test.

There's not much room for optimism about racing's future.

It's the national economy, partly, along with so many people being satisfied with trying to outthink a slot machine.

Betting on thoroughbred racing declined nationally by 7.3 percent in 2008, by 9.8 percent in 2009, and by 8.4 percent in the first four months of 2010, according to The New York Times.

Cliff Schellinger told Herald Sports Editor Jeff Morrow that the problem this year is that the Washington State Racing Commission doesn't have much revenue to subsidize operations at smaller tracks.

Money to subsidize operations at the state's smaller tracks comes from revenues at Emerald Downs in Auburn, and the pool is shrinking fast.

"The commission doesn't have any money," Schellinger said. "It all comes from Emerald Downs, and (the Auburn track) is down 50 percent a year for the last three years."

Diverting a slice of Emerald Downs' take makes sense, in the same way it makes sense for a Major League Baseball franchise to subsidize its farm system.

But there's no way to justify spending any public money on the sport. That's why the unlikely return of the fans is horse racing's only chance.

We're not hopeful about the chances of that happening, but anyone who has stood in line at the $2 window knows that long shots can come through.

Whether you ever have been to a track or not, the impending possible loss of horse racing in the Northwest marks another cultural change for us.

Casinos and the lottery are drying up all the money.

Strange.

All lottery tickets look alike.

No two horses do.

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