This was first posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 10, 2012. This Saturday, May 7th, 2016, it’s Derby Day again. It feels different this year – it’s the first anniversary of the beginning of American Pharoah’s successful run for the Triple Crown. It’s also the 10th anniversary of Barbaro’s Kentucky Derby win. Sadly, he was injured in the Preakness and he died Jan. 29th 2007.
The 1st Saturday in May, this is the mug I pour my first cup of coffee into. Last Saturday, the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another came from the middle of the pack and passed the frontrunner. At 15-1 odds and in the 19th position, he wasn’t considered a serious contender.
His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, raced at Hastings Raceway in Vancouver, or as the announcer put it, “the small-time circuit up in Canada.” It was Gutierrez’ first Derby ride. The owner of I’ll Have Another, J. Paul Reddam, is originally from Windsor, Ont. As a university student, he got interested in racing by hanging around Windsor Raceway. Two racing lives honoured in the winner’s circle of the most prestigious race in North America, both nurtured on Canadian tracks.
Tracks that, at least in Ontario, face closure. Premier McGuinty’s government decided that the long-standing profit-sharing agreement between tracks and the OLG would not be renewed. Until now, OLG and the track shared the profits, with OLG getting the lion’s share. Still, the 10% that the tracks get is crucial to their economic survival. Slot machines and rooms that house them cost far less to maintain than do barns, tracks and horses.
Another side of tracks: history and tourism
All racetracks, including Churchill Downs, rely on slot machines and other forms of gambling for income. When we toured Churchill Downs, our guide said the only day of the year on which the track actually makes money from racing is Derby Day.
But the pride, prestige and history of Churchill Downs is in the racetrack and barns. It is a tourism draw, with tours, gift shops and a museum. Restaurants, motels and stores in Louisville also benefit from the dollars that come with these tourists who come to Horse Mecca and buy a commemorative mug. Do non-gamblers make a special trip to tour a casino, other than in Las Vegas?
A racetrack is a huge operation, employing many in track and horse maintenance. Also the breeders and trainers who spend years refining bloodlines and preparing juveniles for the track. The stars are the horses and they are expensive to maintain.
Meanwhile in Ontario, racehorses are being sent for slaughter. If the tracks don’t have the slot machines, they likely will close. There will be nowhere to race horses so breeders are getting out of the business. That means getting rid of living horses. It is said that newborn foals are being killed before they stand up – that way insurance will cover their “loss”. Many of those thoroughbred foals and their mothers and fathers have the blood of the great Canadian Northern Dancer in their veins.
Thoroughbred and harness racing are part of our national history. If profit sharing with slot machines keeps tracks alive, that also keeps alive our horses and our presence in the sport of kings. McGuinty’s tinkering with what worked just fine for long before he became premier is now costing the lives of horses and livelihoods of horse people.