La plus ca change…

So we had a rare Wednesday without racing, and the franchise is all settled, and, despite some Derby preps, it’s a slow week in a slow time of year. So time, perhaps, to turn our attention to some of the more pressing issues facing our sport. As always, one can turn to The Blood-Horse:

On page 4300, “Rises and Falls of Purses”: “In the last decade, several tracks have climbed to the top ranks among American tracks in terms of daily purse average; on a darker side of the purse picture, the institution of casinos is seen as a detriment to racing’s economy, according to a recently released report.”

On page 4306, “Fixing Under Guise of Medication”: “The President of the Illinois Hooved Humane Society told The Jockey Club Round Table Conference that ‘the most shameless aspect of racing is injection of an almost never-ending list of drugs…’”

One can find in the pages of this magazine incisive looks at these issues, with authoritative sources and analysis. As it ever was…as I found these articles in the August 25, 1979 issue.

When I opened this issue on Christmas night, I at first intended simply to browse for familiar names of horses and trainers and stables that are no longer around; instead, I was struck that in the table of contents I found articles that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a current issue. Sure, the details are different, and the casinos referred to above aren’t racinos, but it was a little surprising to see that nearly thirty years later, we’re talking about the same stuff.

Is this true in other sports? The only one I follow as closely is hockey, and it seems to me that in 1979, the landscape was entirely different to what it is now. Then, we talked about this new kid Wayne Gretzy who was supposed to be some kind of phenom (hmm….OK, so maybe not so different from now), and what might become of the WHA. The Russians were still the enemy (no Miracle on Ice, not yet), and the NHL far and away comprised Canadians, with the US being a distant second and Europeans barely a blip on the screen. Collective bargaining? What was that? Making millions? In your dreams. Fighting was ubiquitous, most players didn’t wear helmets (the mandate came in 1979, and current players were grandfathered), and there were more teams in Canada than there were in the Sun Belt. Oh yeah, and people actually cared about hockey then.

This digression down hockey’s memory lane serves to illustrate that the NHL of today bears little resemblance to the NHL of thirty years ago. In some cases, the reluctance of racing to let go of the past is a good thing; it’s a sport steeped in centuries of history, and one shouldn’t step away from that lightly. But thirty years on, we’re still talking about how to stop medications and what to do about revenue. Because of a lack of imagination? Stubbornness? Reluctance to make waves? I don’t necessarily think that the NHL today is a vast improvement over the NHL of 1979, but even in that tradition-steeped, conservative landscape, the leadership has stepped up to tackle important, occasionally controversial issues. The NHL has made a lot of mistakes (Nashville? Two work stoppages?), but at least it’s made some bold moves and taken some chances.

And it would be unfair to say that racing hasn’t done the same. The experimentation with synthetic surfaces and the introduction of the Breeders’ Cup are nothing if not bold, and, as in the case of the changes in the NHL, one might argue, not entirely successful. But the very existence of the sport lies in tackling revenue and medication. Patrick wrote this week about the mixed blessing of gaming machines at racetracks, and in 1979, Donna Ewing, president of the Illinois Hooved Humane Society, asked regarding medication, “Do you believe our forefathers would have condoned the destruction of the very athlete they so diligently worked to produce over many years of breeding?”

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