03/19/2009 11:00PM

U.S. takes a beating in global racing struggle


NEW YORK - Serious sport is war minus the shooting, wrote George Orwell in his 1945 essay "The Sporting Spirit."

Orwell, the author of "1984," knew what he was talking about. Sporting terminology is rife with the sounds of saber-rattling. Sports events are routinely described as battles. America's favorite baseball team is nicknamed the Bronx Bombers. In racing we casually refer to horses vying for the lead as dueling, although there are no swords or pistols involved.

If Orwell was right, America is losing the horse racing war. In the postwar period from the 1950s through the 1970s we reigned supreme, in no small part because of our complete victory on the battlefield. Some of Europe's best bloodstock became easy pickings for American horsemen, who found themselves with a surfeit of cash during the postwar boom years.

But a penchant for the accumulation of dollars in the form of short-term profits gleaned through yearling sales ultimately stripped American stables of much of our best bloodlines during the 1980s and 1990s. A Europe fully recovered from the ravages of the war, as well as new, oil-rich Arab states, aimed their big sporting guns at Keeneland and Saratoga. When the U.S. breeding industry went bust in the early 1980s, large swaths of the Bluegrass State were turned into breeding colonies for European businessmen and Arab potentates.

For it must be understood that the real power in racing lies not with owners or trainers, much less with the betting public, but with the breeders, i.e., those who control the means of production. In that light, the decline and ultimate disappearance of America's great breeding families and their replacement by an industry that prefers to sell its product as yearlings rather than seek long-term benefits through racing, has opened the door for our foreign rivals, whose patience is exemplified by the success of the Maktoum family, the Yoshida family, Khalid Abdullah, John Magnier, et al.

American racing weakens its position further in ways that would be unthinkable in Europe and Asia. Raceday medication has been the bane of the domestic industry, and no one in the game is guiltless. Owners, breeders, trainers, and veterinarians all benefit from the practice. Anyone who places a bet on an American horse race is voicing his support of that system.

Simply by not allowing raceday medication, Europe and Asia win themselves a long-term advantage over America that grows larger with each passing year.

In America, about 75 percent of all of our stakes races were run on dirt until a few years ago, while up to 80 percent of all the stakes races run in the major racing nations in the rest of the world are run on turf. In a global pool of bloodlines, therefore, most of the best matings are made with the idea of winning a major turf race. The pool for dirt racing on an international level has been in decline ever since the bloodlines of Northern Dancer began escaping to Europe.

And American racing of late has exacerbated the problem by replacing some of our dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces. In Europe, synthetic racing is largely the province of low-end sport. In America, we are running two consecutive Breeders' Cups on synthetics while continuing to run our classics on traditional dirt. Does this make sense? We are already hearing of horses being bred with synthetic bloodlines.

The world economic crisis will affect some racing nations more than others. We are now seeing a sharp downturn in American handle. Not so in Britain, where the bookmaker Ladbrokes and broadcaster Racing UK have both reported upturns in business over the last two quarters.

The international racing scoreboard since the 1980s has always been reflective of numerous foreign victories in America compared to very few American successes abroad. In fact, the only American-trained horse that has ever won a flat race in Europe is Fourstars Allstar, winner of the 1991 Irish 2000 Guineas. In last year's Breeders' Cup, European raiders won three races in a single day. American horsemen can no longer use superior domestic purses as a reason for not running in Europe. With the exception of the Breeders' Cup, European group races are worth just as much as American graded stakes and in most cases have greater cachet with the breeding industry.

A closer examination of Orwell's famous quote paints a clearer picture of just how much sport has become a surrogate for war. Here it is in full.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

Orwell might have been describing the world of Thoroughbred racing, especially if the part about "sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence" is interpreted as a metaphor for the pleasure one takes in seeing a rival's bank account ravaged.