11/05/2008 12:00AM

Will racing hear cry for change?


Just now, in the shadow of broad-shouldered history, horse racing never felt so small.

It is a matter of proportion, not status, and certainly not a reflection on the many talented and dedicated people who cherish the game. But in light of the events of Election Day, not to mention the national challenges that lie ahead, what goes on at the many racetracks sprinkled around the country can seem downright inconsequential.

It doesn't need to be that way. In our heart of hearts, we've always known that racing occupies little more than a colorful corner of the sports candy store. At the same time, when operating at its best, horse racing can be supremely entertaining, filling a very human need for diversion. As a gambling endeavor there is no more satisfying return on intellectual investment. The industry has offered substantial and steady employment, nurtured small businesses, generated tax revenues for state and municipal services, and a provided a relatively benign use of large hunks of land that might just as easily be given over to big box stores and grim industrial parks.

In other words, horse racing can be a good and productive citizen.

The record-keepers at Equibase have released this week the news that through the end of October, $11,880,842,435 had been bet on American races in 2008, and of that sum, slightly more than $1 billion was retained for purse money. Whether these figures were up or down compared with the first 10 months of 2007 is beside the point (betting was down 5.8 percent, purses slipped a hair). Anyone paying attention will know that the first 10 months of '08 were nothing like the first 10 of '07. A larger question lingers: How is it possible that $11.8 billion worth of customer participation is not enough to fund a flourishing enterprise?

Leaders of horse racing have tried to position the sport as a cross between the NFL and Nascar. Instead, it thrives only as a cautionary tale of a once-proud industry gone wrong, when its image should be that of a polished, boutique jewel, maintained by a loyal patronage and trotted out every once in a while for the general public to admire, without reservations.

In his address Tuesday night, President-elect Obama called for a renewal of a "spirit of service, spirit of sacrifice" to help the country find its way again. The various branches of the racing industry could benefit from such an admonition. This may be the time for account-wagering companies to consolidate and compromise, while recognizing that the model for their operation has upset the delicate balance of handle, purses, and reasonable profits. This may be the time for state racing commissions to be wary of expansion and instead encourage a healthy pruning of racing dates. This may be the time for backstretch veterinarians to stop being competitive or prepare to be heavily regulated. This may be the time for publicly held companies, assailed by shareholder pressure, to recognize that horse racing is not the cash cow it was cracked up to be.

For such an agenda of sacrifice and service, it would help if a unifying leader would arise, shed the baggage of past associations, and be empowered to tell people what they need to hear. But racing has no Obama. It doesn't even have a Ron Paul. There are any number of forthright executives and track operators who seem to have the best interests of horse racing at heart - Charles Hayward, Ron Crockett, Lou Raffeto, Ron Charles, Joe Harper, and Randy Soth come immediately to mind, along with tough old lions like Richard Duchossois and Charles Cella - but they are all, in various degrees, weighted down by the concerns of their own regimes. Likewise, the days of the independent breeder-owner are gone as well, since most horses are now produced for the sales ring and the vast majority of ownership begins not with fields and foals, but with the writing of a check.

It has been 60 years since Alfred G. Vanderbilt, one of the all-time independents, issued a challenge to the racing industry to fill a 16-point shopping list of reasonable measures. Among them were things like:

* A thorough physical examination of every horse just prior to a race.

* A uniform examination to qualify for a trainer's license.

* A school for riders at every racing center.

* Better sleeping, lavatory, and recreation accommodations for stable help.

* A guaranteed condition book.

* More emphasis by racing associations on the sporting side of racing rather than mutuel handles.

How we doing so far?

Tuesday's election results confirmed the obvious. Social issues aside, Americans overwhelmingly decided that it is time as a nation to get their economic house in order and restore their standing abroad. The challenges set forth Tuesday night by President-elect Barack Obama should resonate with anyone engaged in a sagging, wounded segment of this vast economy. Horse racing certainly qualifies.

It took six years of massive military expenditures and an economic crisis of Biblical proportions for 52 percent of the American electorate to say "enough" and vote for a dramatic change in direction. Racing's leaders would be wise to act before their fans cast similar votes through the levers of attendance and handle. Of course, like any small, vigorous tribe, horse racing will continue to resist extinction. Still, there is hope that the sport deserves a better fate than mere survival.