Commentary

Action should follow "save the sport" rhetoric

Updated: February 21, 2008, 2:18 PM ET
By Randy Moss | Special to ESPN.com

Every American track that doesn't already have slot machines -- or something like them -- would love to jump on that gaming express.

Who wouldn't want to own a casino? It's like a license to print money.

Track owners are willing to do almost anything to persuade stubborn state legislators to join their crusade. They lobby, cajole, beg and even bribe with promises of new budgetary riches for education.

Slots are desperately needed, they argue, to keep their tracks competitive with states where expanded gaming is already a reality and purse money for races has obscenely skyrocketed.

The bottom line is always that slots are needed to save the sport and the agribusiness it contributes to the economy.

Tracks aren't necessarily wrong about any of that.

But what happens when slots are finally approved?

The state gets a financial windfall. Horsemen get a financial windfall through a huge purse boost. The owners of the tracks -- or shareholders, where applicable -- also laugh all the way to the bank.

And the crusade to "save the sport" usually ends there.

The glittery new slots emporiums can be reminiscent of Las Vegas, while none of the newfound gaming riches are used to rebuild the aging and sometimes-decrepit facilities that have helped to turn off today's generation of horseplayers. Most of the marketing budget is spent on bringing in new slots players, since that's where the real money is. Track owners also do not take advantage of the increased revenue flow to convince horsemen and legislators to slash racing dates, even though too much racing is perhaps the major problem facing the sport in this country.

And so racinos, as they're called, give racing a slight boost from the improved quality of horses that bigger purses attract. But in the long run, racing continues to limp along without the dramatic benefits it could be getting.

To put it bluntly, racetracks without slots complain of no money to fix what needs to be fixed in the sport. And too many racetracks with slots become beholden to the spinning cherries and won't spend the money necessary to fix what needs to be fixed.

An unprecedented opportunity to reinvent a struggling sport is circling the drain, but it isn't too late.

Many major racing states, including venerable Kentucky, are still in the slot-seeking stages. So upon the arrival of the inevitable siren calls about preserving the tradition and economic benefits of thoroughbred racing, force those tracks preaching about the best interest of racing to put money behind the rhetoric.

Owners of those tracks should not be allowed to pocket one solitary dime of slots revenue as profit.

They want to save the sport? Good for them. Then they should be perfectly willing to take all net profit from expanding gaming -- after paying the state treasury, charities and purses, of course -- and plow every cent back into horse racing in improved facilities and infrastructure, technology upgrades, better marketing and advertising, giveaways, new wagers and maybe even innovative concepts that haven't been considered yet. (While they're at it, they also can begin repairing everything else shattered in pieces on the barn floor, starting by slashing racing dates in half; turning the clock back to the good old days of horses fueled by nothing but hay, oats and water; and increasing funding to state-breds for beating open company instead of rewarding mediocrity by carding all those wonderful state-bred races.)

Do it this way, and racetrack owners hoping to jump on the gaming express will be forced to use it to save the sport.

Listen to them. It's what they really want. Right?

Randy Moss has been the lead analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.

Randy Moss

Horse Racing
Before joining ESPN in 1999 as the network's chief horse-racing analyst, Randy Moss covered the sport for more than two decades for the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Arkansas Democrat.