A horse race of a different color

August 22, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

"HAMBLE-TONE-neeyun, Hamble-TONE-neeyun, the best race in the world is Hambletonian." The opening lyrics of that exceptionally forgettable anthem to harness horse racing's most prestigious event still echo in my head after more than three decades.

Written (if memory serves) by the wife of a racing or racetrack official, the song was as corny as the August farm fields of southern Illinois surrounding the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds, where the American trotting classic was held for nearly a quarter of a century.

It never pretended to rival "My Old Kentucky Home" or "Maryland, My Maryland" or "Back Home in Indiana" as a musical signature of a traditional sports spectacle. Yet the simple upbeat song, played by a high school band, seemed to embody to perfection the kind of hot summer, county fair competition that was the Hambletonian until 1981.

It was an uncomplicated, enjoyable event, with picnic lunches (and corn dogs) and easygoing conversations and, of course, lots of educated horse talk. The crowds were respectable, manageable and mostly well behaved.

But what distinguished this premier race for standardbreds from most horse races is that no betting was allowed. No pari-mutuel windows, no lines of agonizing bettors, no despairing showers of worthless $2-tickets tossed in the air, no sheafs of double-sawbucks piled up for the fortunate few at payout counters.

Well, sure, there was unofficial, one-to-one personal betting. After all, it was a horse race. But the track's "handle" didn't make or break the race; the horses (all 3-year-olds) and their drivers (some in their 50s and older) did.

The purse, or payout, to the top-finishing horses that year was about the same as the winner's share of the Kentucky Derby. Betting on that race (actually, a series of heats to determine the champion) didn't fatten that prize. A bigger purse would not have attracted any finer trotters to the race; winning the Hambletonian, named for the progenitor of all U.S. harness horses, was incentive enough.

It wasn't that the sport of harness racing was estranged from pari-mutuel betting. Harness tracks (for trotters and pacers) drew enthusiastic crowds of horse players willing to back up their hunches with legal tender. They still do.

Essence of racing

But the essence of the Hambletonian held in those days at DuQuoin was the essence of racing: to prove which horse was the fastest. The winner and top finishers were financially rewarded for their success, but the Hambletonian didn't need organized betting to make up the purse.

Fans paid their admissions, the organizers collected fees from entrants and other sponsors. Spectators came to see a race, not to see whether they'd make a small fortune. The infectious excitement of a showdown among the best horses in North America was the payoff for most of the crowd.

The Hambletonian has been run for the past 16 years at The Meadowlands in New Jersey, and there is the usual pari-mutuel betting. The purse is about 10 times what it was then, the crowds larger. But the horse race is still the main thing, even with the organized betting.

Before you dismiss this reminiscence as irrelevant, time-fogged nostalgia, let me assure you that the same spirit can be seen any spring in Maryland, but not at Pimlico.

Thousands of people enjoy themselves with picnics and good-spirited conversation and a day at the horse races -- and no betting -- at the traditional steeplechase races held over the Baltimore-Harford countryside.

And even if some of them are too wrapped up in the social thing to actually follow the races, you can bet (unofficially, of course) that a higher percentage of the attendees do see the races than does the infield-orgy mob at the Preakness. Equestrian show jumping competitions, horse races of time and perfection, are attracting record crowds and big-paying sponsors. Again, no betting on the horse races.

Track meets and auto races and other racing sport events draw crowds who love the sport and the spirit of competition. They don't rely on betting for success, but on the quality of their attractions.

So when the self-appointed lords of Maryland horse racing start whining about how they need slot machines at the tracks in order to protect the sport, they're not talking about people that love to see horse races.

They mean the "industry" that feeds on gambling (and addiction). They mean their kind of casinos, with the stage props of horse racing tradition masking what is really the business of betting. Given that mind-set, a dollar earned from a slot machine is the same as a buck earned from the pari-mutuel betting pool.

This isn't to say that pari-mutuel wagering on the horses is unnecessary to the successful operation of a racing track. Far from it.

But it is to say that the sport of horse racing should be considered primary, as it is in other venues and equine competitions, and not the track's gambling take. That's the sport of making paupers. That's like putting the sulky before the horse.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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