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Garrity looks back on 30 years of horse racing, and how drugs and computer wagering ruined the sport he loves

Our handicapper is leaving the track for a lengthy freshening and hopes the game can find its footing before it reaches the finish line.

The first time I went to the track was over 30 years ago. It was Atlantic City, a night in the summer, and I was just a kid, utterly clueless to what was going on. But I became immediately enthralled with everything: the lights, the noise, the cigar-chomping old men, the hustle and bustle of people going to the betting windows in the grandstand, the epic sweep of the track itself. And the horses, of course: Then, as now, the best thing about the sport is the horses themselves.

I didn’t jump in with both feet after that night – I was still in school, and there were too many other things competing for my attention. That came later, after I’d moved to Southern California and discovered the joys of the tracks there: Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Fairplex were fantastic places to spend time, but they were so much more than that to me: They were a way to monitor the changing of the seasons – Santa Anita in winter, Hollywood in spring, Del Mar in summer – and they were also places where I learned how to handicap, learned about life, and fell in love with the people who make this great game go.

If this seems like a trip down memory lane, well, it is: this is my last piece for Bettors Insider, and it seems a fitting place to look back. And what is intermixed with the fondness of these recollections is sadness: Horse racing as a sport, at least in this country, is broken, and I fear that in the near future, all that any of us will have left will be memories. 

Some of the racing’s decline is nobody’s fault: People today do not go to the track, nor bet on races, nearly as much as their parents or grandparents did. Racing’s halcyon days a generation or two ago are gone, and will never return: It was the only form of legal gambling back then, and now it must compete with lotteries, slot machines, and its newest rival, sports betting. There will never be a time when any game has a monopoly on the sport’s wagering dollars.

But far too much of what is wrong in racing today is far from preordained. First, profligate use of performance-enhancing drugs corrupted the sport, and more recently, computer assisted wagering platforms, which have direct access to the pari-mutuel system and whose mission seems to be to screw the average Joe, have made the game far, far less enjoyable to play.

Just yesterday, in fact, at the venerable old Fair Grounds in New Orleans, on one of the biggest days of the year at one of the nation’s oldest sporting venues – horses have been running in circles there for nearly two centuries – a filly named Tarifa won the Rachel Alexandra Stakes. She was 6-1 when the gates opened, but 5/2 when she crossed the wire first, reducing the expected winnings of her backers by more than half. While late odds changes are as old as the game itself, their increased frequency these seems due to the computer players, who cannot exist without exploiting the general public.

There is compelling evidence players are leaving horse racing in droves, and this is one of the two main reasons why. The other is drugs, about which we will be blunt: The sport’s drug-happy ways pollute the game, but even worse, they are inhumane to horses. While I do not believe that horse racing is an inherently cruel endeavor, the prevalence of drugs makes it far too easy for people to turn away and take up poker.

So there is relief mixed with sadness as I leave this site behind. I will no longer have to pay attention to horse racing news, nearly all of which seems bad these days. Not having to pay attention to handle declines, purse reductions, and the closure of venerable tracks will be good for my psyche. But I would be lying if I said I won’t miss the rest of it.

I do not know what will happen next, other than that I will be taking a break, both publicly and privately. I will neither handicap nor look at a race for a while; I may not even watch the Kentucky Derby. I will probably come back at some point, if only because I love the game, especially the horses, so much, but I just hope that when that day comes, there is something worthwhile to come back to. And these days, that seems like an underlay.

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