The Melbourne Cup is upon us.
It is Australia’s Greatest Race (except most of us can’t remember who won last year), and it’s the race that stops the Nation (except for the 80% of the country who don’t get a public holiday).
This year I’ve decided that, apart from entering a casual $2 sweep among friends, I’m not going to bet on the Cup.
*Cue gasps from the marketing teams at the 212981 Sportsbetting Apps on the market*
Now, I don’t have a problem with someone gambling within their means. It’s your money to (probably) lose.
But usually that’s gambling on the outcome of a footy match… or a cricket match… or a ball spinning on a roulette wheel…
The Melbourne Cup involves horses.
Now I’m no bleeding-heart hippie. I have no inherent problem with horse racing, and there are people in the industry who adore their horses and care for them deeply. They should obviously get rid of jumps racing (it’s 2017, guys) but the idea of putting a couple of horses on a track to see which is faster isn’t inherently evil.
And lots of people just love that “which horse is faster” part. And that’s fine.
There are racing fans who discuss turf lines and pacing strategies the way I obsess over Marcus Smart’s post defense.
They follow specific horses, support trainers, have jockeys they don’t like… They’re sport fans.
But unlike sports like basketball or cricket or football, racing isn’t maintained by those fans.
Racing exists on the scale it does only because of gambling, and the horses cop a raw deal as a direct result.
Let’s face facts: There IS something wrong about forcing a terrified horse into a stall to run two miles in front of 100,000 screaming drunks.
Forcing a dog to get their nails clipped against their will is one thing. That benefits the dog, even though the dog can’t see it at the time. Even docking sheep (cutting their tails off) sounds barbaric but legitimately prevents fly strike and other health problems for sheep. The sheep might hate it, and it might look bad… but it’s for the sheep’s overall benefit.
But every Spring Racing Carnival we see horses go ballistic behind the stalls, with a half-dozen people in hi-vis trying to calm it down. Watching those wranglers attempt to calm a clearly-terrified animal and then force it into a starting block is not cool.
Yes, occasionally the wranglers give up, but most of the time they successfully get a scared and reluctant horse in the starting block.
But that’s not cool, because that is for OUR benefit, not the horse’s. And it wouldn’t happen if if the prize was $1000, would it?
Without gambling, without big money, that horse would be taken someplace quiet to calm down.
If gambling on horse racing was banned tomorrow, and the prize money mostly disappeared, the land Flemington Racecourse occupies would be sold off to developers in one beat of Pharlap’s Oversized Heart.
If you subtract gambling from horse racing, it would become akin to hockey or badminton or swimming – a small dedicated fanbase clamouring for attention in a packed sporting environment.
Racing, dressage and similar equestrian skill competitions would continue, of course… fueled by the passion of participants and the communities built around such events. But the current scale of horse racing in particular would cease to exist. Maybe 5%-10% of the current racing industry would survive.
Conversely, if they banned sport-gambling tomorrow the AFL would take a big profit hit, but the 2018 Season would still take place. The Premier League would still go ahead without gambling. Federer would still line up for Wimbledon without gambling. The Boston Celtics would still put on that famous green jersey without gambling.
True, the Pakistani Cricket Team might just not bother play ever again, but cricket, tennis, soccer, netball, basketball, and other sports would all persevere at a similar level.
Those sports built their followings based on passion for the sport and appreciation of the skill… the majority (not all, but most) of horse racing’s following is built upon a foundation of gambling.
And that’s a shame. It’s a shame an entire industry has been built upon a foundation of gambling. Racing experts love horses, and they love discussing strategy, training, conditions, and jockey habits. They’re sport fans.
But the people standing in queues at the TAB at 9:30pm on a random Tuesday, the ones who keep the whole industry afloat with the money they had over to the TAB machine, aren’t actually racing fans. They’re gambling addicts. And that sucks.