Saturday, December 24, 2011

An American Thoroughbred in Paris

Thoroughbred Times, October 16, 1999 copyright; A. Juell
The Horses in War Saga -- The How & Why of American Thoroughbreds in WW I:

Back in 1999 I wrote an article for Thoroughbred Times on the 1909 cessation of all horse racing in the United States.  The issues were complex, socially driven and centered on the incredible power that political cartels had garnered in the eastern United States, funded to a great extent by the enormous capital generated by gambling consortium's.  Technology, not too dissimilar from today's, played a significant role:  Western Union and AT&T, both owed their initial financial fortunes to the gambling factions, operating the wire services between race track and poolroom.

It was also an era of tremendous social strife, driven to a great extent on the heels of massive immigration from Europe -- in New York's case, the Irish is particular were seen as a social and economic threat to the old-guard Protestant power base.  Locked out of conventional channels of social stratification, the Irish, in particular, pursued the less desirable paths to upward mobility: gambling.  With this financial heft, they also became a political threat to the established power bases, that in turn adding fodder to the grist's of political reformers, those that promoted the evils of gambling as a social disease in need of eradication.  Needless to say, the motivation was merely a misdirection -- the real intent to dry up the money machine that was allowing the Irish to gain political power, particularly in New York.

Now, racing itself was not banned, though through various state and federal legislation, gambling on races, as currently conducted was.  The various laws were directed at the bookmakers and poolrooms who profited enormously by acting as middlemen.  This outside action was also detrimental to the tracks themselves, as like today, the gate was an integral part of the maintenance of the brick and mortar aspect of the game.  While individual contracts were negotiated with these 'makers' and cartels, the wire services were making it increasingly easier (and certainly more profitable), to simply usurp the information that was in effect, the intellectual property of the race track.  This very public skirmish between the gambling factions simply fueled an already politically charged dispute that had spilled onto the front pages of every newspaper in the country, and virtually guaranteed the election of numerous 'reformist' candidates.  With new legislation aimed directly at the gaming interests, horse racing without gambling, was doomed -- The Jockey Club voting to cease all activities in 1909.

The impact on racing was immediate and huge, particularly to those heavily invested in breeding stock, whose value plummeted following the Jockey Club's decision.  Some stock was moved to Canada and Mexico, but the purse structures couldn't support the number or value of these new additions.  Once it became apparent that the ban was going to be an extended affair, many breeders began moving stock to Europe.  However, they were met with a good deal of resistance from  European breeders, particularly the English, who felt (with good reason), that the influx of American horses was detrimental to their ability to fairly compete on their own ground.  It went so far as The English Jockey Club's refusal to recognize American Thoroughbreds into the English stud book.

Racing did resume in New York by 1913, but without gambling.  Hence, no real viability for the sport existed.  By about 1915, most state anti-gambling statutes had been overturned by higher courts, this in turn leading to adoption of the Paris-Mutuels system, which in effect, eliminated the bookmaker -- each bettor simply wagering against all other bettors.  This was deemed constitutional under existing federal law.  But for many Thoroughbreds it was too late.  Europe was falling headlong and inexorably toward war -- a war like no other before it.  It would be a clash of old and new tactics in a suddenly industrialized world and the ensuing carnage would finally mark the end of the cavalry -- and perhaps chivalry itself in the armed pursuit of a purely political agenda.

Many of the better bred Thoroughbreds survived the conflict, their blood credentials offering a degree of sanctuary from annihilation.  But not every Thoroughbred was considered 'priceless,' and in what seemed like an endless demand for 'war horses,' few, if any were spared from the awful task at hand.


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