Sunday, April 18, 2010

Power and privilege

My favorite political blogger, Andrew Sullivan, led me to this wonderfully insightful and true paragraph from another blogger, Rod Dreher, whom I do not read regularly:

"What a terrible thing power and privilege can be. Those who live with it come to think of themselves as entitled, and in some sense specially gifted with insight. That's when the trouble begins and the corruption sets in. The thing is, most of us in some way have power and privilege in our own spheres. It is in our nature to lie to ourselves--and when we are entrusted with the care of great institutions (the presidency, the church, banks), the cost of our blindness and hubris can be devastating."

Dreher, in turn, is pivoting off an op-ed piece by conservative Washington Post writer Peggy Noonan (a former Bush speechwriter who should know plenty about power, privilege, and hubris) on the Catholic church's current sexual abuse scandal. But Dreher's paragraph succinctly describes one of Thoroughbred racing's biggest problems. The people in charge are gifted with power and privilege and their blindness and hubris has been pretty devastating over the years.

It began, perhaps, with the late George Widener and his Jockey Club/NYRA (pretty much the same organization at the time) cohorts in the 1960s when Off Track Betting legislation loomed in New York. A product of Victorian paternalism, Widener and his peers believed that the unwashed masses should not be tempted to lose their rent money by being able to bet at the corner drugstore, so they adamantly opposed OTB and refused opportunities to participate and to control the final product.

Most of New York racing's current problems stem from, if not that decision, then certainly that attitude from racing's stewards. They think they know better than we do.

In the 1990s when the movers and shakers managed to co-opt Fred Pope's original, brilliant concept of the National Racing Association and turned it into the NTRA, I was still hopeful that it might work....up until the moment when the philosophical descendants of George Widener killed the inaugural "Go Baby Go" commercial, reportedly because they thought actress Lori Petty looked like a lesbian. That made it obvious that nothing had changed. It didn't matter that audience tests showed that the commercial worked, that it appealed to the audience for which it was designed. Lori Petty's tomboy appearance offended those with power and privilege, and that was more important.

The problem presented by the blindness and hubris of privilege is ultimately more serious for Thoroughbred racing than it is for the church, the nation, or the financial system. If the church, the politicians, and bankers do not mend past errors and set more realistic courses, they lose (at least in theory, though one never knows in the current toxic political climate) their followers, their jobs, their money--which is to say their power and their privilege. If Thoroughbred racing's powers that be continue their long, painful stumble toward oblivion, they may kill the sport they love, but they will still have their money, their power, their privilege in every other sphere of their lives. They will regret the loss, but you can be sure they will not think it was their fault.

Once upon a time the fact that Thoroughbred racing was run as a rich man's hobby was seen as an advantage. That meant that their motives were pure and they made decisions for the good of the sport (of course it was never really that simple and pure, but that was the theory and the sport thrived that way for 300 years).

That era ended around the time that George Widener and friends said no to OTB, but the oligarchy that runs Thoroughbred racing didn't notice for the next 30 years. When they did, when Fred Pope produced his revolutionary proposal, their response was not dissimilar to the response of the Catholic church to the sex abuse scandal--denial followed by self-serving attempts at moderate changes while maintaining power and privilege.

It hasn't worked for the Catholic church, and it hasn't worked for Thoroughbred racing.


  1. The Pope and Dinny both might disagree but they would both be wrong. I've never been able to view Racing thru Dinny's eyes, not now or 30 years ago either

  2. Gosh I wish I could find that commercial today.

  3. Can't find it on YouTube, Glenn. It's pre-YouTube vintage, but then so is a ton of stuff that's on that website, so....I wonder if even the NTRA, which presumably owns it, still has copies.

  4. John, thanks for putting it in perspective like that.

  5. Great read, John. And so true!

  6. That was a great column. I think one thing that supports these oligarchs is the public perception that all gambling ( i.e., poker, slots, football pools, etc.) is fine but gambling on horses is somehow only done by degenerates. I wish that public perception could be changed but that's difficult.

  7. Dinny may be ailing and in decline, but the attitude lingers, and younger, somewhat more nouveau riche types are eagerly taking up the banner of we know best. For example, Steve Duncker, ex-Goldman Sachs and now chairman of NYRA, knows better than all the trainers in New York that the ludicrous detention barn set-up, requiring horses to spend six hours in a tense-making environment, and trainers to pay overtime for a groom to babysit the horse, is a Good Idea. There are, of course, much cheaper and more horse-friendly ways of combating cheating, but the folks who knew how to melt down Wall Street must, I guess, know better than the rest of us what's good for our industry.

  8. Thank you for clarifying the fate of Fred Pope's ultimately sensible National Racing Association.

    Now I wish someone would explain why no one seems to be paying any attention to Pope's most recent attempt to salvage our sport. The man knows what he's talking about.

  9. Incisive commentary on the blindness and hubris of privilege and how the machinations of the ruling class have impacted our unwashed souls.

  10. Carlos "Ned" MooreApril 19, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    In hindsight, the final and only thing that ever counts is if they did a good job. If they did not, we can have an ego trip and blame them for all the ills of the world...

    As we well know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it also will accept a good dose of stupidity, incompetence and ignorance and just remember, if you can make everybody happy, you are forgiven for all your sins no matter how bad you are...

    Let us use the past as an experience and work towards the future. This industry desperately needs to repackaged and relabled. The product is good, but we are missing the boat on how we market and distribute it.

    Ned Moore

  11. So you think the Wideners of the world were incorrect not to go along with the terrible idea because the introduction of OTB was inevitable so to speak? I would argue that the pols in Albany were the blind ones full of hubris, unhappy with a perfectly functioning cash cow that contributed plenty in revenue to the state. They figured that with more racing and higher takeout/OTB surcharges that bettors would still keep coming. Wrong!

    I congratulate Widener for his principled stand. (The lost causes are always the ones worth fighting for). In retrospect, he had more of an idea of how much product the racing public would tolerate and the pricing of the product than either Albany or the OTB operators ever did. IMHO, with less state interference and more decision-making by Widener and is ilk, NYRA would never have plummeted so far in the past 40 years.

  12. I must disagree, Anonymous (whoever you are). Yes, OTB was inevitable, but regardless, Widener's attitude was patronizing and demeaning. If NYRA/Jockey Club had taken the lead in structuring OTB, it is most unlikely that the takeout structure would have been structured so stupidly.

    The principle Widener stood upon was that he knew better than the common man what that common man should spend his money on. If you wish to defend that proposition as a "lost cause", you're more than welcome to it.

  13. By the late 1960s, I'm sure Widener et al recognized how much worse business at NYRA was becoming due to the the state mandating longer seasons. As I'm sure you recall, the overall economy was about to enter a period of long decline and inflation was starting to get out of hand as well. You may call Widener's attitude patronizing, but again he recognized more than Albany and NYC did that the more races you offer and the higher the takeout, the fewer fans will be left for the future. The entire industry still has not learned this lesson. Widener was a smarter businessman than either you or I.

    And remember NYRA and NYCOTB were competing interests. It was Widener's job to have warm bodies in the stands to raise revenue for the state, while OTB was in the business to funnel money and provide patronage opportunities to Mayor Lindsay.

    We'll have to disagree about the possibility that NYRA could have worked out a sensible takeout structure for OTB. At the time of its inception, the state was taking 10 cents out of every dollar wagered while NYRA kept about 7, a highly uneven balance. There's no question in my mind the city would have still mandated a surcharge because most politicians to this day are clueless about basic economic principles of pricing and supply and demand.

  14. BTW, the "lost cause" I was referring to was the fight to fend off the legalization of OTB even though it was a forgone conclusion. It was most certainly not what you characterized it to be.

  15. John - One note: At the time that Lori Petty ad ran, I was well within the age demographic that supposedly "responded" to it. I loathed it. I have never seen a commercial that made me want to RUN to the TV to change channels as quickly as possible. It was repulsive (and every under-40 person I know agreed, so I do not buy that oft-repeated statement that this ad was somehow "successful"). That said, I did like the "Go Baby Go" slogan (which used my silks as a background). Although racing certainly needed good advertising, the NTRA wasted a lot of money on some very very bad ads.

  16. The Lori Petty ad did not work with people inside racing (I didn't particularly like it myself)....but, according to all the surveys, focus groups, etc., it worked with casual sports fans, non-racing fans, made them more interested in racing.

    That is what it was designed to do and--I thought anyway--what we were supposed to be trying to do, expand our fan base. Ads like that don't need to appeal to you and I Liz. We're already committed. They need to appeal to people that are not committed fans, and the Lori Petty ad did, whether we liked it or not.

  17. Mr. Sparkman, thank you again for the great commentary. Racing is on the cusp of renewal if the sport as a whole will take the time to restructure, with the idea of drawing-in an entirely new fan base. While many argue that it is the bettor which drives the sport, there are those of us who believe, maybe naively, that it is the horse which produces the complexity and pleasure from the gambling.

    The Lori Petty ad did not appeal to me, but it did attract attention. We need that in a positive way. This year's Derby is barely attracting any television exposure prior to the race itself, and the coverage in the prep races on national television has been abysmal.
    Little coverage of the horses on the track, or their origins, or even of their connections. Lots of smarmy small talk instead. Racing has lost control of its product, and the NTRA wants to limit the Breeder's Cup to one site for more of the same. Horse racing is a sport, as well as a gambling opportunity, and a great fan spectacle.

    As for the hierarchy, well, they make me want to bathe.