Just another day at the stud farm.
"It's very draining physically and emotionally," said Josh Pons as he drove around the farm in a golf cart a few minutes later. He said studs get hurt, top broodmares get sick and die, foals are born dead. Nothing is easy. It's the nature of thoroughbreds: They're not bred for their reproductive ability--they're bred for speed. Critics say even this isn't really working, that racing times have reached a plateau and the thoroughbreds may have even regressed in quality, watered down by excessive breeding in the boom years of the 1980s and the use of medication that masks physical frailties.
While the horses run in place genetically, the racetracks themselves are falling behind the rest of the gaming world. Racetracks are getting clocked by casinos, lotteries, riverboat gambling, and slot machines. Pons is not sure if Country Life Farm will pass to yet another generation of Ponses. "If it's a dinosaur game and everyone's betting at the casinos instead of the racetrack, we're out of business."
From the farm I drove to the racetrack, Laurel Park. I've been to Gulfstream and Hialeah and Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, and they all maintain some resonance of their grand past. At Gulfstream, you enter in a broad boulevard between rows of royal palms. At Hialeah, there are old fountains and broad porches and perfectly landscaped gardens. Laurel Park has none of that magic. The entrance road is bumpy and crude. The facility has been rebuilt various times over the last 81 years, but now just looks cobbled together in addition to being old. On this particular Saturday, only a few thousand people were scattered in the stands. Many were watching TV monitors showing simulcasts of races at some other track. They weren't completely here, mentally.
A woman smoking a cigarette outside the office turned out to be Lois Ryan, the track's director of public relations. She said Laurel's big problem is that the governor won't allow slots. Tracks in Delaware have slot machines now, and they're pulling in billions of dollars in revenue, jacking up the purses for the races and siphoning away both the fans and top racehorses. Philadelphia Park is getting video-lottery terminals, as will tracks in West Virginia. Plus the racetrack, as broadly imagined by the public, suffers a reputation of seediness. It's not true, she said. It's clean and lively, she insisted. Soon they will bring in costumed characters, so kids will have something to do.
Up in the press box, the handicapper, Clem Florio, 67, looked down from his lofty perch as the horses meandered toward the starting gate for the sixth race.
"It doesn't have the glamour that it did," Florio said. "It had glamour! You'd see people go from nothin' to the big time!" He grew up in Queens, right next door to Aqueduct. Routinely there'd be 30,000 or 40,000 people at the track on a Saturday.
"We had a tradition along the Eastern Seaboard of horse players. Every corner had a bookie," Florio said.
"It was the only game in town."
Tradition alone can't compete in the churning marketplace of American gaming. Maybe racing could use a few cloned Cigars. Something. Anything. For the seventh race at Laurel, there were only seven horses in the field. The next race would have nine horses, and the one after that only six. Six horses is not much of a field. You know a racetrack is on hard times when it can't even get horses to show up.
Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.
Illustration by Hillel Halkin.