In 1897, a University of Georgia fullback was killed playing football. By 1905, the sport had gotten so rough that there were 18 deaths in that year alone. This proved to be the last straw, so to speak, and the culmination of public outrage.

Football players were routinely referred to in the press as being “dirty thugs” and other derogatory terms. The New York Times in 1905 deplored football’s “mayhem and homicide.” Weeks later, the Times ran an editorial titled “Two Curable Evils.” The evils were lynching and football.

Harvard president Charles Eliot, Nation magazine, and other such influential people and institutions, railed against football and moved to ban it. Eliot offered that a true sport does not incorporate “the barbarous ethics of warfare.” A number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, did away with their football clubs.

Into this fray stepped President Theodore Roosevelt, who disagreed with the calls to outlaw football. The advocate for a “vigorous life” used his famous bully pulpit to save the sport. He called a meeting at the White House with the coaches from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to foster reform. These men founded the forerunner to the NCAA and installed the forward pass in 1906, which took some of the emphasis off running and also spread out the play so that it was not all centered on the line. Dangerous tactics like the flying wedge were prohibited.

As a result of the reforms, injuries and deaths subsided. John J. Miller—author of the book The Big Scrum: How Theodore Roosevelt Saved Football—wrote: “Even if the progressives had not succeeded in banning football, their campaign could have marginalized the game, condemning it to a future of limited appeal, along the lines of lacrosse. Roosevelt’s intervention may have saved football from this sorry fate.”

[In a way, history seems to be repeating itself because the National Football League is coming under intense criticism for head injuries and later-life dementia and a growing number of former players are suing the League.]

American horse racing has reached the hazardous juncture in 2012 that football did in 1905.  A recent New York Times editorial opined that racing is a “disreputable industry,” just as it called football “evil” 107 years ago.

Regardless of whether one agrees with this characterization of racing, the Jockey Club study of 2011 confirmed that the public does not have a high regard for it. The 2012 New York Times expose certainly added to the negative perception.

This week’s tie vote by members of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, pertaining to whether to phase out race-day medication, is a microcosm of the divide that is tearing the sport/industry apart at the seams.

Horse racing is a highly fragmented industry and has more committees and more organizations with acronyms than is useful; each holds and espouses a point of view. There is, in theory, nothing wrong with that, except that the views have become so entrenched and unyielding that the industry is dysfunctional and the rhetoric is acrimonious.

Like football in 1905, racing is running on borrowed time. State officials are increasingly questioning the rationale for slots-fueled purses, animal rights groups are rightfully shining a light on horse slaughter, and the New York Times has focused attention on breakdowns, on-track equine and jockey deaths, drugged racehorses, and rogue owners and trainers. Meanwhile, in the vortex of the tsunami, the splinter groups in racing go about attacking one another and impugning one another’s motives.

The parties can’t even agree to ban race-day medication in graded stakes, much less move on to other important issues that, to borrow a phrase, have “marginalized the game, condemning it to a future of limited appeal, along the lines of” boxing.

And, regrettably, there is no modern-day Teddy Roosevelt in the form of a person or organization coming to the rescue to try to herd these strong-willed cats.

Horse racing has, for years, been committing figurative suicide, slowly, like the frog gradually boiled in water, and the heat is now at the boiling point.

The people who truly care about horse racing need to heed the sage words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

The ladies and gentlemen of American horse racing generally have a penchant for the latter. In fact, racing’s tombstone might someday read:  “Died of internal strife.”

Though the final chapter on the history of racing as an “acceptable” sport has not been written, the outline is taking shape. Yet there is still time to save racing if people put aside their differences and place what is best for the sport above parochial concerns. Start by truly addressing the controversial issues that turn the general public away from racing, and do it sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business


  1. Bravo! Its not too late but is getting there.

  2. Look on the Paulick Report and you can see how much hatred there is in this business for people who hold different views. The posters don’t discuss.. they savage. The divide you talk about is so bad that Kentucky cannot get help for racing from its own legislature.

  3. The football history was unknown to me but shows what can happen when some action is taken. Nice analysis.

    No sport is forever if it ignores its customers and image.

  4. Shanklin knocked it out of the park with this article. It’s really
    time to appoint a national czar with some teeth. Wisdom teeth

  5. This article should be carried on every racing web site and publication! The far and away best analysis I’ve read. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I’m in the business and see the infighting every day.