The adage that history repeats itself appears to be true for horse racing in the United States. One hundred years ago, racing in the sport’s epicenter of New York was in retreat—in fact, shut down–owing to laws that banned gambling.

In 1908, New York governor Charles Evans Hughes and the legislature instituted the Hart-Agnew bill that outlawed wagering. The New York Times reported that “the anti-race track gambling law… ‘will seriously cripple, if not absolutely destroy, thoroughbred racing of high class in this state,’ is the fear expressed by the State Racing Commission…”

New York racetrack owners continued to operate in 1909 and 1910 by using a loophole that permitted “oral wagers” among patrons and another loophole that racetrack owners were not personally responsible for bets made on their premises.

A New York Times article said: “New York’s measures are merely anti-gambling measures, and if the racing associations continue to claim that the Directors of racing associations should not be held responsible for gambling on their premises it is a fair confession on their part that racing without gambling in New York state is impossible. If that is the case either the Constitution of the State or the institution of racing must go…”

The article went on to say: “Any one who knows the facts knows that the five tracks in New York City are not necessary for the better breeding of horses or testing the speed of horses, and that the amount of money now invested in those tracks would never have been invested in them but that the presence of protected gambling at racetracks under the Percy-Gray law made such investment not only safe but enormously profitable.”

The New York legislature added laws to close the aforementioned loopholes in Hart-Agnew. In particular, racetrack owners were made criminally responsible for any wagering that took place at their tracks. This had the effect of terminating New York racing from 1911-1913. A favorable court decision permitted New York racetracks to open for business once more in 1913, though several tracks never did.

A century later, New York is again the epicenter of a challenge to racing (from a series of New York Times articles) that is roiling the sport nationwide and has the potential to relgate it to the dustbin of history. This time the brouhaha is over the evils of drugs and racetrack safety rather than over the evils of gambling.

Despite predictions to the contrary, the events of 1908-1913 did not set New York horse racing back for a protracted period of time. If this history is a reliable guide, the sport and business of racing in the United States can institute the necessary reforms to keep it viable in the 21st century.

The Times is betting this won’t happen: “as with previous reforms in this disreputable industry, it faces long odds.”

Suppose a person in 2112 looks back over the past two centuries of horse racing in America. She reads of the threat to horse racing’s very existence in 1912 and again in 2012 and of how racing survived the 1912 challenge.

But what did she read about 2012?

This answer depends, of course, on the history that the contemporary men and women of the horse racing fraternity are about to write.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business