Sports Have Fans; Horseracing Has Gamblers

David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (owner of the prestigious Woodbine Racetrack), gave a 2001 speech on the then-state of Ontario Horseracing (which has since taken a significant turn for the worse). With uncommon candor, at least for horseracing, Willmot, a racing-executive legend, shatters horseracing’s greatest myth:

“During the first month that I was CEO, I had a meeting with about eight or ten of our biggest gamblers. During our discussion, I used the word ‘fan,’ and talked about our ‘fans.’ And one of these guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I am not a fan of anything that you or your rich friends do around here. And don’t call me a ‘patron’ either, because I’m not a patron. I am a gambler. …And you think the only reason we are here is to watch you, your friends, and your brown furry animals enjoy your elitist activity.'”

Mr. Willmot concedes: “The truth of the matter is, racing is a gambling business 99.8 percent of the time and a sport the other point-two percent. A $20,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon is not a sport.”

Still, there are holdouts who liken horseracing to pro football, a sport with a gambling component. But disregarding for a moment the conspicuous absence of whips, on-field kills, and ex-player abattoirs, 80,000 people do not flood a football stadium to follow office-pool picks. Simply put, the NFL’s success is explained by fandom while horseracing’s, such as it is, by $2 bets (and increasingly by corporate welfare). To the gambler who drives racing, the horse is inconsequential beyond that day’s program; any fleeting emotional bond is the same felt for a blackjack card.

So please spare us talk of ambiance, tradition, the beauty of equines in full stride, and competitive athletes honing their craft. People don’t go to the racetrack for any of that. Horseracing is no more sport than taking a quarter to a scratch-off. It is unadulterated gaming, nothing more, nothing less. Problem is, VLTs have no bones to shatter, roulette wheels no carotids to slash. Gambling in and of itself is not immoral. Gambling on the backs of suffering horses is.

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  1. People know it is a business supported by gambling…no gambling…no horse racing !
    It is not a sport, period. Part of the decline in the “business” is because gamblers have many more legal choices now than ever. And as most people will admit gambling exploits people.

    We can call many activities in society exploitive in one way or another. So to say horses in the world of racing are exploited is not adequate to describe the plight and suffering of so many of these animals. It really goes far beyond exploitation. It is animal abuse and cruelty. There is a difference !

  2. Thank you Patrick, I read your writings all the time now. I do NOT support the Ontario Horse Racing Industry anymore. A few years ago I did.
    My TB are finished running and are supported by me today.
    Horse Slaughter in Canada has to stop. As you know, Bill C-322 can do this we hope.
    Large-scale commercially run farms, industry stake holders, and other trainers/owners here got too greedy from the Slots arrangement…. past 12 years… Woodbine and Mohawk etc.
    Over-breeding fuels slaughter plants…plain and simple
    I think right now David Willmot must be really glad he’s retired now.
    I wish a few more of the problem makers at CTHS and Jockey Club of Canada would leave too. Then maybe, a better action plan could be brought forward to retire more racehorses with compassion/dignity.Geez…what a sport…I mean gamble! Yes, this is correct.

    • Thank you, Jo-Anne. In the wake of SARP’s end, do you feel the province backslid by offering continued (financial) support? I was hoping Ontario racing would be forced to sink or swim based entirely on its product. Not sure that’s happening.

  3. Patrick, I definitely think Ontario government backslid.
    The horse racing industry here received over $4 billion in past 15 years.
    David Wilmot, apparently received about a million dolllars annually.


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