Doing the Right Thing (Whatever the Reason)

As a child of the peace-and-love 1960s who also happens to be a horseplayer, about the only thing I’m hawkish about is takeout¹.

That’s why I experienced a disorienting sense of appreciation when I learned that takeout rates for the inaugural Saudi Cup would be 25% to 50% higher than the juice that is regularly extracted from me by the New York Racing Association (win and exacta bets at NYRA tracks being my usual form of action).

I figured a salty race on dirt with top-class older horses during the month of February is a rare bird these days, and while the crimes against humanity that are routinely committed by Saudi Arabia might not be enough to encourage horseplayers to keep the rubber band taut around their bankrolls, excessive juice just might seal the deal. Politics, morals, and betting on horses can all make for strange bedfellows, and as long as  people end up doing the right thing, who am I to quibble with the purity of their motivations?

American Thoroughbred racing occupies a shady lane within the penumbra of the wider world of sports, and doesn’t really get enough sunlight to ever be properly disinfected. The end result is that while racing’s apologists kick and scream about a mainstream media that “reports only bad news” (such as on-track equine fatalities at Santa Anita), the industry largely flies beneath society’s radar, and has skated on its embrace of an authoritarian regime looking to “sportswash” its mortal sins of murder, misogyny, and war crimes.

It saddens me to think that American morality has become just another commodity that is for sale to the highest bidder. And it’s not just the tacit American approval of the state-sanctioned murder of a Saudi-American Washington Post journalist or the continued subjugation of Saudi women. Our president excuses the House of Saud’s crimes by noting how much they spend on American-made “defense” hardware, yet it is these products of the military-industrial complex that make us complicit in the (effectively) sub rosa Saudi war crimes that are ongoing in Yemen.

The idea that a sense of American morality can exist independently from the constant knee-jerking of politics has been lost. To paraphrase the McCarthy Era hero Joseph Welch, at long last, are we left with no sense of decency?

I tuned in to Saturday’s telecast of the Saudi Cup to see how this sordid affair would play out. The male host, Nick Luck, was his usual chipper and upbeat self. The female host, Michelle Yu, was similarly sunny and was swaddled in a long-sleeved mustard dress that, given the setting, suggested a “topless” burka purchased at Bloomingdale’s. Both were fine, in a blandly inoffensive way.

My main interest was in what companies would advertise on such a program. It was stated up front that the telecast would have “limited commercial interruptions”, which my gimlet eye viewed as not so much “we really care about the viewer’s experience” but more “we couldn’t give this ad space away”.

It was unsurprising to find the young sire Runhappy leading the advertising parade, as his people have yet to find a sandwich board or bus stop they didn’t feel like buying up. But I was extremely disappointed to see that the New York Racing Association’s wagering portal NYRA Bets was the other prominent advertiser.

It had been only a few days since NYRA generated much goodwill by announcing that the large, private “party tent” that had flanked and blocked much of Saratoga’s paddock for the last decade (presumably made redundant by the track’s shiny new 1863 Club) would no longer sully that sacred landscape. For me, that goodwill has now been written down.

It’s really not difficult to ensure that you are “doing the right thing”. Here’s how. Before taking any big step – such as selling off public space to the highest bidder, doing business with a monstrous regime, or rushing at the chance to win a boatload of blood-soaked money – ask yourself these questions: “Am I buying something, or selling something? And if I’m selling something, what is it that I’m selling?” It might just be your good name.

It will be nice to have better views of the Saratoga paddock this summer. But it would have been nicer still had NYRA done all the right things for all the right reasons.


¹Takeout is the fixed percentages of the betting dollar that is removed from racing’s pari-mutuel pools.

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