You don’t have to ride or own horses, or even follow thoroughbred racing, to savor California Chrome’s run at the Triple Crown. The chestnut colt is a classic outsider, raised in modest circumstances at Coalinga, Calif., far removed from Kentucky’s bluegrass elite. The ownership group, two married couples, call their venture “Dumb Ass Partners” and adopted a bright green jackass as the partnership’s emblem.
Meanwhile, their horse is less than two weeks removed from a chance at duplicating a feat achieved only 11 times since 1919, and not at all since 1978 – winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year. (By comparison, over the same 95-year span baseball has had a dozen Triple Crown winners.) The horse already has won the Derby and Preakness; New York’s Belmont will be run on June 7.
“California Chrome gives all of us little breeders a hope that that would happen to us one day,” said Joanne Dew, board president of the North Carolina Thoroughbred Association. But while Dew and her compatriots dream of hitting it big, and believe thoroughbred racing has great economic potential, they don’t expect the industry to prosper in their home state.
Efforts were mounted twice in recent decades to legalize thoroughbred horse racing in North Carolina, with concomitant parimutuel betting to support the enterprise. The first stab at enabling legislation didn’t clear the General Assembly. Then, during the mid-2000s, horse racing was shouldered aside by the state government in favor of games of chance animated by balls rattling around a cage or numbers appearing on a TV screen.
“Let me just say this: there was a lobbying group that was fighting the lottery that told the horse industry they would support horse racing in the state if we moved forward with it,” said Mike Yoder, an N.C. State horse extension specialist. “And they did so because they realized that horse racing brought an industry with it and would create jobs in the state.”
Gambling has long been frowned upon in parts of the South for religious reasons. Secular critics also raise concerns about fostering addictive behavior and chimerical hopes. “I’m trying to be correct as I can in this,” said Yoder, tiptoeing toward the right words. “The old values in this state are still strong enough that we would not be able to get the votes to get horse racing.”
Instead, N.C. legislative leaders in search of revenue chose to mimic 42 other states, and sugar-coated their 2005 creation by officially naming it the “North Carolina Education Lottery.” Currently, only 28 percent of North Carolina lottery proceeds go to education, down from 35 percent in 2007. Most funds go to prizes and administrative costs.
Establishment of the lottery did not break the ice for other sanctioned gambling. Rather, legislation to pursue commercial horse racing fell by the wayside. Perhaps coincidentally, where 44,000 thoroughbred horses were foaled eight years ago in North Carolina, today there are only 22,000, Dew reported.
The state once was a national leader in producing and racing thoroughbreds. Warrenton native William Ransom Johnson, known as the “Napoleon of the Turf,” was considered the foremost horse trainer and owner of the antebellum era. Janus, a so-called foundation sire of the American Quarter Horse (a small, fast breed best suited for a quarter-mile race), stood at stud in North Carolina and died in 1780. Sir Archie, owned for a time by Johnson, was considered the first great American Thoroughbred.
The Civil War, in which more than 1 million horses and mules were killed, significantly diminished North Carolina’s standing in the horse industry, according to Teal. “We lost all of them during the Civil War,” he said. “Horses were used as cavalry mounts, and we wound up eating most of them. That’s how Kentucky emerged as the center place for breeding race horses instead of North Carolina.”
But the state’s affinity for horses endured, if only for pleasure, show, or trail riding, or for gaming (running barrels and poles). Support services from feed stores and tack shops to boarding stables and hay operations also persisted. A study released in 2009 estimated the North Carolina horse industry’s worth at $1.9 billion. “As far as we know, that’s the largest economic impact of any state that doesn’t have a racing industry,” said Yoder, whom Dew called “the horse guru” of North Carolina. Each spring the N.C. State professor takes an animal science class on Equine Evaluation and Selection on a weeklong visit to observe Kentucky’s $4 billion-plus horse industry, from races that attract 30,000 spectators to famous breeding farms.
Industry in decline
Here in North Carolina, the Pinehurst area has several training facilities where trotters from northern states migrate for the winter. The state also boasts horse shows, harness racing and well-attended steeplechases. Plenty of small operators around the state try to make a go of it breeding, selling, boarding, and in some instances racing horses. Owners seeking a payday take their horses elsewhere to compete; there are no major thoroughbred race tracks between Virginia and Florida.
“You can go to races in North Carolina on just about any given weekend,” said Yoder, a member of the N.C. Thoroughbred Association and the N.C. Horse Council. “Racing is taking place in this state. What you can’t do is you can’t wager on those horses using the parimutuel racing system…Without parimutuel racing, you don’t have a financial basis for supporting the industry.” Nor are the races likely to draw hefty crowds, attention, or investment without the thrill of the dollar-chase.
Thoroughbred racing must surmount other problems to become a viable spectator sport and revenue generator in North Carolina. Concerns over inappropriate administration of drugs and other mistreatment of the animals plague the sport nationwide. “I can tell you that Thoroughbred racing has a lot of decisions to make,” Yoder said. He called for national policies rather than the current state-by-state rule-making that almost disqualified California Chrome from the Belmont because he wears an innocuous nasal strip to aid his breathing.
Dew, a Wilmington horse breeder, said racehorses are increasingly expensive to raise, winnowing the ranks of small owners. She thinks Charlotte is the only North Carolina city large enough to support a race track, and noted that even prestigious tracks such as Louisville’s Churchill Downs must scramble to get a dozen horses on a racing card. “There aren’t enough horses in this country now to fill horse races,” she said. “It is basically an industry that is in decline.”
So while the pursuit of the Triple Crown captivates our attention, and steeplechases and other races dot the Carolinas, North Carolina remains on the periphery of the thoroughbred action it once dominated. To alter that status, Dew and the Thoroughbred Association look to the same clientele that made Carolina Hurricanes hockey a success. “I would think now, with a lot of the Northern people moving into this state, there would be more interest in having parimutuel or at least Internet betting on these races,” Dew said hopefully. If California Chrome can upend the racing establishment, anything is possible.
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