THIS is a lament for a dear friend, the sport of horse racing, which could not be in a worse place.
It was already in the poor house before Covid-19 came along and now it’s even more destitute.
But it’s not all its own fault, especially when before the lockdown you could walk into almost any bar and see several patrons gathered around an electronic roulette wheel, dollars in hand, and you wonder how much tax the proprietors are paying for such a lucrative attraction.
And then you remember the Opposition MPs again failed to support the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill last week, leaving bars, casinos and private members’ clubs laughing all the way to the bank with their peppercorn taxation rates.
Of course, that was pre-coronavirus, but no matter when it was, the Arima Race Club, the promoter of local racing, has always been up against it, with its many competitors for the disposable dollar enjoying a far easier time when it comes to dealing with the tax-man.
Racing, a once thriving past-time in Trinidad and Tobago, has been in the doldrums for decades but it is still a major employer, including the jockeys and grooms who would find it very difficult to secure work in another area. And there are all the interconnected entities, like the feed, grass, bedding and medication suppliers, veterinarians, farriers and the breeding farms, as well as the bars and food vendors in and around Santa Rosa Park in Carapo, on the outskirts of Arima.
It’s all at a standstill now but unlike its Irish counterpart, the penniless ARC cannot claim to be of “huge importance” to T&T’s economy, with political allies touting racing in Ireland as a “big economic sector” in lobbying for its restart being brought forward to June 8 from a later date.
So Horse Racing Ireland is set to join the French and Germans in reviving their billion-dollar thoroughbred racing operations, following in the hoofprints of tracks in the United States, Australia, Hong Kong and other places which have been successfully staging races without spectators throughout the pandemic, with no adverse effects to date.
Those countries would have the benefit of generating revenue from all manner of online wagering by betters stuck in their homes, a percentage of those punts being retained by the various tracks to finance the purses and maintain the infrastructure.
But the Arima Race Club, already cap in hand and owing prize money dating to last year, is further stymied by archaic local laws which limit its opportunities, the club not allowed to take bets from its US partner tracks on Sundays and some public holidays, disadvantages which could have been corrected by measures in the Gambling Control Bill to help make the playing field a more level one.
Because as it is, T&T’s unregulated billion-dollar gambling landscape has been best described as the “wild, wild west” with its lack of checks and controls.
But with proper monitoring in place and the correct taxes being collected, a case could be made for the racing industry—given its employment role—to be funded by a percentage of the millions the government’s Betting Levy Board would be drawing from the gambling machinery, assistance which could help the ARC dig itself out of the deep hole it is in.
In an ideal world, the promoter of T&T racing should be allowed to diversify like many American racetracks, offering other gambling options including slot machines and those notorious roulette wheels to generate more income to fund the racehorse side of the business.
The collapse of the Gambling Control Bill has put paid to any such plans and the ARC is again on its own in sorting out its desperate financial problems, even more so now amidst the pandemic and its fallout which has stretched the government to the limit.
And other things needed to be put in place for the Arima Race Club to secure its main “product”, the beautiful four-legged creatures who thrill fans with their graceful flight. With local stud farms disappearing under housing projects, very few foals are born on T&T soil each year, from more than 300 annually to now less than a quarter of that. And with foreign exchange almost as elusive as those foals, the purchasing of overseas-bred bloodstock had also slowed to less than a trickle in recent years.
With those dwindling supply routes, an option was to seek out fresh pastures in South America, places like Argentina, Brazil and Chile breeding a hardy horse, with purchase prices and transport costs to Trinidad being far cheaper than from North America.
But more of Trinidad and Tobago’s aged laws and regulations would have to be amended to make that a possibility.
Now what little is left of the local racing industry is stuck in its stall, bankrupt and on life support, but still with a substantial workforce to look after.
The ARC was hoping to get the show back on the road on June 19, without fans at Santa Rosa, but that has been put on hold, awaiting the government’s go-ahead.
But the longer the horses remain indoors, the more their struggling owners will think about getting rid of them, some of God’s finest animals not having much more to look forward to than the butcher’s knife at the zoo, ending up as lion meat.
And as the horses go, so do the grooms, heading to the unemployment line, followed by their trainers and the ARC employees.
It’s a sorry situation for a noble tradition, and every day it is left standing still, the worse it will get.