Alan Balch - CTT column - Self-interest rightly understood
When Viscount Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed from France to philosophize about “Democracy in America” in the early 1800s, he didn’t have racing in mind as he developed his observations on that distinctly American virtue of self-interest rightly understood. Over the last half-century, however, I’ve often thought of them as I’ve observed the evolution of our racing, particularly in California, first from the standpoint of track operators, and lately from the standpoint of horsemen.
I was originally a suit with responsibilities of marketing and managing Santa Anita, later adding Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. I brought a perspective to my work that began with horses, since my earliest profession in the sport was handling their cleanliness and bodily functions. As with so many of us. I always wondered at and about the majesty and attraction of racing to the masses, over centuries, which seemed to survive and prosper despite our many gross mistakes and calamities in its management.
Wherever in the world you look, racing has been a regulated sport from its very earliest days. Which is to say that governmental authorities learned almost from day one that complete freedom in its operation would lead inevitably to scandal and swindle involving one participant or another. Most often, the “public” would be victimized; this led to regulations constantly citing the “public interest” upon their promulgation. And that, in turn, led to innumerable scandals and swindles based on various official scoundrels reaping their own harvests off unsuspecting victims, always in the name of the “public interest.”
I cite this sordid history not to entertain but to educate: what is loosely referred to as “the free market” doesn’t exist in contemporary racing. If it ever did, in fits and starts, it was squashed, altered, or hindered. By statute, regulation, and rule. Even the vaunted principle of caveat emptor, which is the mother’s milk of buying and selling horses, has been under assault by regulators and governments forever. Yes, the buyer should beware, but first let us accord him the government’s “protection” in all kinds of ways (just read the fine print in any sale catalogue), and provide him access to courts if he still claims to have been unaware of his risks.
And then there’s the routine interference in the “free market” by stud books themselves, and their own rules. Let’s see now . . . requiring live cover? Is that really in the best interest of the horse or the breed? Is it justified by anything other than economic interests of the few as opposed to the many? The very idea that there are true free markets even for our breeding and selling is sheer nonsense.