Coronavirus: history shows it could provide racing with an opportunity for change

As now, in 2001 British racing was in crisis - then because of a severe outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that affected everyday life across the country. The betting industry, which was particularly badly hit, emerged much stronger because of it

Dick Francis knew how to spin a good mystery. As a former jockey himself, he figured out later, after his riding career was done, that he could weave compelling stories by creating imagery that reflects the racetrack. They always say, write what you know.

He created some nifty characters, like Sid Halley, the injured champion rider who, like Francis, found a new career after his days in the saddle were over. The instinct-laden Halley spends his days as a private investigator, chasing leads for clients and sometimes literally running down crooked members of the racing underworld. 

Francis was fairly prescient when it came to addressing controversial topics. He used murder as a primary stage-front centerpiece in his novels, but there were always sub-plots that he explored with deftness and candor. 

One of those issues was the advent and manipulations behind online wagering and how it was changing the sport of racing. In one of his stories, Under Orders, which he co-wrote with his son, Felix, the PI matches wits with the smug and overconfident George Lochs, who is the shadowy wiz behind a server-led betting revolution, ‘’.

In a way, Francis was offering a social commentary on this new age; by 2006, when this book came out, worlds had already collided. New wagering formats were all the rage. The landscape changed because of two major events that coalesced around the turn of the century; the first was the power of the internet and the second, an outbreak in 2001, known as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

The lessons from this time period are palpable, and quite applicable for where we are today. Could the lessons of a decade ago help us understand the state of racing under the threat of the coronavirus Covid-19?

By 2000, the internet was altering life. People were worried about the theoretical demise of computers that Y2K would bring at midnight of the new century. Once we got past the realization that all was well, tech companies began to see even more potential, that gambling and online gaming were the future of sports. But they had a problem. The bookmakers in Britain, and in other locales throughout the world, held such a strong grip on wagering at events that it seemed that a broader internet-based experience would be too tough a nut to crack. 

In 2001, before the attack on the World Trade Center in New York at the hands of a previously ignored terrorist threat, Britain was undergoing its own war of sorts. Beginning at an abattoir in Brentwood, Essex, FMD landed. The virus was Asian-based and spread fever, as well as blisters that could make cloven-hoofed animals lame. 

Cancellation of Cheltenham

In a short time that spring, the disease moved rapidly by blindsiding farmers and government agriculture experts as over 2,000 cases multiplied rapidly. Critics charged that the situation was so dire that the famed Cheltenham Festival, the backbone of jumping and wagering in all of Britain, should be moved back a month to April. But, when that arrived, it was worse, so the event was shelved. 

The aftershocks reverberated throughout the racing world in Britain and Ireland, as everyone scrambled to make ends meet. Bookmakers, who took bets trackside and ran their own shops, found themselves without jobs, their independence broken with no racing. Betfair, which was founded a year prior, along with other syndicates, was helpless. 

The crisis was full-blown by the summer. Cancellation after cancellation occurred, with the only recourse being a regional systematic destruction of an estimated six million sheep and cattle. This in turn laid waste to confidence in the government’s ability to react, but it also impacted the rural economy at home and exports headed abroad. 

Throughout global history, we have numerous moments where the ending of one practice leads to the making of another. Several come to mind: the demise of Rome and Han China shifted global power to the Middle East, and European destruction of the New World was driven by East Asian demand. Of course, when colonial powers weakened economically because of warfare, that led to the rise of the United States and Russia after the Second World War.

Disease was at the center of many of these flashpoints (the Black Death, being one of the most powerful progenitors of change for Europe), and humans were forced to adapt as great catastrophes led to unintended consequences.

The same happened in the wake of the FMD epidemic. Bookmakers had to embrace the idea that animal-related sports could not remain their sole bread and butter. So, Betfair and others realized that destinies sometimes are arrived at by happenstance and can lead to diversification. And that is exactly what they did. 

By building a sports betting platform instead of just a racing one, they found a previously neglected area of development that led to uber expansion. That, coupled with investing in new technologies, like virtual racing, wagering terminals in betting shops and online gaming, meant bookmakers never looked back.

As it was with FMD, Covid-19 has arrived with authority and led to uncertainty, whether the collective ‘we’ wants to admit it or not. Whatever the case, it is a virus that spread rapidly to impact corners of the networked globe — a massive Petri dish.

Lessons from the past abound. Back in 1919, the Great Influenza (also known as Spanish Flu) killed an estimated 50 million worldwide after supposedly starting at an Army base in Kansas before it progressed to a full-blown pandemic. Racing was not universally cancelled back then, but scientific understanding was in its infancy. Still, as with any biological pathogen exchanges, whether it was Ebola, Avian Flu or other outbreaks, we are not always certain how long it will take to get under control.

Time to take stock

What we suddenly realize, and this happened all over the world over the past number of weeks, is that there is a threshold — a place where the magnitude or intensity must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.

How will the Covid-19 change Thoroughbred racing? As it was during the FMD crisis, we are unsure at this point. In 2001, racing officials kept pushing dates in the hope that the outbreak would subside. It finally did, but in the heat of it, disappointment reigned. 

This time around, Cheltenham was not put on the shelf, though it was hotly debated. Other races are coming though, as some tracks close their gates to the public and prepare to run without a crowd present (the Grand National, which was scheduled for April 4, has already been cancelled, and the Kentucky Derby has been shifted provisionally to September). Moving forward, this could be an advantage, now with masses of people being furloughed, the possibility of an increase in wagering from the confines of your home is possible where wagering by this means is legal. 

While other sports remain on hiatus, watching racing via simulcast makes for an inviting prospect when it comes to drawing new fans for the sport. Maybe a renewed ‘regional’ interest in the sport will resurface, as tribalism and locales are emphasized more and more in politics, society, and mass culture.

Lessons from 20 years ago remind us that perhaps the Thoroughbred community should be poised to expand its vision for the sport and its future. Maybe it is time to take stock of where we have been and where we are going? Treatment of horses and cutting-edge ethical approaches to everything from genetics to racetrack surface research should be promoted to the fullest. Wagering formats and access options could once again be opportunities for change.

Once again, adaptability remains our greatest asset, and if past history is our guide, we will weather the coronavirus. Someday, when the next virus arrives, we will have that experience as well. Dick Francis could not tell a better story.

J.N. Campbell is a turf writer based in Houston, Texas, who pens commentary pieces for several publications. This is his first for TRC.

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