And They’re Off

On the Ethical Dilemma Posed by Horse Racing

Saratoga Race Track, 1963

We’re a horse racing town, if nothing else. A few years back, we, by in large, avoided the harshest shrapnel wrought by the Recession because our foundation is built largely upon hooves, rather than banking, real estate, or retail. We have all of those things, of course, but our bread is mainly buttered elsewhere.

The horses invariably prove a mighty attraction, both to locals and foreigners near and far. A day at the races is romantic: the thrill of placing a $1 bet on a pony with just the right name, the thick fog of cigar smoke that covers the entire venue, the ritzy boobs clad in monstrous hats and pastels and paisley, the horrible ad hoc parking, and, above all else, the raw majesty of the horses sprinting those nine-furlongs. It’s all properly intoxicating stuff, regardless of your age or depth of purse.

However, a recent rise in animal-rights awareness has cast a nasty little shadow upon our Graveyard of Champions. The races have been going on for a week now, and, already, three horses have hit the dirt canvas and failed to raise themselves back up once more. Every season, there are horses who die in front of crowds of tens of thousands of onlookers, and the outcry in response to such events has only risen exponentially with each passing year.

This objective misfortune puts an average local like me in an ethical vice: I live in a throughly affluent city built upon the backs of gambling, boozing, and dead thoroughbreds. This situation can’t easily be called ideal. Many of my millennial peers have halted support of the Track altogether, unable to pack up and move to another city but still able to refuse to empty their wallets at the races. I’m unable to join my peers in their exercise of soft power, for my family is linked inexorably with the races. My grandfather was the President of the Race Course for decades. So long as there are stangs trotting around town, there’ll be a Snyder in the loop one way or another.

Now, I love the races. I could never pretend not to. It’s a proper shame that a few horses suffer the ultimate consequence of sport, but better a race horse than a glue factory, at least to my mind. Additionally, it simply isn’t practical to stage a one-man boycott. The 1st Amendment is in place to protect those with much more chutzpah than this noodle-armed good-for-terribly-little.

However, there are undoubtedly some out there still sat upon the fence: to go to the races or not to go. That is the question. As ever, we must now turn to my lone semester of ethical study to help answer this quandary.

Immanuel Kant was a smart man, his most famous bit of smartness being his Categorical Imperative. Kant defined the Categorical Imperative as to “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” In essence, treat people as people, not merely as tools to advance your own ends. In our case, we must substitute “humanity” for “living beings,” for we’re discussing nags here.

So then, using the Categorical Imperative as our lens, is going to the races on a blistering hot Friday in July an ethical choice? Does participating (as a paying spectator) in a sport that risks the lives of horses mean one is treating the horses as a means to an end or as an end in and of themselves?

I submit that going to the races and placing a bet or two is treating the horses as a clear means to an end: entertainment, gambling, and spectacle. I’m not attaching a value judgement to that actuality. I think going to the races is great fun, especially when I don’t leave the Track any more a broken shell of a man than when I entered it.

In the final analysis, it’s up to one to do whatever the hell one thinks best. What a lovely little idea that is. Whatever comes of these recent abstentions, I can only hope that certain safeguards are put in place to ensure that the death toll has already reached it’s high for the season. If such safeguards are not put in place, we risk decreasing attendance and decreased revenue across every sector of town. And if that happens, then we risk going from a four coffee shop town to a one coffee shop town. In this hellish future, only Starbucks remains on Broadway to put out the strong brew. This is not a future worth living or a city worth inhabiting.