And they're off--and on again.
James F. Byrnes, the director of the US Office of War Mobilization, worried about the manpower and resources that racing consumed. Thousands of able-bodied workers kept stables and tracks operating. Fans wore tons of rubber off their tires and burned untold gallons of gasoline getting to tracks to toss money away on bets. Byrnes had long wanted to shut the sport down. On January 3, 1945, he did. Horse racing was banned--the only sport the government prohibited during the war.
Byrnes had to overcome powerful interests to enact his ban. There was an awful lot of money in thoroughbred racing. Americans pulling high salaries from lucrative wartime jobs had money to spare. Gambling, which then usually meant horse racing, offered excitement and the chance to multiply earnings in an instant.
Even as millions of GIs shipped out to fight the war, track attendance grew to 17 million from a prewar 15 million. From 1943 to 1944, total bets nearly doubled, from $705 million to $1.2 billion. Hialeah Park near Miami booked a record-setting $640,000 on opening day 1944--$200,000 more than the previous high. New York State tracks figured out the average fan out for a day at the races bet $91.22. "America was off on the damnedest gambling binge in history," wrote Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Daily News. "Almost everyone was playing the horses."
Tracks put much of their increased earnings into-keeping the horses running, hiring high-priced PR flaks to persuade on their behalf. Those pros claimed that by absorbing excess money from the economy, gambling kept a lid on inflation. It also boosted citizen morale by putting excitement in the lives of the war-weary. And then there was the extra tax money it brought in.
Racetracks also cleaned up their image. They closed parking lots to encourage the use of public transportation, donated to charities, and promoted war bond sales.
The government almost turned off the money spigot in early 1943. The horses still ran, and the first race of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, the Kentucky Derby, went off as planned on May 1. But there was a crackdown on travel, and no tickets were sold to out-of-towners. That year, America's oldest continuous sporting event was dubbed the Streetcar Derby.
Despite all that, 50,000 people walked through the gates of Churchill Downs, a fair number of them GIs who received free passes. Spectators filled the famous infield, enjoying the traditional mint juleps and the stew called burgoo. Men in tailored suits and women in fancy dresses and big hats took up the good seats in Millionaires Row. The University of Louisville Marching Band kicked off the festivities with "My Old Kentucky Home."
Finally came the big race, and the competitors strolled onto the track. "It was as if the horses in the Derby captured the military spirit of the times," reported the racing newspaper Blood Horse. "They marched around the track almost exactly according to their rank, as indicated on the mutuel boards [the odds for each to win] on the infield." Two minutes and four seconds after the starting gun, Count Fleet finished the mile and a quarter ahead of the others.
Count Fleet proved to be a fantastic horse. He went on to the Triple Crown's second race, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, and won easily. Then he ran the Belmont Stakes in New York State and trounced the second-place finisher by 25 lengths to win the Triple Crown. On the downside, he injured a foot and had to retire.
After a 1944 season that was less exciting than 1943's, horse racing had to cope with Byrnes's shutdown. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Kentucky Derby weekend came and went, but as it did, the Allies forced Germany to surrender. Racing resumed, and the derby was run just a few weeks late.
There was no Triple Crown winner to celebrate in 1945. But Americans already had plenty to be thankful for. The war was over. The boys were home. And horse racing was back.