In the addiction room

Could harness racing help gambling addicts get a fix but not overdose?

by Trey Nosrac

My first Gamblers Anonymous meeting was 15 years ago. This meeting was surprising, depressing and revealing. I attended this meeting to do research for an article about gambling addiction in horse racing. My local GA chapter was “closed,” which limits attendance to addicts, but after agreeing to respect the groups’ anonymity, they allowed me to attend. I never wrote the article, primarily because gamblers in my small sample did not have any overlap with horse racing, but I never forgot the sessions.

My preconceived notion from watching too many crime movies was that the problem gamblers would be primarily male horseplayers (remember, horse racetracks were the only legal sports gamble in my state then). As usual, I was wrong. This GA group was about a third female, all under 50 and none gambled on horse racing. Each time I nudged a private conversation toward horse racing, the answers surprised me, “Nah, horse racing is too slow,” “It doesn’t get my juices flowing,” “Only went once,” “There wasn’t enough action” and “Sort of impersonal.”

Each person in these GA groups had their sphere of gambling addiction purgatory: bingo, poker, lottery tickets, casinos (at the time, casinos where gamblers bussed out of state) and even the stock market. The seriousness of gambling addiction quickly became apparent when after the first session, I asked a fellow in his 20s if he came to a meeting every week. He replied, “No, I find a meeting almost every night. It’s my only shot.”

Addiction to gambling on horses is a serious issue; every addiction is severe and complex. But compared to the heroin of internet sports gambling, wagering on horse races feels like smoking a joint outside the dorm room. State legislation has opened a massive new pandora’s box of gambling that may make the problems of the racetrack problem gambler a quaint relic. With nonstop wagers in your pocket, we read, hear and witness troubling reports of new gamblers facing addiction almost daily.

Again, nobody should ever minimize the heartbreak and seriousness of any addiction, but in 2023, the retro sport of horse racing may, in some cases, be beneficial. Thinking back to those meetings, the basics of kicking a severe gambling addiction were:

• Regularly attend meetings or counseling and keep fighting even if you relapse. Communicate with mentors or organizations to avoid the isolation that leads to additional problems.

• Addicts should consider what gambling activities are most dangerous and destructive. When you identify your most problematic area, say, online professional sports, they will suggest you attempt to avoid that particular landmine.

• Wager only using cash.

• Hand over your checkbook and credit cards.

• Bet in person.

• Block gambling sights to help eliminate temptation.

• Only gamble on sports or events at specific, set times, such as horse races, rather than continuous and repetitive activities, such as gambling machines and computers with built-in analytic strategies that compound compulsions.

When we reflect on these strategies to treat gambling addiction, our sport checks several treatment boxes. Perhaps, just perhaps, attending the races at a local horse racetrack, in person, with a friend or two at your side, using only cash handed through a teller window, with twenty minutes between each play, could be therapeutic for some categories of struggling addicts. We might be a stepping stone in combating gambling disorders.

Of course, our sport cannot get on our high horse. While it seems that gambling on horses is relatively less dangerous, the world of addiction is tricky. Sometimes marijuana can lead to fentanyl. A scratch-off card you receive for your birthday gift can lead to a thousand-dollar-a-month lottery addiction. And a win on a horse racing wager “can” be the beginning of a plunge into an obsession that destroys lives.

Addictions lurk everywhere and in a world where online betting is at everyone’s fingertips, problem gambling grows like wildfire. The digital gambling options of today were unborn infants when I attended those GA meetings, but they are growing into monsters. The grooming of young gamblers, especially with gambling businesses using artificial intelligence, makes one shudder at the future of problem gambling.

Where does horse racing gambling fit? Is horse racing a gateway, or is the racetrack a potentially valuable offramp for serious gambling problems? Hard to say.