How can we make that paradigm shift?
Horse racing is not a recent infatuation of the Jamaican people. In fact, Jamaica's involvement with horse racing and breeding is a centuries-old love affair, the earliest traced record of which dates back to 1777 when, according to the English Stud Book of that year, a horse named Temperance is recorded as having raced well in Jamaica.
In the early 19th century, racing took place regularly and frequently in every parish with Kingston having racing regularly between Monday and Saturday. Many notable breeders and trainers established reputations for themselves that reached beyond our island's shores and, by the middle of the century, two gentlemen, Messrs. Dickenson and Harmon, had established at Pepper, St Elizabeth, the largest breeding stud farm in the world, keeping an average of 100 thoroughbred mares and seven English sires.
Other reputable breeding establishments thrived at Agualta Vale, Friendship, Cardiff Hall, Harmony Hill and Montpelier.
Jamaica produced international equine stars who distinguished themselves at Epsom Downs and other tracks abroad.
Many of us can still recall knowing places in our home towns and parishes that were simply referred to as 'Race Course'. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the reason for them being so named was no longer obvious, as horse racing had moved to a central venue at Knutsford Park in St Andrew. In 1966 the Jamaica Turf Club, which had been formed in 1934, merged with Knutsford Park Ltd. and other interested parties and established Caymanas Park Ltd.
Many of Jamaica's 'big names' were associated with these developments - D.H. Judah, L.J. Armond, R.G. Ashenheim, V.O. Blake, A.E. Brandon, A.E. Issa and others. Thus it was that today, Knutsford Boulevard in New Kingston, commemorates the great days of racing that were once experienced on that site.
Now, given the huge success that Caymanas Park has been as a venue for racing in Jamaica, it may seem unreasonable of me to say that it stands as a mere hint of what could be. I am not a cynic, but it seems to me that Caymanas Park has been regarded as nothing but a cash cow. It labours under a tax regime that has served to drive away investment and stifle wagers. The plant continues to slide deeper into disrepair and a notorious claiming system condemns ancient nags to a painful ritual of perpetual performance long after they should have been put out to pasture.
The proliferation of other forms of gaming in recent years, including lotteries and slot machines, has caused a further decline in the racing industry. When one adds to that the high take-out levels, it is clear that rather than incentives, the racing fan is faced with disincentives to enjoying the sport.
The practice of integrating gaming into the racing environment is not a trend that we in the local racing industry should ignore, given the glaring need to improve racing and enhance its ability to compete with other forms of gaming and to attract a wider and more sophisticated customer base.
Readers of this column will know that I have made repeated calls for a paradigm shift by the government of Jamaica with regard to the sport/entertainment/tourism nexus.
We must dispel the almost superstitious fear of gaming that has prevented us from keeping pace with the cruise industry, competing tourism destinations and entertainment complexes of almost every description around the world that have employed a pragmatic mix of these elements to create new products and attractions - the success of which can be measured by the relatively quicker rate of growth when compared to our stop-over tourism arrivals.
Howard L. Hamilton is a former Chairman of the Racing Promotions Limited and Caymanas Track Limited. He is the current president of Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.