The seething underbelly of illegal gambling is nothing new. It’s existed in the absence of legal gambling options for decades. Backroom poker games, bookmakers taking wagers in smoky barroom corners. Likewise, Georgia underground horse racing is a product of failed legislation.
Georgia is considered one of the strictest anti-gambling states in the country. There are no casinos and no federally recognized Native American tribes to run them. There’s also no wagering on horses even though horse racing is legal.
Illegal gambling venues are an expected and proportional reaction to a lack of legal Georgia horse racing betting options. But throughout the South, a more insidious avenue has cropped up like crabgrass: unregulated horse racing. Colloquially termed “bush tracks,” they’ve become pervasive in the South, Georgia in particular. And they serve as underground tracks and racebooks, filling the horse racing void in areas where the sport is banned.
An underground racing scene where animal welfare is a low priority
An investigative report by The Washington Post details the disturbing facets of bush track racing. A lack of oversight contributes to doping, animal abuse and also rampant criminality. It’s on the same level as dogfighting rings. It’s a repugnant world where cash is valued over the safety and wellbeing of animals.
Essentially, it’s a free-for-all, with the horses the ultimate victims in the ongoing moral tug-of-war between legislators and constituents. It’s a direct consequence of the Georgia Legislature’s unwillingness to establish legalized horse betting in the state. Regrettably, there are no legal avenues to shut the tracks down.
Rancho El Centenario, a bush Georgia horse racing track in Milner, GA, was the focus of the Post’s reporting. It has also canceled all races in the wake of the piece’s publication.
That’s one bit of good news, but the report only reinforces what everyone already knows. Crime metastasizes in the chasm created where legal, fully-regulated horse racing and horse gambling would otherwise be. Without legal arenas to operate, some Georgians have turned to underground tracks lacking safeguards for attendees and race participants alike.
State senator determined to legalize horse racing next session
In the wake of Senate Resolution 131’s failure to advance in the Legislature last session, Georgians were left with no legal options other than out-of-state race tracks to get their horse betting fix. While SR 131 ended up DOA, the resolution’s original sponsor is not giving up.
Speaking to Thoroughbred Daily News, state Sen. Billy Hickman, who also breeds horses, reinforced his desire to bring legal, regulated horse tracks to Georgia.
“I believe we will get this done,” Hickman said. “We are doing a good job trying to educate people. We have three Republican senators who own interests in race horses and another senator who owns an interest in a pinhooking (buying and selling horses) partnership. They are all leaders. They are not underlings. We’re working hard to make this happen.”
Hickman also intends to reintroduce horse racing legislation when the Senate reconvenes in early 2023. He has expressed confidence in the resolution passing on the second go-round. That’s more than welcome news for those who would like to see an end to bush tracks.
Unregulated horse racing provides an environment geared toward generating cash. There’s little to no mind paid to the horses participating in the races. Without an iota of oversight, owners have – and will – do whatever it takes to ensure their horse wins. That was spelled out in the deeply alarming Washington Post exposé.
Without state-sanctioned venues to operate, these underground tracks will continue to flourish at the expense of the animals involved. A renewed sense of urgency to pass legislation legalizing horse racing next session will hopefully put an end to them for good.