In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: A crabby savoir for the parimutuels

Old (slightly crabby) Jim Morgan, who races more animals on a weekend than most trainers run over a lifetime, could be the last, best hope for Florida’s faltering parimutuel industry.

Goodness knows, the parimutuels need help. The public, judging from dwindling attendance figures, has gotten bored watching horses and dogs scurrying around a big dirt oval.

And the gambling conglomerates that hold parimutuel licenses have made it clear that they’d just as soon take the race out of racino. They’re much more invested in slot machines or video gambling terminals or poker tables and other, more profitable games. Racing dogs and horses, along with their pricey accoutrements — jockeys, trainers, stable boys, vets and track maintenance crews — have become no more than expensive nuisances to the gambling economy. Gaming corporations would rather shovel poker chips than horse manure.

But there’s no getting around the legal obligations that come with state parimutuel licenses. Racinos can’t offer poker and those lucrative, hypnotic, highly addictive slot machines without the pretense that they’re all about racing. Some kind of racing, anyway. Obviously, they need something cheaper than thoroughbred horses. Or even quarter horses. Something less highfalutin. They need Jim Morgan, commissioner of the National Crab Racing Association.

Officially, that’s Commissioner For Life Jim Morgan, a self-appointed title “thereby ensuring that no one could vote him out of office.” Morgan has been staging derbies among decapod crustaceans, better known as hermit crabs, since 1979. He claims to have invented the sport, though I recall a fine beery evening, circa 1976, in a dank and rowdy Key West bar, betting a woman in a red halter top on the outcome of a table-top hermit crab race. (I lost the wager but the evening was considerably more memorable than any afternoon I’ve wasted at the horse track.)

The superior economics of racing Caribbean hermit crabs, aka Coenobita clypeatus, are beyond dispute. Commissioner Morgan, of Indialantic, buys them, in bulk, out of Haiti (Where, he points out to animal rights protesters, his crabs would most likely be gobbled up by sea gulls if they hadn’t opted for the U.S. racing circuit.) Morgan claims to be the world’s largest importer of hermit crabs. Mostly because they’re cheap. He can buy 11,000 crabs for what a single thoroughbred yearling brings at a horse auction.

Plus, hermit crabs, not nearly so picky about dinner as their four-legged rivals, are happy enough to chow down on a clump of green algae.

They’re very portable. Morgan travels to racing venues, mostly seaside tourist dives, with anywhere from 80 to 100 crabs. And crab racing is so much more personal than the those supercilious quadruped events. A bettor picks his own personal, numbered crab, each creature lugging around a distinctive, garish tricked-out snail shell. “That’s their baby for the evening,” Morgan explained. “They get to name it. They get to sit down and holler at it.”

At race time, Morgan lifts a lid off a pile of contestants and they (hopefully) radiate outward toward a circular finish line. Lately, he has gone high tech, introducing the crab cam for folks unable to belly up to the race table for a firsthand look. It’s the same technology that will accommodate simulcasts, once this stuff goes international.

The state’s recent outlawing of storefront casinos has made Morgan a little wary about discussing the gambling aspects of crab racing. “This is a skill sport,” he insisted, echoing the very legal argument that failed the now outlawed senior citizen arcades. (The rather esoteric skill here apparently has to do with a bettor’s ability to choose the feistiest racer.) Morgan admits he was cited a few times on gambling charges in Ohio, though he said he beat the rap every time.

Obviously the gaming industry, with such formidable legal and lobbying resources, could convince (grease) state regulators in Tallahassee to legalize crab racing. Although, last week, another novel variation on parimutuel racing was dealt a setback.

An administrative law judge ruled Monday that barrel racing was not quite what legislators had in mind when they legalized thoroughbred and quarter horse races. Two years ago, a new racing venue in Gretna, in north Florida, decided to forgo the expense of quarter horse racing and substitute much cheaper barrel racing — an old rodeo sport in which the horse and rider rush out, loop around three barrels, then hurry back to the finish line. Winners are determined by the lowest time — it’s a race against the clock — though Gretna runs two races simultaneously to lend the spectacle the illusion of head-to-head competition.

That won’t do, ruled Judge John Van Landingham as he overruled the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s approval of barrel racing. Not if “the clock alone can decide the winner.” He said that for the contests to comply with state statures, “there can be but one race course, per race, for all of the horses in that race.”

Which gives some hope for those of us supporting hermit crab racing, which unlike barrel racing, runs all contestants, 80 or 90 at a time, in a single contest on a single table. Nobody in those rowdy environs would bother keeping time. Hell, some of these crabs never budge from the starting gate.

The case also caused the judge to ponder the legal definition of a quarter horse. Apparently, they run another species up there in Gadsden County’s barrel races — cracker horses. I have no idea what entails a “cracker horse,” but from what I know of Florida’s human “crackers,” it can’t be all that far up the rungs of the evolutionary ladder from the crustacean.

The best thing about hermit crab racing is that it would afford Florida some distance from the doping horrors plaguing U.S. horse racing. The New York Times reported last fall that an average of 24 horses a week died at U.S. tracks, most of them breaking down after inhumane doses of performance enhancing drugs. The most grotesque marker of the doping scandal came last year when European meat importers stopped buying horses slaughtered in America because the meat was often so drug-tainted that it was considered unsafe for human consumption..

That’s about all I needed to know to give up on American horse racing. Crab racing, Morgan assured me, is drug free. “I used to do urine tests, but that was pretty messy,” he said. “Now I do saliva tests. My crabs are clean.”

For all that, he wasn’t much excited by my notion of crab racing as the future of parimutuel racing. “I’m 71,” he said. “I don’t have that much future left.”

And he’s a little antsy about introducing high rollers to crustacean racing. “I don’t know. One of these guys bets a thousand dollars on a slow-moving crab, I’m liable to get my ass shot off.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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