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.