Sunday, July 17, 2016
With Saratoga Looming, Something Old and Some New Things
HALLANDALE BEACH, July 17, 2016—From Southern California to the Jersey Shore, and from Kentucky and, as of this weekend, Indiana, all roads are lead to Saratoga for the most consequential summit among three-year-olds of both sexes this year.
It begins next weekend when sensational Songbird, a filly that some, myself included, say is reminiscent of Ruffian, gets her first serious challenge when she meets Carina Mia in the Coaching Club American Oaks.
If all goes well for both, a rematch in the storied mile-and-a-quarter Alabama on August 20 is promised.
The week after--if all goes well in the Haskell Invitational and Jim Dandy--a rematch of Triple Crown achievers Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator would be extraordinary, a few talented new shooters sprinkled in for added interest.
Beyond this, the human races figure to be even more interesting. With Chad Brown having an extraordinary Belmont meeting, you know perennial Saratoga leader Todd Pletcher wants to retain his title.
Interesting here will be the battles between Pletcher’s juveniles vs. Brown’s legion of turf runners. Weather will factor into this, of course. Brown came close last year and with more talented dirt runners in the barn, this could be his year. Both will be going all-in. This rivalry isn’t media-made; it’s real.
With the addition of Florent Geroux and the strong riding of Joel Rosario in New York this year, the jockey battle, always of supreme interest in Saratoga, will be very highly contested.
With Geroux, the country’s leaded graded-stakes rider, joining Rosario, Saratoga titlists Javier Castellano and Johnny Velazquez, the prodigious Ortiz brothers and the emerging Manny Franco, the jockey race will be lively and highly competitive; great for bettors.
Of course, the results will depend on the quality mounts as most trainers have their “go-to” guys and barns can go hot or cold regardless of focus and intent.
Five days and counting but, first, some unfinished business:
Go Right Young Man:
Woodbine’s scheduling of right-handed races is a fascinating experiment, one that ultimately could lead to truly international sport in the years and decades to come.
Of course, racing left to right is how the sport is conducted in many parts of the world, most notably Europe.
However, judging by the one race we witnessed this week, much more experimenting in North American left-handed racing needs to be done. Until then, it would be a bad idea for bettors to get too heavily invested.
Don’t know if it was the nature of the horses—maiden claimers at the distance of 5-1/2 furlongs--or that the turf course undulated midway through the race, but the race was messy. The small field saw many horses bearing out, most likely the product of changing over to a left-footed lead change for the straightaway sprint to the finish.
Just like an appearance at Carnegie Hall, horses will need practice, practice, and more practice.
The tack of working horses “the wrong way” worked wonders for Frosted last year. Greentree, the private training center in Saratoga down Nelson Avenue from the racetrack, was the perfect venue for the experiement.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said at the time that it kept the horse fresher mentally and contributed to improved athletic balance which is good for overall conditioning and health. Think of it as a full-body workout.
If this kind of racing and training proves good for the horse, it will be good for the game. The diversity would be good for bettors, too, having a new handicapping variable to consider.
Some trainers might use these races as conditioners or a pathway to purses, the horses getting a chance to prove they are “left-handed” specialists, in the way that some horses are slop freaks or grass specialists today.
Of course, without a private training track or lighter morning traffic, it could be a logistical nightmare for horses and trainers stabled at racetracks, likely necessitating a fixed time for when horses could work out from right to left, as opposed to mere wrong-way gallops.
As stated, the race we saw had horses not only drift out from the unaccustomed lead change but also bear in after straightening away, in effect not knowing what to do next.
Wherever this experiment goes, Woodbine deserves props for trying something new in a sport that resists change by almost any means necessary.
Woodbine never has been shy when it comes to innovation and we’re happy to report that there are a few racetrack operators still willing to take chances. Good for them; we wish them the best.
In New York, Meaning Well Is Not Enough
: This week the New York Racing Association announced that there would be rule changes affecting payoffs in the Pick 4, Pick 5 and Pick 6 pools starting July 22 in the event of canceled races, rules mandated by the New York State Gaming Commission.
It seems that the NYSGC overthought the issue and were too simplistic and not completely thought-through all at the same time. While the change is easy to understand—canceled races become an ALL-WIN race for every bettor, the solution is neither optimal nor fair.
The why of that is simple: If a bettor has a strong opinion and singles a particular horse, he’s not as well off than a bettor who spread his selections in that same race:
The one who singles gets a consolation prize for that race; the bettor with no opinion who spread gets rewarded for every horse he used. Does that sound equitable?
The NYRA has tried “alternative selections” before, leaving that wagering leg up to the bettor in the event of surface switches and late-late scratches. It was eliminated because it required filling out a special wagering slip and bettors did not take advantage.
But with more sequential wagers available today; bettors’ needs have changed.
As it stands now, post-time scratches will still result in mandatory “post time favorite” substitutions after the betting pool has closed. So what’s beneficial about the new all-win rule? Nothing really at the bottom line.
As we saw happen at Golden Gate, switching the last two turf races to the main track because due to controversial “unsafe” course conditions, bettors who made sizable investments chasing a huge pool were stuck with tiny payoffs resulting in widespread losses.
Now that people bet on self-service screens, or live with a mutuel clerk without the use of “betting slips,” that no longer needs to be the case. There is no argument that technology exists to rectify this dilemma with alternative selections. It’s then on the bettors for not taking advantage.
Of course, writing new code costs money and perhaps the NYSGC doesn’t want to put that cost on the tracks. Fair enough. But if you take from takeout revenues to pay for salaries, why not pay for the new coding that helps the customer? Now that's
something that would be fair and equitable.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, July 06, 2016
“Improvement of the Breed” No Longer Applies to Thoroughbred Racing
Like the author of the following, Dr. Steven A. Roman, creator of the Dosage Index algorithm that measures a sire's pre-potency for passing on his distance racing capability to its offspring, I am not optimistic when it comes to racing's future when measured against real-world materiality.
But what sense does it make to be a horseplayer or, for that matter, the owner of a well-bred two-year-old, if you can't dream a little?
It's in that spirit, in the hope that Roman's long goodbye will resonate with a heretofore unknown guardian angel, one brilliant enough to invent a magic wand so big that it can be waved over 38 horse-racing states and the District of Columbia.
The following remarks are the thoughts of a man who at no time wanted to make racing a profession, but rather it remain an avocation, something to love, see it prosper and endure, enjoyed by a wider audience.
I've written this before but upon leaving the Gulfstream Park walking ring behind the Florida Derby horses this winter as a few thousand fans surveyed the scene, I turned to a track executive and said: "I feel sorry for all the people that don't get it about Thoroughbred racing."
And I still mean that and why I, personally, will not leave the game until someone pulls the remote out of one cold dead hand while I try to bet with the other.
For Roman, his love of the game was enough to apply his science background to pedigree study, and he made a mark. How many others tethered to the horse can say the same with that qualifier?
All in racing who truly love it, and wish it would last forever, please don't raise your hand. Instead, step up and do something crazy; think outside the bottom line, about a long range plan that could work over time.
So. will the racing industry finally act to reverse overall negative perceptions of the game, or is it already too late?
Here, then, Part 2 of Steven Roman's long goodbye to the game...
"Solutions cannot be achieved without difficulty because of the overriding economic interests of those within the industry, but there are things that can be done. The objective, short of eliminating the sport, is to minimize the likelihood of injury and death, accepting that riders have a choice but the horses do not.
"As an industry outsider I have no say in implementing change, but I can have an opinion. An obvious step is the complete elimination of race day medication with severe penalties for violators, up to and including criminal prosecution or a lifetime ban depending on the severity of the infraction. This protects not only the athletes but the interests of the horseplayers as well.
"I've never understood why any transgressions by trainers, owners, riders or veterinarians that could affect the outcome of a race and, consequently, the bankrolls of horseplayers are tolerated at all. Which other gambling outlet permits similar behavior? What would the penalty be if the ownership or staff of a Las Vegas casino was caught cheating? Would it be a slap on the wrist? I doubt it.
"Another even less likely approach is a switch to racing exclusively on grass, a surface well documented to reduce (but unfortunately not eliminate) fatalities and which is the standard racing surface for most of the world. The industry did experiment, generating mixed results, with all-weather synthetic surfaces as a substitute for dirt. In reality, synthetic surfaces are not the same as or even a close approximation to dirt.
"If safety truly was the primary concern a safer surface, turf, already exists. A. F. Carke in American Association Equine Practitioners 55:183-186, 2009 noted that although it appears synthetic surfaces are safer than dirt, when synthetic surfaces replaced turf courses, Fatal Musculoskeletal Injury (FMSI) rates increased, confirming turf as the safest type of surface.
"I personally believe the real motivation behind the introduction of synthetic surfaces was purely economic with increased safety a secondary consideration and good for public relations. The drainage characteristics of synthetic surfaces are supposed to keep them viable under virtually all weather conditions. The desired result? No revenue loss from cancellations due to weather-related problems. And, presumably, although debatable, maintenance costs can be lower as well.
"There may have been marginal improvements in safety with synthetic surfaces, but that may be because they are inherently slower compared to dirt. However, as a trained scientist I found it disturbing that these surfaces were installed and used without any prior long-term studies of their health effects on the horses or the riders.
"Synthetic surfaces are formulated in different ways but generally consist of sand and polymeric materials in fiber form usually modified by the addition of rubber and wax. As the surface particles erode under continual exposure to mechanical effects (e.g., the pounding of horses' hooves, harrowing, etc.) and environmental effects (e.g., heat, sunlight, wind, moisture, etc.) the dust and vapors created are inhaled by horse and rider.
"It's bad enough when the athletes' lungs are exposed to the dust from the breakdown of dirt particles. It's far worse when they are exposed to dust and vapors from eroding synthetic materials and even natural materials that are potentially carcinogenic or may physically damage the respiratory system. Not knowing the long-term effects should be completely unacceptable - but not, apparently, to those who control the game.
"In a changing world, Thoroughbred racing faces other problems affecting its long-term viability. From the wagering side, which is the foundation of the game, the number of competitive threats continues to grow. There are many more options today to throw away one's money. Most of them are a lot easier as well.
"Thoroughbred handicapping, on the other hand, is hard, very hard. The intellectual challenge is enormous and may be its most attractive feature. It's more like chess than checkers, and realistically most are not up to the task. The amount of time, knowledge and discipline required for success is well beyond that which the vast majority is willing to invest or develop.
"When racing was virtually "the only game in town" decades ago, there was limited competition for the wagering and entertainment dollar. Today it's different. A couple of years ago an article by sports columnist Henry D. Fetter in the May 20, 2014 edition of The Atlantic magazine about California Chrome's impending attempt at a Triple Crown noted:
“ ‘Anyone who goes out even to so fabled a racing venue as Santa Anita can readily see how dire the situation has become. Weekday attendance of 15,000 and weekend tallies of 30,000 or even 40,000 that were once routine have dwindled into "crowds" of 2,000 on weekdays and fewer than 10,000 most Saturdays or Sundays, in a facility that was built to host 80,000 or more’.
"Years ago almost everyone who was a contemporary had heard of Seabiscuit, Citation or Secretariat. Not long ago I conducted an informal survey of a dozen or so well-educated American friends with no direct involvement or particular interest in racing but who were current on national and world events. I asked them who Secretariat, Curlin and Zenyatta were. All but one knew who Secretariat was. None knew who Curlin was and only one had even heard of Zenyatta and he thought she was a Derby winner.
"It supported my suspicion that the future of Thoroughbred racing in the United States may be in jeopardy because fewer and fewer people care. Apparently Americans increasingly prefer to watch cars rather than horses race around ovals.
"Then there is the Breeders' Cup, purposely mislabeled as the World Championship of Thoroughbred racing. I recall a conversation with John Gaines, the main driving force behind the Breeders' Cup, in 1983, a year before the event's inauguration. I don't know if he was being forthright or telling me what I wanted to hear, but he said the primary intent of the Breeders' Cup series was to increase interest in Thoroughbred racing and, consequently, grow the fan base.
"If that was truly the intent then by every measure it has been a dismal failure. That's not to say it isn't a great day for wagering and watching high class Thoroughbreds do their thing. It is certainly that. On the downside, it has done absolutely nothing to broaden racing’s appeal.
"The focus on the Breeders' Cup as a singular year-end goal has diminished the significance of many historically important races not the least of which is the former New York Fall Championship series comprised of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (once contested at 2 miles, then a mile and a half and now at a mile and a quarter), the Woodward Stakes (previously at a mile and a quarter and now at a mile and an eighth) and the Suburban Handicap (also previously at a mile and a quarter and now at a mile and an eighth, as well as being demoted to Grade 2 status).
"Today, if a horse doesn't win a Breeders' Cup race its prospects for an Eclipse award are severely compromised unless its prior dominance within its division is absolute. When so much influence is placed on one divisional race it reduces the significance of all the others within it. I consider that an unfortunate development. So there you have it.
"My fading interest in and frustration with American Thoroughbred racing have gotten to the point where the emotional, intellectual and financial rewards are not enough. If I were strictly a handicapper with less emotional investment in the horses themselves I might think differently. Unfortunately, my day-to-day involvement has become more work than pleasure.
"As expressed earlier, my perception (and I reiterate, my perception, not yours) of decreasing quality coupled with less diversity and an industry unable or unwilling to effectively address its most serious issues tells me it's time to go. Sadly, I see no prospect of a trend reversal. Perhaps these issues have always existed and I just wasn't paying attention, or perhaps they have always existed but they were never exposed to the extent they are today.
"Advances in communication have made access to information so much easier. That said, I am reminded of the line from Bob Seger's classic song "Against the Wind": "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then".
"I can summarize my feelings about how much racing has changed with a few of examples of what racing once was and is no longer. On September 28, 1974 at Belmont Park, the great Forego won the mile-and-a-half Woodward Stakes-G1 rallying from 17 lengths behind after the first half mile in a driving finish. Just three weeks later at Aqueduct on October 19 he made an improbable drop back to seven furlongs in the Vosburgh Stakes-G2 and won ridden out under 131 pounds in a time of 1:21.3 giving 13 pounds to runner-up Stop the Music, a very good horse that held the 5 1/2 furlong and one mile dirt records at Belmont Park. Three weeks after that, also at Aqueduct, he won ridden out again making an incredible jump to two miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1.
"In 1974, Forego raced 13 times between February and November including a two-month hiatus. Two years later he won the Marlboro Cup-G1 in one tick over the Belmont mile-and-a-quarter track record defeating that year's Kentucky Derby-G1 winner and eventual three-year-old champion Honest Pleasure while toting 137 pounds and giving 18 pounds to his younger rival.
"In 1956 the equally great Swaps, which had won the Kentucky Derby the year before, raced nine times. In those nine races he set six track records by two, five, five, seven, eight and 12 ticks, and matched another. The distances were a flat mile, a mile-and-seventy yards, a mile-and-a-sixteenth, a mile-and-and-eighth, a mile-and-a-quarter and a mile-and-five sixteenths. The new records were established across the country at Gulfstream Park in Florida, Washington Park in Illinois and Hollywood Park in California. On seven occasions that year, Swaps carried 130 pounds.
"Finally, there was Round Table which, in a four-year career during the late 1950s, won 43 of 66 starts with eight seconds and five thirds at 15 different tracks from coast to coast, set 15 track and course records and won 17 times under 130 to 136 pounds. These are the kinds of horses and performances I miss, haven't seen in years and almost certainly never will see again.
"I've always felt it is a difficult thing to love both horses and horse racing. It's something I've struggled with for a very long time and it's a position I have expressed to friends and on various racing forums through the years. A very recent event will help clarify my feelings.
"On May 21 of this year at Pimlico, Preakness day, the winner of the first race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth starter allowance race on the dirt, was a nine-year-old gelding named Homeboykris. In 2009, Homeboykris won the Champagne Stakes (G1) as a two-year-old. He was subsequently ranked at 117 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap, the 11th highest rated juvenile colt or gelding of his year.
"But on the way back to the barn after the Pimlico race he collapsed and died. As recently as last December, in his 60th lifetime start, he was claimed for $5,000, his eighth claim in four years. I fully understand that racing is a business, but to me this unnecessary situation (and many others like it) are unacceptable. Homeboykris won over a half million dollars and was among the best of his generation as a youngster. How is it possible that a horse like this was allowed to keep racing for so long while continually descending the class ladder to such an extent?
"Some of you will understand the point I am trying to make. Others may not. This tragedy has special meaning to me because I had recommended Homeboykris as a potential purchase for a client following his maiden win at Calder. Having spent so many earlier years connected to horses at a personal level, and independently of their exploitation for profit, I have belatedly come down on the side of the horse.
"[Dosage followers can rest assured that the subject has been left in the more than capable hands of Mr. Steve Miller, my long-standing UK associate whose expertise extends well beyond pedigree evaluation. Steve is an author, correspondent, columnist and analyst. He has also been a Thoroughbred owner and has written on horse racing for the Sporting Life, Racing Post, Pacemaker & Thoroughbred Breeder, the Blood-Horse and Raceform and Timeform publications. His academic interests are in Art, Theology and Science].
"In retrospect, I believe we have made some valuable contributions to our understanding of Thoroughbred pedigrees. We have confirmed Vuillier's original hypothesis that the aptitudinal evolution of the Thoroughbred can be adequately expressed through the influence of a very small number of the stallions at stud in any era. We have developed statistical tools that allow us to monitor the evolution of Thoroughbred speed over time, clearly confirming the continuous shift away from stamina. And we have shown that the patterns of inherited prepotent speed found in pedigrees correlate in a statistically significant way with performance characteristics on the track for large populations.
"We have also tried to broaden our understanding of speed figure methodology by shifting the emphasis away from final time to the notion of total energy expenditure while intimately incorporating pace into the figure calculation. And at all times we have tried to present original and current data that the owner, breeder and horseplayer would find valuable. Hopefully our efforts have been useful to some.
"My biggest regret is not having been able to properly frame the connection between Dosage and the American classics, a failure that has tarnished Dosage theory for many despite the fact that the classics were just a minor component of the research. The original observation made in 1981 that no Derby winner since at least 1940 had a DI over 4.00 was immediately misinterpreted by the turf media led by Andrew Beyer and others as a declaration that no horse with a DI over 4.00 could win the Derby. That's the erroneous message a lot of people took away and it is a misperception that persists even to this day.
"Earlier, in the original Daily Racing Form series on Dosage, we had highlighted the increase in inherited speed in Thoroughbred pedigrees over time as reflected in increasing DIs among divisional champions since the 1940s. Projecting ahead and assuming no dramatic shift in breeding patterns it was clear that the DI 4.00 Kentucky Derby guideline figure was relevant only to that era… The current trend line suggests that in the absence of a dramatic shift in breeding direction, we could expect half of all Derby winners to have DIs over 4.00 within the next decade. More Derby winners with high DIs were predicted 35 years ago but the prediction was ignored by a lazy or uninformed turf media.
"Beyond just the DI “inflation” factor there is the further statistical correlation between the DI of the Derby winners and their performance in the premier American classic, as alluded to earlier. Ironically, it is Beyer’s own data that confirm a decrease in the quality of performance with increased speed in the winner’s pedigree, captured in the final chart below displaying the relationship between the Derby winner Beyer Speed Figure and its DI.
"In fact, the average BSF of the Derby winners since 1991 with DI less than 2.00 is 110.2 while the average BSF for the Derby winners with DI over 4.00 is 105.3, a difference of up to four lengths on the Beyer beaten lengths scale at 10 furlongs. Additionally, the difference is statistically significant whether we use the DI at the time of the race or after any changes made since then by the addition of new chefs-de-race. This concept, as well, never made it into the public consciousness.
"In conclusion, I want to thank the supporters of the chef-de-race web site and of my research for their interest over the years. I wish them and their families all the best. Stay well and good-bye."
Written by John Pricci
Sunday, July 03, 2016
Independence Day: A Selfless Fan Practitioner Is Leaving the Sport for Good
I met Steven Roman, a scientist with a passion for Thoroughbred racing who closely examined how pedigree can shape the destiny of young horses seeking to become next year’s Kentucky Derby champion, as a fellow participant at the first-ever Handicapping Expo in Los Angeles decades ago.
I enthusiastically embraced his research and learned to understand how a sire’s aptitude for getting stout horses on the first Saturday of every May and beyond via his Dosage Index algorithm. I found it fascinating, a useful tool that would help answer an age-old question.
On his website last month, http://www.chef-de-race.com, Roman revealed that he is ending his association with Thoroughbred racing, sharing his complete thought-process for the decision and taking nearly 5,000 words to do so. When the financial arrangement with his server provider lapses, the site will go dark for good.
We’re reprinting his long goodbye here in two parts, today and Wednesday, editing for context and brevity. The purpose of anything we do here at HRI is viewed hyper-critically in the eyes of the industry. We all are trying to leave the game it a better place and that takes tough love. We don’t exist to create sensational headlines.
Our persistence is not an attempt to restore the game to its former glory. That’s way above my pay grade and, seemingly, above those who control racing’s destiny, from the boardrooms to the backstretch of America’s racetracks. I don’t consider myself--nor do I wish to be regarded as--a prophet of doom.
But do know this: If Roman’s words don’t resonate with all the practitioners who are tethered to the Thoroughbred, at this exact moment in time, then nothing ever will and the sport is in a far worse place than anyone can imagine. Every individual needs to serve the long range health of the sport and take action now. Racing’s present needs it; racing’s future demands it.
As my former boss at the New York Racing Association, Media Relations Vice-President Pat Lynch said to me nearly five decades ago: “This game’s been studied to death.” Sadly, that's true today yet the same basic problems still persist. Who does the industry thinks it's fooling?
Like climate change, the situation is dire, one that calls for dramatic action now. Lamentably, it already may be too late. If the industry can lose a man who once was as passionate about the sport as Steven Roman was then we’re truly at a tipping point. The following is Dr. Roman’s farewell address:
“I am ending my association with Thoroughbred racing. The web site will no longer be updated. The content will remain available until the current contract with my web host lapses sometime in 1Q 2017, after which the site will go dark. Until then, any and all of the information at the site will be freely available.
“My interest in American racing has been waning for quite some time and I had hinted at my departure to friends as far back as three years ago. After 60 years, initially as a youthful racing fan, then as a hands-on owner, breeder and caretaker of pleasure horses and finally as an active participant on the racing side, the rewards of the sport that once were motivational and inspiring are mostly gone.
“My perception of a decline in the quality and diversity of American Thoroughbred racing along with the industry's continual (and, I believe, intentional) inability to deal effectively with the abusive nature of the game has taken its toll. American racing's ongoing decline is real and I am not alone in this view. A simple Google search will return many links to web pages suggesting the same.
“I'm not retiring because “retiring” implies an end to a job or career... For me Thoroughbred racing always has been an avocation. I've never been directly involved in the industry… I was content to enjoy the thrills and excitement of the sport while remaining an outside observer. Now it's coming to an end quite simply because I would prefer to spend my time doing other things.
“I've never relied on racing to make a living. If I had, perhaps my views would be more mainstream and similar to those of people actively working in the industry and whose income depends on maintaining or at best tweaking the status quo. That's not who I am as you will see.
“By training and inclination I am a physical scientist with advanced degrees in chemistry, and as the author of over 60 U.S. patents and peer-reviewed journal publications I know a bit about scientific method. I trained with a Nobel Prize winner and for many years I managed a world-class exploratory chemistry research group, was involved in university technology acquisition and participated in strategic planning for an international chemical company.
“I have extensive research and development experience in agricultural, animal health and industrial chemistry. It is this expertise, training and academic discipline that I have continuously applied to my research into the relationship between Thoroughbred pedigrees and on-track performance.
“I was a hands-on owner, breeder and early-stage trainer of Morgan and half-Morgan show and pleasure horses long before I became actively involved in Thoroughbred racing. I fed them, groomed them, played with them, tended to their ailments and pretty much hung out with them on a daily basis for 35 years until leaving the U.S. in 2004. I cared for a few retired race horses as well. So I also know something about the mind and body of the horse.
“Our opinions and values are shaped and developed largely by our life experiences. Since those experiences are unique to the individual I have no expectation the opinions and values of others will necessarily agree with mine. And that's fine. It's how it should be. Our differences are what make life interesting…Our experiences entitle us to our own understanding of the truth.
“Native Dancer was the first Thoroughbred I ever saw race. The "Gray Ghost of Sagamore" became TV's first Thoroughbred superstar. Watching him finish second in the 1953 Kentucky Derby in his only career loss was devastating to an impressionable youngster. Despite the disappointment, I was hooked. My love affair with the horse had begun.
“Looking back I am fortunate to have seen many of the great Thoroughbreds that followed. I recall the excitement of watching Swaps, Nashua, Round Table and Ribot in the 1950s; Kelso, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser and Sea Bird II in the 1960s and, of course, Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Brigadier Gerard in the 1970s. Then I sensed a change.
“Good American horses still came along on a regular basis but none, at least for me, generated the magic of those earlier years until Ghostzapper appeared in the first decade of the new century. There really haven’t been any since, although I have enjoyed a few such as Rachel Alexandra and California Chrome. Lest the reader think that I'm blinded by nostalgia, consider that the best colt and the best filly I have ever seen over seven decades both raced within the last half dozen years.
“However, neither one was American-bred and neither one was American-raced. Some latter day American horses have been prematurely proclaimed as racing's next saviors, the horses that will rekindle fan interest and return the game to its glory days. It has never happened and it never will. The slow decline of racing in the U.S. has been ongoing for years and if Secretariat couldn't reverse the trend, I doubt any individual horse ever can.
“There are parallels between the trajectories of Thoroughbred racing and professional boxing. From the 1940s and into the 1960s boxing reached its zenith of popularity when the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was one TV's most successful series, bringing the best of boxing into millions of homes every Friday night. A short time later Muhammad Ali came along and his skills transcended those of all who came before. One could even argue that Secretariat was racing's Muhammad Ali.
“Then boxing changed. People's tastes changed. Why the public began to view boxing as excessively violent and corrupt is worthy of discussion but is not the point. What is the point is that our perceptions of the sport did change and that over time it lost favor with the general public even if retaining a hardcore base of followers.
“The American public seemingly has developed a similar attitude toward Thoroughbred racing. A growing number believe it is cruel and dishonest. This belief is continually reinforced when a prominent horse dies on the track or a well-known trainer or jockey is accused of cheating. I would argue that boxing's and racing's decline is the direct result of the respective industry's policies and internal activities.
“True latter day giants of the turf are becoming rarer as Thoroughbred racing has moved in a direction that has failed to sustain public interest. Today we are feeling the effects of Thoroughbred racing's persistent shift toward breeding for speed and early maturity in the hope of quick returns on investment. Since the 1980s the annual percentage of major North American stakes races contested beyond a mile-and-an-eighth on dirt has fallen dramatically. In 1987 there were over 50 major stakes races on dirt beyond nine furlongs. The leading horses among the winners were Alysheba, Bet Twice, Broad Brush, Creme Fraiche, Ferdinand, Java Gold, Personal Ensign and Snow Chief.
“In 2015 there were about half as many such races. The best horses included American Pharoah, Beholder, Shared Belief and Tonalist, hardly a comparable group in my opinion. For me, racing today is less diverse and less interesting. The emphasis on speed is reflected in the evaluations of classic races produced by many of the organizations that generate such ratings. For example, when Daily Racing Form's Beyer Speed Figures for American classic races are plotted by year, the trend line shows that the typical figure for the winners of those races has fallen from 111 in 1990 to 103 in 2015.
“Similarly, Equibase speed figures have fallen from 115 to 109 over the same time frame. My own Performance Figures (PFs) reflect an identical pattern, falling from -65 in 1997 to -56 in 2015. Even the Racing Post in the UK has noted a decline in their trend figures for the Kentucky Derby from about 123 in 1997 to about 120 in 2015. Horses, with some exceptions, apparently are winning the American classics at lower levels of quality than expressed two, three and four decades ago.
“It shouldn't be a surprise considering how excessive speed in a pedigree limits ability over a classic distance. This seems like the wrong direction for a sport that promotes classic racing as the ideal. It is not a coincidence that no major American record on dirt beyond a sprint distance has been broken in almost 30 years, while records at 5 1/2, 6 and 6 1/2 furlongs all have been set since 2009.
“As only an occasional recreational horseplayer…I don't really know how the trend toward ever-increasing speed affects the side of the game that supports and sustains it --betting. And as a casual and infrequent horseplayer, the wagering part of the game isn't nearly enough to keep me involved.
“There is another component of the sport that does impact the wagering side and that is the seemingly indiscriminate use of medication, both legal and illegal. The industry, clearly driven by short-term motives, has failed to properly address this serious issue even though many racing venues outside the United States seem to thrive while exercising strict control over the use of drugs.
“There is no convincing explanation as to why horses in the United States routinely race on Lasix and/or Bute while horses in other parts of the world do not. Apart from the potentially damaging long-term physiological effects of any pharmaceutical, their application could be considered abusive to the extent such drugs mask physical deficiencies that in their absence would preclude the horse from being able to race effectively if at all. Yet we still hear the argument that such drugs are not performance enhancing.
“That may be strictly true in that they don't allow a horse to run faster than it is physically capable of running. However, they undeniably enable physically compromised horses to run that probably shouldn't be running in the first place. I would consider that performance-enhancing in the broadest sense. It's a virtual certainty that the overuse of race day medication contributes to injuries and fatalities on the track. Yet it appears that the quest for short-term profitability inhibits any serious attempt to find a meaningful solution.
“Because of this economically-driven, self-induced paralysis we are continually subjected to the infuriating and obscene meme following any on-track fatality that "it's sad but it's part of the game." We've all heard this reprehensible comment even from the most successful trainers, riders and owners. In my opinion such comments are a disgrace and reflect poorly on those who make them. I doubt they would make similar statements about high school football.
“I guess in the end most people either don't really care or are in denial. It's also likely they are unaware of the Associated Press study conducted almost a decade ago that identified at least 5,000 track-related horse fatalities in the U.S. between 2003 and 2008, an average of about three per day. [Those statistics have improved but] I'm as guilty as anyone who tolerates these activities without protest.”
Part 2, Wednesday: Does the Industry Care Enough to Change the Way It Conducts Business?
Written by John Pricci