Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“Baffert-Gate,” Just Another Sad Chapter

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 16, 2013—The news from California is very bad on several levels, disheartening to those who love the game and love the animals and unnerving, too, considering how it’s all juxtaposed to what Derby week media coverage might bring.

In relation to the Lasix issue which has to this point only tangential implications with respect to the heart attacks polemic at Southern California racetracks, HRI has counseled that public perception matters and that the industry should pro-act before another tragedy shuts the whole thing down.

Then I remembered: There is no industry per se, just states that permit parimutuel horse racing for which they get a piece of the action. The only thing any national racing organizations do is create jobs for themselves, wielding no influence and having no impact on how day-to-day racing business is conducted.

Until the “me” portion of the industry turns into the “we” portion of the program, there will be continued adherence to the status quo, the reason why all these chickens have been coming home to roost in greater number lately.

In the wake of doom-and-gloom, I prefer a proactive response to the cover-up but it’s clear that I and other like-minded people are the clear cut minority. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

As to the spate in cardiac related deaths over the past few years in California, no one can truly offer a valid opinion until more facts are known. Unfortunately, I have no confidence that more facts will be forthcoming. I have seen these PPs before.

Thoroughbred racing, like other big businesses and politicians, knows how to play the wait ’em-out-till-they-forget game, indeed proving that some of the people can be fooled some of the time.

Whatever the cause of these sudden equine deaths, whoever the culprit, this was not what Hall of Fame California horseman Ron McAnally meant when he said of the Thoroughbred race horse that “they give their lives for our pleasure.”

Those words were spoken in the emotional wake of the Go for Wand tragedy on a Breeders’ Cup afternoon at Belmont Park when, in the often crude language of the racetrack, one equine put so much heat on a rival that it would buckle under pressure.

Parenthetically, it was no different with Ruffian, or with Eight Belles, also females that tried so hard that their limbs couldn’t hold them. But unlike those examples, five of seven cardiac-related deaths from one barn came during training hours, not during the stress of play-for-pay action.

It may be impolitic to judge without having all the facts but it would be irresponsible and inappropriate not to speculate based on circumstances. From where we sit, these cardiac related deaths are a possible indictment of not only individuals but the whole way the game is administered. It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the California state line.

Empirical information is damning. Whether the number of deaths spiked the last several years are irrelevant: There were 20 two years ago, 19 last year and 17 this year, likely higher because 2013 cardiac deaths will not be listed until the fiscal year ends.

For openers, why this data is not made public as soon as the cause of death is determined is a failed administrative policy. Whether or not Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is too big to fail may be a matter for the state to decide.

The industry cannot allow these deaths to go without consequence and it is unknown whether anyone in California racing circles has the courage to go wherever the findings might take them. To this point, the California Horse Racing Board at best has acted questionably.

Horse racing doesn’t want government involvement but its devotion to the status quo will someday end the game as we know it because people outside the sport will call on the feds to shut it down.

Common sense dictates that seven cardiac-related deaths from one barn in 18 months, five during training hours, is way beyond the pale. Horsemen interviewed by myself and others are warily suspicious to say the least, their observations going beyond the usual competitive jealousy. The animal is at the heartbeat of this way of life.

What is problematic has been the public deference shown toward Mr. Baffert by CHRB members one day before--through a public relations firm and on the advice of counsel-- he would issue the ill-considered “personally troubling” statement.

The fact that Commissioner Bo Derek reportedly would allow herself to be seen publicly with the trainer just before a CHRB meeting that was to review this matter was ill-advised at best. The idea that Chairman David Israel would be seen publicly with the target of an inquiry in his clubhouse box is thoughtless, arrogant or both.

And to have Dr. Rick Arthur walk back his remarks of the previous day regarding a “spike” in the number of cardiac deaths might be the most egregious insult to anyone’s intelligence with interest in this matter.

Further, what were trace elements of rat poison, reportedly not the same kind used by the tracks to combat rodent problems, doing in the stricken horses that died showing disparate symptoms that led to the cardiac-related deaths? Is blood doping an issue?

In his press release, Baffert noted that Derek and Arthur “made it clear that nothing I have done has caused any horse I have trained to suffer equine sudden death syndrome.” Clear to whom? If that’s an acquittal then why does he continue to work “with everyone…to find the causes of the unexplained deaths.”

In summary, Baffert’s statement read “I hope that research by the CHRB and its pathologists will discover information helpful to understanding the reasons that I, and many of my colleagues, have had horses suffer this unfortunate fate.”

Yet to date he has failed to submit veterinary records of the deceased horses to researchers performing post-mortem tests on stricken horses because in California there is no requirement to do so.

According to the Paulick Report, California horsemen have opposed an amendment to the necropsy program. Objecting were the Southern California Equine Foundation, representing veterinarians, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, who would capitulate only to a blind study for fear that specific inquiries would lead to a possible witch hunt.

Alas, when all else fails, obfuscate the real issues by striving for perfection, the enemy of the good.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In the Great Lasix Debate, the HBPA Proves Too Big To Fail

April 9, 2013, South Ozone Park--When it comes to the policy reversal governing the conduct of its 2013 event with respect to the use of raceday Lasix, one can hardly blame the Breeders’ Cup for being pragmatic and reversing field.

After all, hasn’t everyone?

First, the Association of Racing Commissioners cut bait a few years ago on the raceday ban although, to its credit, it did ramp up efforts to establish a uniform set of rules—so long as raceday prohibition of Lasix was not part of the mission.

About the same time, the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders of America was on board with the view that graded status would be removed from juvenile stakes not run medication free.

It sounded like a good idea at the time but later was jettisoned.

Of course, the GSC determines which races are the country’s most important, giving those events Grade 1 status. Win those races and your stud horse or broodmare is a lot more valuable, virtually overnight.

Last year the Committee was prepared to deny graded standing to any stakes in which raceday Lasix was permitted. A few months later it contracted a case of the never-minds.

The Jockey Club, the organization that verifies all the sport’s equine athletes to be Thoroughbreds, also capitulated, a reversal that was a decisive blow to raceday Lasix abolitionists.

The Jockey Club’s new guidelines define how and when legal therapeutics can be administered; a key element in the uniformity process. The tradeoff was taking the raceday Lasix ban off the current table. The organization remains on record as still supporting the raceday Lasix embargo, but their actions spoke at a much higher volume.

While in no way is any of this comparable, but doesn’t it seem analogous to Congress saying that it recognizes the will of the people [read bettors] but ultimately would filibuster the issue rather than vote a sensible measure into law.

At a Breeders’ Cup board meeting this winter at Gulfstream Park, the raceday Lasix ban began to unravel. The first news to emerge from that summit was that there was no news, until finally it was decided only the juvenile ban would stand and that the Juvenile Sprint was history.

Given the abdication of previously stated goals of the ARCI, TOBA’s Graded Stakes Committee and the Jockey Club, coupled with a threat to boycott the Lasix-free entry box, the Breeders’ Cup cave-in was inevitable.

And if any of the above wasn’t enough, prominent owners threatened to file suit challenging Breeders’ Cup’s authority to change California’s medication policies, while a few high profile trainers lobbied for raceday Lasix with friendly media willing to provide an unchallenged setting.

At that point, the pressure on Breeders’ Cup had reached a boiling point.

The predictable pushback from horsemen and unsuccessful abolitionist lobbying were not the only reasons Breeders’ Cup wilted under the burden of all this weight.

Ultimately, It came down to what it always comes down to in this or any industry; Benjamins. There’s just no time, money or willingness to take the long view of what’s best for the sport, not when the game’s 2% wield all the power and influence.

And it’s a difficult sell given the reality that field size would shrink and handle suffer.

Last year field size and handle for five juvenile races was down by over 20%. Breeders’ Cup economists projected that a total Lasix would cost the company a minimum of $5 million.

That kind of loss for a company whose nominations’ revenue was down significantly, coupled with falling handle, would not be sustainable.

Maybe the Lasix issue is one reason why there’s been a delay in recent years to name future sites in advance. What if Lasix exploded in the same manner anabolic steroids did in the wake of Big Brown’s Belmont?

Resultantly, would states enact their own Lasix bans because of negative publicity and public relations?

Kentucky tried to make progress in this area but was undercut by the Kentucky division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. From that point forward, dominoes began to fall.

There has been pressure from outliers as well. Great Britain is getting into fall action more meaningfully with a new meet in October. Will that siphon runners away from Breeders’ Cup?

And what will prove to be the significance of the strategic partnership between China and Dubai? Recall that Darley representative Oliver Tait resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board due to the Lasix policy change.

Of course, Darley is the nursery of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum who recently lauded the new agreement saying that China will be a great addition to the international racing scene and a major player.

That was around the same time he stated that the UAE conducts the world’s best racing.

Provincial pride notwithstanding, international racing seems to be trending away from America and its “world championships,” mostly because it believes that world class international sport and raceday Lasix are mutually exclusive.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Racing Hall of Fame Vote: Guilty As Charged

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 26, 2013---It shouldn’t be this way but I often dread the Hall of Fame ballot I receive each year. No matter what criterion I choose, I’m always uneasy after responding.

Must be the Catholic guilt thing.

The “problem” is that inclusion into racing’s pantheon is largely a matter of perception. So when ballots arrive, it’s a matter of delineating one potential immortal from the next. No one knows better than a professional handicapper what an inexact science assigning values to horses and horsemen can be.

It would serve voters well if there were some objective standard against which subjective opinions could be measured. Indeed, Hall Of Fame ballots are sent to people that have made a life’s work out of horse racing. And if “professionals” aren’t qualified to judge, then who?

Not having some objective standard makes it easier for voters to be swayed by prejudice; politics, region, personal relationships good or bad.

Sometimes people can be in racing their entire lives and their opinions never improve, which is why the combined wisdom of the many that comprise a consensus is often better than singular opinions, no matter how well informed.

A suggestion for the appropriate Hall of Fame committee: In the stat package that goes with each year’s nominees might be included some bellwether statistics. For instance, what is the average number of races won by a Hall of Fame jockey? Does the average Hall of Fame horse win 70 percent of its starts? If nothing else, stuff like this would be interesting to know.

For years, there was some rancor among voters with respect to how votes determined inclusion. A number of years back there was the “75%” rule, when that percentage needed to be attainedfor inclusion.

Then came a time when nominees were listed by category; male and female horses, jockeys, trainers. So what happens if there are three great fillies, but no jockey you believed to be an immortal? What to do?

For the last four years, voters have been submitted a list of candidates from which to choose. There are 10, including five jockeys, four horses and one traine this year. Vote for any--or all--10 nominees and the four highest vote getters are elected regardless of category. In the event of a tie, both individuals are in.

This would be irksome if you believed that all 10 merit inclusion; since a vote for all would be the equivalent of a vote for none. So, in the end, it does come down to the personal smell test.

Now, do we judge Chris Antley for his on-track performances or his off-track demons? This is an easy one for me. I invoke the Ty Cobb rule; it’s what happens inside the lines that matter--no bad pun intended.

A winning rate of 18 percent on major circuits from coast to coast without a super-trainer’s support is worthy of special merit. Becoming the first rider to win nine races in a day, and winning a DiMaggio-like 64 races on consecutive days are immortal achievements. Two Derbies and a Preakness among 3,480 career victorie don't hurt.

Now that Calvin Borel has reached the 5,000-win career plateau to add to his three Derby victories in a four-year span, isn't he an immortal? Only three riders have won the Derby more than thrice and Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Willie Shoemaker have their place in Saratoga. Calvin was, of course, Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra’s regular partner and has won riding titles at seven different tracks in Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky.

Lure, 14-for-25 overall, was the first horse to earn repeat wins in the Breeders’ Cup (Mile), nine graded stakes overall on turf and dirt including four Grade 1s often carrying high weight in handicaps. He was a dominant miler on either surface.

I was set disparage Invasor because of an insufficient body of work but a record that includes 11 victories in 12 lifetime starts, nine of them Grade 1, the Uruguayan Triple Crown, and a Horse of the Year title in an American campaign debut is impossible to knock.

Housebuster won 15 of 22 career starts including 11 graded stakes and three Grade 1s. He was the first horse in over a quarter-century to repeat as Champion Sprinter. As a 3-year-old, he lost the Metropolitan Mile to Horse of the Year Criminal Type by a neck, finishing a length and a half in front of future Hall of Famer Easy Goer.

Ashado won 12 of 21 lifetime starts, seven Grade 1 stakes, and was the repeat Filly Champion of 2004-05, winning her first at 3 after defeating older in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Trainer Gary Jones retired after winning 1,465 races at a worthy rate of 18.5 percent, taking 17% of the graded stakes he entered. Based in California, Jones had a national reputation after developing the champion careers of Turkoman, Best Pal, and the popular win machine Meafara, a top class filly sprinter.

Garrett Gomez, Alex Solis and Craig Perret are not unworthy. Just didn’t want to “punish” the seven listed above. If there is a better alternative to the current system I don’t know what it is. Wish I did.

Written by John Pricci

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