Monday, August 20, 2012

New York State Needs to Get This One Right

August 19, 2012—Travers week has officially arrived and the buzz all around town is not about whether Kiaran McLaughlin will be the first trainer since Carl Nafzger to sweep the Alabama-Travers double [Lady Joanne and Street Sense in 2007].

Nor is it about whether the Travers colts can run as fast as Alabama heroine Questing: one and one-quarter miles in 2:01.69. (We're taking 'over' the total).

Instead, this is the Saratoga meet where sport has played a subordinate role to politics and New York racing’s future--that is if the present Governor will allow Thoroughbred racing to have a future as we’ve known it and, if he does, what that future would look like.

The big question re all that is who will handle the reins, who will be chosen to right a ship that has been listing since the NYRA’s former management ignored the sun-setting of a takeout provision that cost horseplayers across the country $8.5 million.

And if Mr. Cuomo someday decides to cut off the VLT largesse because machines don’t have families, don’t need health care, and don’t need a pension for the day they just can’t do it anymore, what then?

That is the day when all that is left in the horseplayer, the most underappreciated, taken-for-granted and, at times, abused customer any going concern ever had.

Who will remain on the job at the New York Racing Association after the state-loaded Board of Trustees is named is anyone’s guess. One would have to think that NYRA staffers, at least, are safe. They're the ones who
show up every day and put on the show, even on dark days.

The New York Racing Association has been on automatic pilot for some time, even before the top executives were terminated. Without the racing office, officials, administrators of every stripe, and the horsemen that have remained loyal to New York racing throughout, this show would not have gone on.

As an official said to me the other day, “the ship might veer off course a little from time to time, but the crew is still down in the engine room working.”

Sadly and expectedly, politicians should have kept their mouths closed rather than open them and remove all doubt that on matters pertaining to racing they’re in over their heads.

Assemblyman J. Gary Pretlow has been serving New Yorkers from the 87th district for 20 years. Laudably, he was the author “Cynthia’s Law,” which established that reckless assault of a child should be a class D felony. The measure also raised awareness for shaken baby syndrome. This is what public serice should be about.

But as the Chair of the Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee, his role has been passive. Recently, Mr. Pretlow came to the defense of acting NYRA President Ellen McClain, stating that she’s getting a “bad deal” from the shakeup expected to take place at meet’s end.

Ms. McClain has excellent credentials in the business community and was hired as NYRA’s Chief Financial Officer. She should return to that post when changes finally are made. When it comes to the demands placed on a racetrack CEO, she is out of her element and overmatched.

Mr. Pretlow, racing is not a business in which a top-class manager can show up, surround himself with the best talent available, then make the right decisions that not only affect the bottom line but the lives of thousands of extended members of this state’s huge racing family.

Everything that happens on the racetrack, whether it occurs on the backside or the front-side, is in lockstep with everything else. Wagering is not the only area where the term commingling applies.

Do I have any special knowledge about who will take the reins? No, but I hear rumors like anyone else. As for former President Charlie Hayward’s replacement, the names heard most often are Lou Raffetto’s and Bill Murphy’s, by a margin of about 2-1.

Both men are very well respected within the industry and by most horsemen, and generally are loved by anyone who has worked under them. Both have vast experience and credentials. Either would make a worthy successor.

Raffetto is currently President of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, where his tenure has been fraught with difficulty as the problems facing the industry are especially sensitive out west.

In working for the California horsemen, he’s run afoul of horseplayers with respect to the takeout issue. But it should be noted that when he was COO and President of the Maryland Jockey Club, he reduced takeout at the now defunct Laurel summer meet. There is evidence all over, especially now at Del Mar, that lower trakeout and fractional betting in tandem works, and it works big-time.

In addition to high-level management positions at Laurel and Pimlico, Raffetto has groomed and trained horses and served as a racing secretary. Other positions he held included assistant general manager at Monmouth Park, Executive Vice-President of Racing at Suffolk Downs and CEO of the National Steeplechase Association.

Murphy was a Vice President and General Manager of Racing Operations at Gulfstream Park and at Thistledown Race Course. He too groomed horses, was an assistant starter and the youngest track superintendent ever appointed at Hialeah, and the Director of Operations at Detroit Race Course. Murphy current serves as an Expressbet executive.

Obviously, either man would be well qualified to help lead New York racing back to its classy roots. And both understand the plight of the horseplayer, being bettors themselves. If not, their tenure would have unwanted distractions. The pools need to be fed. Like the adage says; you need to spend money to make money.

Should either man assume the role, or whoever it may be,he needs to seriously consider making Richard Migliore the operations face of the new company.

Well-liked by racing fans, respected by horsemen, a hands-on practitioner, bloodstock consultant and now media-savvy talent, Migliore has an eye for the details that have been ignored for years, not the least of which is the plight of the horseplaying customer.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am friendly with all three of these men. None have lobbied for my support, which is probably wise on their part. But I have lots of friends in this business and the ones that stick know my philosophy: Be good to the game that's been good to you.

Time has come to go back to the future.

Written by John Pricci

Comments (36)


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lasix, The Third Rail of American Racing

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 18, 2012--Barry Irwin can have an edge sometimes but he’s at his best when he speaks truth to power. His successful theory on medication free racing and the breeding and purchasing of Thoroughbreds need no introduction here:

Irwin said what everybody says, except he said it to people who actually can do something about the inadequacy of state regulation: "We need a new and tougher federal law," said Irwin.

It cost racetrack owner Jeff Gural $65,000 of his own money to deal with Lou Pena, who New York’s State Racing & Wagering Board found evidence of over 1,700 drug infractions of one kind or another:

"The logical thing would be for the federal government to take this over so that the rules are the same in every state." Then he said this: “Scofflaw trainers should be hauled off in handcuffs, maybe then cheaters will get the message.”

The verbal testimony of Matthew Witman, national director of the American Quarter Horse Assn., was replete with historical statistics, platitudes, and tough talk on Class 1 drugs, but stopped short of possible solutions, appearing in denial given of his sport’s history of drug abuse.

Marc Paulhus, former director of Equine Protection and Humane Society Vice President, appeared frustrated and sincere when calling for equine safeguards, testifying that the industry has proven “absolutely incapable of policing itself.”

Paulhus might have been recalling that Congress talked about this type of legislation since the 1980s.

Ed Martin, President and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, said its members are “reassessing” the exemption for raceday Lasix use to treat EIPH, but that only one percent of trainers have been guilty of “doping” in nine years.

But Martin was critical of the proposed legislation saying that it doesn’t address the problem or the needs and reiterated that uniform rules, transparency, and pre-race testing were high on the ARCI’s list.

Jim Gagliano, President and CEO of the Jockey Club, and Kent Stirling, Executive Director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association and Chairman of the National HBPA's medication committee, took positions that reflected the agenda of each organization, which is to say opposing views.

“Lasix is a hot-button issue…” Gagliano began. “We believe horses should compete free of medication. Almost every horse is injected with Lasix whether it needs it or not… “The Jockey Club will support any rules within reason, including federal legislation.”

Stirling, calling clenbuterol the “best drug in the last 30 years,” indicated withdrawal time of four to five days out was not unreasonable, but he evaded the question when asked about greater transparency.

Apparently the California Horse Racing Board disagrees with the proper withdrawal time for clenbuterol. Starting today at Del Mar, withdrawal time is 21 days. Parenthetically, it would appear that this bronchial dilator is very effective, indeed.

But it was the testimony of Sheila Lyons, DVM, founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation that was at once instructive and passionate.

Lyons said the proposed new legislation has “life-saving potential, the industry needs it,” and that the vets are responsible for the abuses. “We can say no,” when asked by trainers to inject therapeutic medications right up to the limits of detection.

Lyons went on to say that Lasix was a powerful diuretic that depletes electrolytes and dehydrates horses to the extent that they will experience an increased rate of fracture, according results of the controlled study Lyons conducted.

And then this: “Lasix IS performance enhancing, and “raceday Lasix is completely against the standards and practices of treating my patients.”

Had Sid Gustafson, DVM., an equine veterinarian specializing in Thoroughbred sports medicine and equine behavior, been called to testify, he might have offered what he wrote in the New York Times not long ago. In part, Gustafson wrote:

“Pulmonary care is providing the same near-constant movement that keeps racehorses’ musculoskeletal systems sound. It is [this] care that keeps horses on their feet during races. Horses must remain sound of limb to ensure lung soundness, and they must remain sound of lung to achieve and maintain limb soundness…

“Breathing and running are biologically intertwined on the track, a breath per stride. To stride correctly is to breathe correctly. To breathe correctly is to breathe soundly, and race sound.

“Pulmonary health is reflective of appropriate husbandry, breeding, training, nutrition, and the abundant provisions of forage, friends, and perhaps most importantly, locomotion.

“Bleeding in a race is reflective of inadequate care and preparation, of miscalculations and untoward medication practices. Lasix perpetuates substandard horsemanship, artificially suppressing the untoward result (bleeding) of inadequate preparation of the thoroughbred.

“Genetics play a role in pulmonary health and physical durability. Lasix perpetuates genetic weakness by allowing ailing horses to prevail and sow their seeds of pharmaceutical dependence. Running sore causes lungs to bleed. Lasix manages a wide variety of unsoundness, as do the cortisones and NSAIDs (Bute and similar drugs). These anti-inflammatory drugs aggravate coagulation processes.”

Trainers and owners will need to bear short-term economic hardship from the withdrawal of raceday medication and must learn to become better horsemen in the old school sense of the term.

For horsemen, the ban of raceday Lasix should be no different than how horseplayers—call them equine investors and the sport’s lifeblood for purposes of this discussion--have had to adapt to the information explosion that leveled the handicapping playing field to a fault; the emergence of the “super-trainer;” the continued erosion of pool liquidity because fans walked away from what a drug-filled arena has wrought--not to mention takeout increases that have gone to pay for testing labs and the salaries of state regulators as they weave their way through the bureaucratic maze of a rudderless industry in which groups advance their agenda and that agenda only.

Here’s one fair common-sense suggestion that already has been discussed to some degree: Horses currently on Lasix will continue to do so until retirement, but under stricter supervision. Choose a date in the future (January, 2014?) and eliminate raceday medication for that year’s 2-year-olds. If 2015 3-year-olds then must compete against elders on Lasix so be it, or remain in races restricted to 3-year-olds.

In a recent poll on the Paulick Report website, 75% of responders believed last week’s Senate Hearings would not result in legislative action this year. That might be true but federal legislation is coming. It’s not too late for a preemptive strike.

At the hearings’ end, Udall made three points; that a ban of raceday medication was reasonable; that so was a “three strikes rule” for threshold violators but immediate expulsion for Class 1 drug violations, and more rigorous testing and penalties.

Let’s further educate Sen. Udall and his colleagues. Make them write on a blackboard one hundred times that doping and medicating are not the same thing and that the terms are not interchangeable. Lose “zero tolerance.” It's unrealistic and contamination is everywhere; get tough, but get real.

And horsemen need to realize that no good can come of the disingenuous catchphrase that makes Lasix analogous to aspirin. It's a lot more than that.

Written by John Pricci

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Federal Intervention Weighs Heavily as Glamour Season Begins

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 17, 2012—Boutique season has arrived. Del Mar opens tomorrow and the fabled Saratoga will host its 144th summer meet beginning Friday-- and that’s a powerful lot of history and tradition.

I mention this to our friends in the sports world because yes, Virginia, and Maryland, and Kentucky, and California, and here in New York, too, horse racing was thriving long before the advent of organized baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Never mind that the automobile wasn’t yet a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye.

With decade-awaited VLT legislation finally arriving late last year, this will be the first season that Saratoga’s purses, already America’s highest, will be slots-infused.

With $930,000 per day in purse distribution on average, it’s not very hyperbolic to refer to Saratoga 144 as “Racing’s Million-Dollar Meet.”

Given the money available in the Empire State, and the 25 percent bonus Del Mar will pay horsemen for ship-and-win forays to the Great Surf Place, America’s most popular handle leaders figure to enjoy memorable seasons, economic climate and all.

But there’s a thousand-pound Thoroughbred in the room and it’s the federal government. The action it will take in the future hangs over these meets as if it were a sword wielded by Damocles himself.

And no matter what side of the medication debate racing factions sits, no one can argue that the industry didn’t bring the specter of government intervention on itself.

In our view, Federal intervention would be the best thing for the industry if it is to survive the present and prosper in the future. When reason gives way to expediency and greed, only a third party with heft can flex the inflexible.

The irony here is that if the industry were given marching orders and immediate action was taken, it still would be the better part of two decades before the gene pool was cleaned out and what happens between the fences again would more meaningful that what transpires in the sales ring: Horseracing as end product; not marketing tool.

However, late breaking bulletins notwithstanding, I’d like to put all this away for a spell and concentrate on the beginning of the sport’s championship season, earning while I learn which the fairest animals of them all are.

Starting today, and again on Friday, I won’t have the time to sit before the computer and watch three more hours of Senate hearings; been there, did that, and it was as predictable as it was instructive.

Archival footage of the event is all over the Internet, and racing’s mainstream media has broken down the testimony and the reaction of legislators to the affidavits they witnessed.

But assessing the event for me was a little like “Playing the Red Board.” Even the analysis was predictable; reactive, picking at snippets of thought free of visceral, inflective context. The pictures as they were streamed live were worth thousands of words:

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on “Medication and Performance Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing,” appeared to react reasonably, attentive and relatively agenda-free.

It may be argued that he harbored some pre-conceived notions, thanks to reports in the New York Times that were at once comprehensive and flawed. Still, Udall appeared to make an honest effort to seek out the truth.

If Udall’s queries appeared to lead any of the witnesses, he did so on both sides of an extremely complex issue.

One witness was Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a sponsor of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act which would amend 1978’s Interstate Horseracing Act by banning performance-enhancing drugs on raceday, providing for stiff penalties for violators.

Of course, the severity of the punishment would be suitable to the crime and this is where the thousand-pound Thoroughbred reenters the room: What is the definition of a performance-enhancing drug, exactly?

Other witnesses were the industry’s practitioners, representing both the business and sporting aspects of the game, including testimony that addressed health safeguards for racing’s equine and human athletes.

The industry people were forthright and passionate, and all seemed to be speaking from their mind and heart. But depending on whom they were and who they were representing, their schemata began to show.

What was it that these people wanted? Did they just want to help make the current issues disappear? Do these hearings really matter, or is this just for show? What are the goals and what shoud they be, short or long term?

I will need until tomorrow to think this through. Right now I'm distracted; both divisions of the Oceanside Stakes require my undivided attention.

Wednesday: This Is the Business We Have Chosen, Part II

Written by John Pricci

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