Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Asmussen Scandal: Woe Must Become WHOA


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 25, 2014--When HRI was taking a stand for federal regulation of racing and against race-day Lasix a couple of years ago, the argument made by one pro-Lasix horseman on a national radio show was that perception doesn’t matter.

Humans take aspirins for a headache, he said, and we treat horses with Lasix because it “helps prevent” bleeding. That’s disingenuous, of course, and the host never followed up with “but don’t horses sometimes bleed through Lasix?”

Manifestos and pronouncements have appeared daily since the infamous PETA video was released last week. One of the best was penned by Barry Weisbord., who wants to create an alliance of the willing to set American standards based on the Hong Kong model.

“Racing is a privilege, not a right,” Weisbord wrote. For lovers of the horse, truer thoughts were never conceived.

Weisbord introduced his thoughts by quoting Howard Beale, the fictional anchor in Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant piece, “Network,” who, after losing it on national television, demanded his audience go open their windows and shout “we’re mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.”

Personally, it compelled me to harken back to the early days of television when the anti-littering “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was first introduced, questioning the audience with: “It’s enough to make you sick, isn’t it enough to make you stop?”

As messengers go, PETA deserves shooting. But did it put the words “they all get it…it makes them lighter…it’s a performance enhancer” in the mouth of a prominent veterinarian commenting on the rampant use of Lasix?

Did it make Scott Blasi say that thyroxine “keeps the thyro level up, makes ‘em feel good”? Or that “shockwave therapy deadens pain…that’s why you can’t use it close to [race day]”.

Or of a horse thought wrongfully scratched: “I’ll f… [the stewards] next time. I’ll put a gel cast on and I’ll make it look good as I [expletive deleted] can?” Or that you can purchase a fraudulent social security card for “like 60 or 70 bucks a person.”

Did the undercover investigator force a farrier to say of Kentucky Derby runnerup “his foot is a little bitty nub…he lost z-bars [protective horseshoes] on both feet multiple times…he had bloody holes in the bottom of his feet…[the foot’s] been like that for three months from putting a z-bar over it…it rotted.”

If racing’s leaders don’t collectively acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what is proven-- or even admissible--in a court of law, and that this will be the perception of horse racing at its worst, they’re either being obtuse or have taken their love of money and prestige to an unconscionable new level.

Or completely missed the point that this is out there for the entire world to misinterpret if they wish.

A self-appointed commission at taxpayer expense found Gov. Chris Christie innocent in the bridge-gate scandal, Treyvon Martin wasn’t murdered, and horse racing doesn’t have problems real and imagined.

This video is such a sweeping indictment of the industry that it can compel the general public to feel good about itself by shutting the whole thing down. If social media can create an “Arab Spring,” it can make an already marginalized industry completely disappear.

The only court that matters now is the court of public opinion.

Every horseman I know rejects the notion that horses are unwilling participants. Of course, top class horses receive the very best of care, and the money generated by the horse industry helps pay for the cost of research that helps horses everywhere.

But as the Nehro example shows, big money and prestige is no guarantor against abuse. In fact, big purses often can blur the line between soundness and “racing soundness.”

If racing does not set the agenda on horse welfare the feds or the public will. Political organizations like PETA will have their ear. The responsibility for the welfare of horses extends beyond racing, but the industry should show society how to do it right and not run for cover as it always has.

Like the man said, it’s a privilege, not a right.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame obviously was correct to table Steve Asmussen’s nomination with whip-lash speed in response to investigations launched by New York and Kentucky.

The Thoroughbred Racing Associations reiterated its position that persons who mistreat horses and rules violators should be dealt with swiftly and severely. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium called for the unanimous adoption of uniform rules and penalties from state to state under the auspices of Racing Commissioners International.

The Jockey Club, NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, and the Jockeys' Guild have all weighed in, as did Breeders’ Cup, which jumped on the anti-Lasix bandwagon again despite caving in to horsemen’s demands that the use of raceday Lasix be continued or they would boycott the Breeders’ Cup entry box.

Sadly, commerce always wins, so says another fictional character, Jerry in "Killing Them Softly." Brad Pitt demands money that's owed him while POTUS makes a patriotic speech on television that serves as a backdrop to the bar scene, to drive home the point: "America's not a country, it's a business."

The Jockey Club is the one with the clout here, owning the right to deny access to the American Stud Book to any individual that has committed an act of cruelty to a horse or violated regulations regarding its care and treatment, and the organization should use its power appropriately and swiftly.

Andrew Cohen of the Atlantic wrote of three categories of horsemen as he sees it: the cheaters, a small group but large enough to stain racing’s integrity; the innocents, another small group that’s too naïve to even help itself, and the “far-too-silent majority,” who see the wrong but “won't give their all to right it.”

Or as the non-fictional Edmund Burke wrote: "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

There were comments from outspoken Barry Irwin who said he fears “the aftermath of the PETA video presentation will be the most severe removal of a layer of the once prestigious patina under which our sport thrived for so many years.” And that it’s up to the owners who make the game go to right the wrongs.

Irwin, a prominent owner who has worked behind the scenes to push for Congressional action, is more naïve than noble if he believes that the underlying commonality among owners is “a desire for competition in an arena witnessed by fans and peers alike that offers owners a considerable amount of prestige.”

Would that include an owner like Ron Winchell, whose racing manager David Fiske said that taking Tapiture and Untapable away from Asmussen now “would not be in the best interest of the horses?”

It’s clear that Winchell and Fiske’s eyes remain focused squarely on the prize: the equity created by having a Kentucky Derby or Oaks winner in the barn. The bottom line is their own self interests that matter most, not the world's most famous horse race.

Never mind the best interests of an industry that never has needed solidarity more than it does now. Never mind that their trainer will be the mother of all distractions when PETA barbarians assemble at the gates of Churchill Downs for all the national television exposure it can get.

I’m wondering if Mr. Irwin has considered the possibility of penalizing owners who benefit financially by knowingly employing trainers strongly suspected of taking an edge?

“All horses should run without Lasix on raceday,” a track executive told me the other day. “We need to go back to hay, oats and water so that our greatest trainers win at 20 percent, not 30 percent. Ten guys are making all the money; everyone else is starving.”

While there was no mainstream media coverage to speak of—thank you NCAA---the Schenectady Gazette had it right in an op-ed, stating “more important is what the video portends for the racing industry as a whole: If these attitudes and practices are pervasive, there may be no fixing it.”

The industry needs to address perceptions such as this immediately.

Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle said last week that it's apparent that a blend of self-regulation and toothless state regulation has been a huge failure. “If racing is to be cleaned up and the public's confidence restored, independent, national oversight—with meaningful penalties for violators—is the only pathway.”

Pacelle then called on Congress to pass enabling legislation reining in abuses and holding the industry accountable.

Thus far, Weisbord and Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural have the best ideas. As part of this new association of racetracks, Weisbord’s calling for the new consortium to have the right to create, employ, enforce, and adjudicate a code of best practices as is done in major sports, focusing on the well-being of the horses and the people who care for them.

He wants horses to be taken care of before, during and after their racing careers and that any discussion about the continued use of therapeutic raceday medications ends, and at other times be administered in a controlled, sensible manner by track-employed veterinarians.

Weisbord wants racing associations to own their own pharmacy with all medications and procedures approved by the track to come from that pharmacy and for that racing to be conducted on a limited, non-year-round basis; less racing with more quality.

Finally, the new racing association would have the right to rescind anyone’s privilege to race if they are deemed to be a detriment to the sport. He concedes that this is not going to be the solution for all of American racing. Others can stay on the present path if they choose, but allow free market conditions to decide what is defensible and sellable.

Ultimately the model would prosper because racing will offer the American public what it wants; racing with integrity, without drugs, and one that bettors feel comfortable gambling on, a sport to be proud of again.

If only Weisbord had the power to lock all forward-thinking industry types in a room, allowing them to return to their families only after a best practices accord has been reached.

For his part, Gural believes this is an animal welfare issue but hasn't hesitated to rid his racetracks of cheaters. He was first to conduct out of competition testing, using his own money to pay for it. [Notably, Gulfstream Park recently became the first thoroughbred track to conduct out of competition (random) testing].

Gural, who testified before a 2012 Senate hearing on drugs in racing, doesn’t wait for racing commissions to take action against cheaters. (Tracks are private property and as such can ban undesirables). He has blood samples shipped to the best testing facilities available, not just those approved by the states.

One argument against raceday mediation is that it would help America conform to international standards. But no one lives in a bubble on this issue and Europeans are not above the fray.

Paul Bittar, the British Horseracing Authority’s chief executive, said that the time has come for regulators to take “a strong stand” against steroids by outlawing them completely, something that was achieved here in the wake of the Dutrow affair.

If someone approached me on the street to ask about the PETA video I’d be hard pressed to defend what I saw, no matter how many legal holes were contained within the video. The bottom line for me is that the condensed 9-minute tape is a huge indictment of business-as-usual.

Unless reform with the scope of the suggestions above is put into action, and unless thoroughbred organizations and tracks do everything they can to change the way horses and backstretch workers are currently treated, this problem never will not go away and the industry is doomed. Bettors, fans and owners already have walked away for a lot less.

Racing on hay, oats and water is the only remedy that’s acceptable now, the general public will demand no less, nor should they. I always believed that the game was too big to fail. I no longer believe that nor should anyone else.

We are all privileged to enjoy a way of life that stirs emotions and passion within us all. Passion is priceless. Racing’s critics will not abandon their agenda. How business is conducted must change or the game’s demise is inevitable.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 28, 2014


Gulfstream Stewards Inert; Track Takes Action


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 28, 2014—As Gulfstream Park’s Rainbow 6 Jackpot continues its ascent to well over $1.7 million, the heat on the Florida stewards remains intense in the wake of a non-disqualification in Thursday’s sixth race, clearly a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

The undeniable inconsistency in the wake of Saturday’s controversial disqualification in the final leg of the Rainbow 6 Jackpot that denied a single winner $1.6 million, thereby extending the carryover, created a firestorm of bad will.

Thursday’s non-disqualification for virtually the same offense has members of the Horseplayers Association of North America calling for a boycott of Gulfstream’s races until the stewards are either suspended or fired.

The HANA boycott of Santa Anita’s races in 2011 following an unconscionable rise in the rate of parimutuel takeout was extremely effective as horseplayers spoke with one voice for the first time ever.

According to Blood Horse’s figures compiled at meet’s end, gross handle, with eight fewer racing days, declined by nearly 21 percent. The largest declines were off-track; the California ADWs down by more than 20 percent while out-of-state simulcasts were off 23 percent. Total daily average handle declined from $7.5 million to $6.6 million year over year.

While this is a different issue, it’s clear that horseplayers are extremely frustrated and are prepared to take action on what is perceived as a national epidemic of inconsistent rulings. The rules of racing are virtually the same all over but the manner of interpretation varies, sometimes widely, and therein lays a problem.

Reasonable horseplayers can accept, albeit grudgingly, different styles when it comes to adjudicating fouls, like knowledge of umpires having a wider strike zone or fouls that are not called in the final minute of a tied basketball game.

In racing, some judges are strict constructionists, on the lookout for lane violations—a foul is a foul is a foul. At other venues, the practice is to allow trained eyes to make judgment calls after close inspection of video replays to determine whether an incident cost a rival a placing.

In both cases, the emphasis is on what happens as horses battle down the stretch toward the finish for the pot of gold that awaits owners, trainers, jockeys and, yes, horseplayers, without whom there would be no one to support the industry.

Money makes the mare go, as old school racetrackers say. But bettors know it’s their money that enables parimutuel horse racing and now are demanding, and getting, however grudgingly, a seat at the table.

As an observer of the betting public and a public handicapper for four decades, I can testify that I never have seen this much outrage which today is only heightened by the presence of Internet gadflies and social media.

All events are now in real time and the absence of acceptable standards of communication and behavior often has resulted in a lack of objectivity, responsibility and accountability. In the Gulfstream case, civility and reason has taken a hit within the horse racing community of which we are all members.

After having viewed all replays of Saturday’s final race at Gulfstream from vantage points not available to the public, including rear tower shots and slow motion, my original opinion that the disqualification of Collinito was the right call was confirmed.

Parenthetically, the public should have online access to all available angles.

I had no dog in Saturday’s fight but I did Thursday, having selected and made a small wager on 7-1 winner Hard Enough. Once again, all things being equal, I would have allowed the result to stand and here’s why:

While Paco Lopez brought his mount out 3 paths under left-hand whipping and bumped with Cummings Road near the finish, it was difficult to discern from the video whether the incident occurred at or just after the dueling horses crossed the finish line noses apart.

Further, third finisher Burn the Mortgage was angled out by Javier Castellano looking to rally while splitting rivals. There was not enough room and Castellano was forced to steady his mount, essentially contributing to his own problems.

As for Cummings Road, he had every chance to win. In fact, from the pan view it appeared that he gained a very slight lead in deep stretch but was out-gamed at the wire.

If I was certain that the bump occurred at the finish line, I would have disqualified Hard Enough. But if the incident occurred at the wire after the race was over, I would have allowed the result to stand.

Not being sure of when that or any other incident occurs, I invoke the Any-Given-Sunday rule that the evidence was inconclusive and would have allowed the result to stand in that case. To me, this was a judgment call to end all judgment calls.

However, this is not the point, and all things were not equal. In Thursday’s bang-bang incident, the Gulfstream stewards, in the name of consistency, and with all the attendant publicity given Collinito, Hard Enough should have been disqualified.

All horseplayers really want is consistency and transparency. Because of their inconsistency, the Gulfstream stewards as a group might have done irreparable harm to the track’s stature and the credibility of its management.

The three stewards should have stepped up on Sunday, held a press preference to explain the process and take responsibility for their actions. Stewards are not above acting in the best interests of the racing public.

Kentucky Chief Steward John Veitch was suspended and fired because of a lapse in judgment four years ago. I thought the Gulfstream stewards got the decision right both times and, while contradictory, it would have been better for all concerned had they been consistent on two close calls.

Absent that, they needed to step up instead of allowing the chips to fall.

GULFSTREAM TO BECOME MORE TRANSPARENT: Gulfstream Park announced today it will begin instituting changes to provide bettors more information and greater transparency whenever there is a disqualification or objection on any of its races.

"We truly believe the bettor deserves a detailed explanation as to why a horse has been disqualified," said Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo. "The bettor is not only the economic engine that drives this sport but he and she is also the biggest fan of the sport. We need to continue to find ways to improve the integrity and transparency.

“We have not done a good job explaining why our stewards have disqualified a horse and we're going to change that. We have a few changes we will implement immediately and are studying a number of ideas, including a camera and microphone in the stewards' booth.

"Obviously there's never going to be a 100 percent consensus whether a horse should or should not be taken down. We want stewards to be consistent but we also want them to treat each race individually because every scenario is different. We want them to be quick but some decisions take longer. We feel we can provide our bettors more information that's more timely.

Track announcer Larry Collmus will provide a detailed explanation for any ruling while a replay of the infraction is highlighted and played from pan and head-on angles. A statement by the stewards will be posted on Gulfstream Park's website under disqualifications in a timely fashion.

"There will be things we add and maybe a few we subtract, but our decisions will be based on what is best for our bettors. If these changes work at Gulfstream, we will roll them out across all Stronach Group tracks."

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, February 24, 2014


Gulfstream Stewards Got It Right; Ritvo Calls for Transparency, Televising Inquiry Process


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 23, 2014—Take this from someone who’s been there, although not to the extent of $1.6 million.

Long ago in a land far away, a place called Saratoga, I rushed into the stewards stand after the second race on Saturday afternoon, August 2, 1986, to inform the New York stewards that when they disqualified Allumeuse, they had taken down the wrong horse.

But that was like a day at Frank’s Beach compared to what happened in the finale on Fountain of Youth day when $20 million was wagered on the Fountain of Youth program, the first time that figure was surpassed in the new structure on a non-Florida Derby day race card.

With over $1.2 million dollars in the carryover pot and another half-million spent chasing it on Saturday, there was to be a single winner of $1.6 million in the Rainbow 6 jackpot when 15-1 Collinito finished first beneath Luis Saez.

But then the stewards posted an inquiry and jockey Paco Lopez, on 39-1 shot Strategic Keeper, lodged an objection against Saez for alleged interference soon after entering the stretch.

The Florida stewards, after their usual lengthy deliberations, disqualified Collinito from first and placed him second.

Ironically, even though Strategic Keeper was more than double the odds of Collinito, there was more than one winning ticket on the winning 11-12-3-5-4-13 sequence paying over $36,600, thus creating a carryover into the Sunday program of more than $1.3 million.

Two observations: It was the worst beat at the races I’ve seen. And while it would have been a very close call either way, the stewards made the right call. Clearly, I’m in the minority of horseplayers here.

Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the Twitterverse and the PaceAdvantage.com chat room exploded, the sentiment running almost 4-1 against the disqualification.

Able to watch the stewards’ tapes of the incident more times than I can remember on Sunday afternoon, with slow-motion capability, did nothing to dissuade my original position that the disqualification, while a close one, was righteous and just.

Soon after entering the stretch, Collinito drifted out approximately four paths into the lane occupied Strategic Keeper, forcing Lopez twice to bend his mount in half. Further, the second finisher appeared to lug in, compelling Lopez to gather his mount, which only added to the confusion. But the harm already had been done.

Upon straightening out in deep stretch and getting clear to the outside of Collinito, Strategic Keeper re-rallied and was getting to Collinito rapidly in the final strides, losing by a rapidly diminishing neck.

In my view, the original winner caused a lot more than a neck’s worth of trouble, thus the disqualification. Saez was suspended three days for the infraction.

Observers are allowed to see these incidents in a different way, the reason why they are referred to as judgment calls. Controversial judgment calls happen in virtually all sports, only not when people are legally betting their money on the outcome. And let’s face it; horseplayers, even if their concerns are largely ignored by track executives, are a vocal lot, mostly negative in nature, especially when it involves winning and losing.

I will wager that no bettor before or after Saturday’s 12th race at Gulfstream Park ever will have suffered a worse “beat.”

By definition, parimutuel wagering is a zero-sum game and arguably as many bettors benefitted from the decision than were harmed; the fact that more Rainbow 6 tickets were sold using #13 speaks to that.

But American horse racing, with its lack of transparency on virtually every level, deserves the cynicism it sows. For instance, I don’t want to read why stewards made their decisions after the fact.

I, and the majority of horseplayers I know, want to see the foul adjudication process live and in real time. Simply install a camera in the stewards’ stand, turn on the audio, and allow bettors to eavesdrop on the proceedings.

HRI questioned Gulfstream President and CEO Tim Ritvo Sunday afternoon about televising the review process and other issues arising from Saturday’s disqualification:

“I love the idea,” said Ritvo. “A live camera in there would give us full transparency. We do it at the [Kentucky] Derby once a year. Why not do it all the time?”

HRI: Will-Pays are no longer posted for the Rainbow 6 although the information is readily available. Why?

A: “The tote company would not provide Will-Pays after the Fair Grounds incident a few years ago. There was a late scratch in the final race in their jackpot bet and a bettor with the scratched horse was moved to the post time favorite by rule.

“When the favorite won, there were two live tickets instead of one. They’re afraid they would be liable in some way when things like this happen.”

“If that happens to a bettor here and the scratched horse makes him live to the post-time favorite winner, we pay the jackpot as long as the ticket belongs to one bettor and the sequence is on one ticket.”

HRI: Were you involved in the decision making process with the stewards via phone which some observers said they saw during the process? It was also reported on HRTV that you had a ‘sick look’ on your face when the inquiry sign went up?

A: “I had no contact with the stewards and phone records would prove that. I am [not a litigious person] but we’re thinking about suing those persons. Besides, [stewards] Don Brumfield and Jeffrey Noe would never listen to me.

“The sick look on my face is because the last thing I want to see in the final race are foul claims, horses scratched at the gate or a rider falling off his horse. I don’t want to see anything happen that might give bettors the wrong impression.”

HRI: Some sharp bettors, citing a turf race won by Old Time Hockey, claim the stewards have exhibited something of a laissez faire policy in the adjudication of turf races this meet, forgiving more contact than they would on dirt. Is that accurate, and where is the consistency in officiating?

A: “I’d have to look at that race, but I’ll tell you this. They took down Javier Castellano one day when he was four in front turning for home for drifted out. “He blamed it on the lights or shadows or something. If you look at that race you'll see the consistency of [Saturday’s] call.”

HRI: As of mid-Sunday morning, only the Am-West website was showing the head-on replay of the final race even though they showed the head-on in all other races. What happened?

A: “I have no idea. We showed it here while the stewards were looking at their films. The idea that that was a conspiracy is absurd. There are a lot of gray decisions in racing but we stand behind [Saturday’s] stewards decision one hundred percent.”

HRI: In general, doesn’t the lack of transparency in these kinds of incidents have an adverse effect on wagering integrity?

A: “Throughout the history of our game, there have always been controversial calls. In sports like football or basketball today, officials can watch replays. In racing, the stewards can look at things over and over for as long as it takes from every angle, including slow-motion.”

HRI:Gulfstream has a vested interest in the results since carryovers generate added handle. Isn’t this true and how much of a difference does this make?

A: “On a good weekend, $500,000 is bet into a carryover pool, $300,000 during the week. The blended takeout rate is 20 percent for the entire country so that leaves $100,000 for all the tracks. Our share of that is 7 percent, of which 3.5 percent goes to the horsemen, that’s about $35,000 for us.”

HRI: Is there a chance that Saturday’s incident could result in a criminal investigation?

A: “We are completely confident the stewards made the right decision and would have no problem talking to anybody about it. We feel bad for the customer, it probably was the worst bad beat ever. But I have not gotten any calls about it from the customer complaining about the decision.”

Written by John Pricci

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