Friday, June 20, 2008

Racing Industry Goes to Washington

In the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy and amid descriptions of thoroughbred racing as “chemical warfare,” guided by powerless “fiefdoms” acting like an “Army without a general,” a dozen of the sport’s leading figures, not including no-show Derby-winning trainer Rick Dutrow, appeared before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce.

With exception of the latest findings in equine research, 12 panelists spoke on many divergent themes. Little of it will come as news to industry people and serious fans of the sport, but it was an important message that racing sent to the nation: We care about the sport and we’ve made progress. But now we’re at the crossroads and we need help.

And by year's end they may get it--in the form of racing legislation.

Not all have or will agree that racing needs or wants intervention from federal regulators. But the recurring hearing theme was something is not working and that it’s been broken for decades, since the last time the industry went to Washington and promised it could get the job done on issues of serious concern to everyone tethered to a thoroughbred.

If the record doesn’t confirm that fact, yesterday’s hearing underscored that racing hasn’t lived up to its charter.

In terms of its failure to address problems successfully, all acknowledged a shared culpability, or had little problem pointing fingers. The consensus was that it’s a responsibility to be shared by owners, trainers, veterinarians, breeders and the tracks themselves, slapping the wrists of cheaters before pressuring all horsemen to fill races, using stalls as leverage.

The existence of claiming races is responsible, too, by making it possible for owners to discard their damaged goods that continue racing for someone else via the use of syringes filled with medication, legal and otherwise, that blocks pain and enables horses to run as fast as they can for as long as they can.

Certain conclusions may be drawn by examining the comments of the panelists. Some were more vociferous than others while others appeared more interested in the maintaining of the status quo, focusing on incremental progress that pales when held up to the glare of racing’s major problems.

It became clear that the first major step racing must take in correcting the problems relating to equine health and public perception is to adopt a zero tolerance policy on drugs. “It’s gotten out of hand,” said Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. “Steroids, EPO, clenbuterol, you’ve got to keep up with the McCoys.”

“One morning I told a vet at Keeneland I don’t want my horses on anything,” said breeder and Kentucky Derby-winning owner Arthur Hancock.

“ ‘But you want to win, don’t you, Arthur?’ ”

“Time was when you saw a vet only when you needed one or had a horse in a race. Now they’re at the barn every day. They make significant profits by convincing trainers who then convince owners [that drugs are necessary]”

“A study was conducted on 22,000 horses racing on Lasix and it was learned that they raced faster, earned more money, and finished in the top three more often,” said Dr. Lawrence Soma of Pennsylvania University. “Our studies found that furosemide does not prevent Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage [bleeding] and, [like anabolic steroids], enhances performance.”

“Anabolic steroids are not [as bad as] corticosteroids,” said Allie Conrad of Canter Mid-Atlantic, whose life work is to re-home and re-train infirm horses. “Horses are dying every day. We get no [funding] from racing itself. Claiming races make [abuses] possible [via the use of] Lasix, Bute and corticosteroids that get injected directly into the joints.

“Racing doesn’t count the horses that die in my barn. They come to me lethargic, depressed, with weight loss, or hair loss. Caring for horses needs to be a first thought, not an afterthought.”

It has been said often that the game has been studied to death, but more study is needed in the areas of breeding, injury, and synthetic surfaces. Those issues, and especially sales practices, demand greater transparency.

“We need tests that can detect bio-markers, the presence of anti-bodies from previous injuries,” said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado University. “We have seen that micro damage leads to catastrophic damage.”

“There have been studies indicating that synthetic surfaces have had some promising results, but more study is needed on track maintenance,” said equine orthopedist Dr. Sue Stover.

“Right now, the On-Track Injury Reporting Program is voluntary but it should be required,” said Mary Scollay, DVM. “Medication use must be studied. Data analysis on [catastrophic injury] has been [near] impossible.”

Mirroring Van Berg’s comments, Richard Shapiro, Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, believes that unsoundness can be bred out of race horses: “If you establish a zero tolerance policy on drug use, the unsoundness issue will go away. Pharmacologicals, by masking infirmities with therapeutics, have hurt racing. Horses are making far fewer starts.”

Even if ridding the sport of drugs means that horses won’t be able to run, thereby addressing the breakdown problem, it starts at the sales where caveat emptor is the buy word. “The use of pre-sale surgery on horses who are not correct [is an issue],” said Hancock. “No one knows about the insertion of screws and wires. We talked about this in 1980 and nothing’s happened.”

“There must be documentation,” said Jess Jackson, owner of Horse of the Year Curlin. “There must be a trail of ownership, of complete medical records so that any buyer could see a horse’s complete history. The industry takes baby steps instead of giant strides. I was the only dissenter out of 40 members on an ownership panel that voted down [documentation requirements].

Watching the hearings, there was a sense that not everyone wanted drastic change or government intervention. “We’d like to see the industry police itself, if we can,” said Jockey Club CEO Alan Marzelli. “We have no power to enforce rule uniformity.”

Marzelli’s answers appeared evasive when he was asked if American breeding should be regulated like it is overseas, why there were no similar rules for sound breeding principles in this country. “Twenty-seven percent of our horses are bought by foreign interests,” was his reply.

Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has been extremely vocal on a sexy issue, calling for a ban on the use of anabolic steroids by 2009. His statements focused on the progress of the past.

“We’re a consensus builder. We represent 65 tracks, 40 horsemen’s groups and a million fans. The NTRA has been an important catalyst in making strides. We can act quickly and are no longer rudderless. I want to stress we don’t need another layer of regulation.”

“A public outcry has created a groundswell of support for change,” said racing commentator Randy Moss. “The NTRA has a lot of talented people but has no teeth to mandate changes. You see a lot of words like ‘we support,’ ‘we strongly urge,’ but no mandate.”

Jackson spoke clearly and cogently on racing issues. Jackson apparently prefers that an anabolic steroid ban extend beyond racing and training, “anything that alters the appearance of horses in any way.” Then he added:

“We can’t get organized because there’s no leadership. Owners invest $4 billion a year and get $1.4 billion back. I’m an eighth generation horseman. I opposed the use of Bute when it was originally proposed. Congress needs to do two things: Ban all drugs. Trainers are convinced [they need drugs] by the vets and vets must be disciplined. The problem comes from the seller.

“No steroids, enhancers, Lasix or Bute. Drugs mask other drugs and science can’t keep up with the ethics dealing with drugs. Second, we need a new draft of the Interstate Horseracing Act [permitting interstate simulcasting] eliminating two words.

“The regulation refers to owners and trainers. Eliminate ‘and trainers’. Trainers work for the owners. Why give power to the agents? Trainers are under the thumb of the tracks for stalls. Owners can unite themselves.

“We need to study breeding; we don’t need more inbreeding. I go to South America [to find stamina outcrosses]. We need a league, and that league needs a commissioner. Please, Congress help us.”

He might not have to ask twice.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Racing’s Second Season Begins Saturday at Churchill Downs

Surrounding the run-up and aftermath of Belmont Stakes 140, and the failed quest of Big Brown to join the sport’s elite, there were many developments and storylines that fell between the Triple Crown cracks. Here, then, a few quick takes on recent events to help clear the docket before the game moves on:

RACING’S SECOND SEASON BEGINS: Saturday is Stephen Foster day at Churchill Downs, a glorious and interesting program that features the American four-year-old debut of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin.

The 3-5 early line favorite carries top weight of 128 pounds in the handicap honoring the “My Old Kentucky Home” author, spotting nine rivals from 10 to 15 pounds. Steve Asmussen thinks the impost too high, citing the assignment itself and its relation to the competition. He harrumphed that he may not run the colt, then figured what the hell, saying he didn’t want to disappoint the fans.

Never mind that the purse was raised to sweeten the pot and ensure his participation. Never mind that the chestnut behemoth won the $6 million Dubai World Cup in a laugher over 11 of the planet’s best horses by 7-¾ geared-down lengths toting 126.

Never mind that the only recent Grade 1 winner he will face is Einstein, a dual G1 winner this year--on grass. Although we should note, too, that Jonesboro and Grasshopper each won G3s this season at a mile and a sixteenth.

And never mind that Curlin prepped for the World Cup under 132 pounds in his first start this year. In fairness to Asmussen, the trainer was only doing his job, like Phil Jackson who hoped to get a few calls go the other way in Game 2 of the NBA finals. “The owners didn’t put him back in training to debate weights,” he said.

Remember when horsemen used to consider accepting a highweight assignment as an honor? Remember when racing used to be a sport?

HEDGE FUND, ANYONE? Or, I’ll see your Dutrow, and raise you a Baffert, Lukas and Zito. The brain-child of three Lexington-based horsemen, according to a report, the hedge fund will raise $75 million to buy yearlings, to be selected and trained by the three horsemen.

Known as the “Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable,” the idea is to “buy the Big Browns before they become Big Brown,” according to Baffert. “We don’t want to pay the premium for a ready-made race horse.”

That’s another way of saying we don’t want to get into bidding wars with the ground-breaking IEAH group for promising stock, or with Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai for that matter. “We don’t see them as competitors,” said fund co-founder Olin Gentry.

Yeah, right.

The hedge fund will charge a 2 percent management fee and retain 20 percent of the profits. The three thoroughbred legends have 26 Triple Crown victories, winning 15 of 18 races during one six-year span.

With that much cash and brain power, coming up with a Big Brown or two should be a snap.

COME BACK TO US, ALEX: It’s clear to fair-minded observers that NTRA chief executive Alex Waldrop owns the management and political skills for the job and appears to have the best intentions of serving the racing fan. He’s worked hard trying to have the repressive IRS tax on exotic wagers repealed, has expanded national television coverage on ESPN--even if racing is often relegated to ESPN2 status--understands that handicapping is an untapped marketing resource and, most significantly, has taken a lead role in trying to rid the sport of anabolic steroids.

Waldrop writes a blog on the NTRA website, a laudable effort to reach racing’s fans. But recent comments indicate he might need to fix his spin cycle. He wrote that fans should be happy about three things as the summer racing season begins: that all sources Belmont Stakes handle was up 32 percent, that television ratings improved nearly three times, and that the legacy of Big Brown will be the end of the steroid era in racing.

On average, one out of three ain’t bad, about the rate of winning favorites. But that’s if you exclude the fact he hasn’t mentioned corticosteroids--with its performance enhancing properties--in the same breath with the anabolic brew.

Why should racing fans care about how much was wagered on Belmont day? Besides, most people bet on Big Brown, the 3-10 favorite. Nearly $10 million, about 10 percent of all monies wagered, was lost on Big Brown in straight wagering alone. Add in exactas, trifectas, superfectas, doubles, Pick 3s, Pick 4s and Pick 6s and that figure is much higher.

Why should fans feel happy about losing money on a “sure thing“? And higher television ratings are in the best interests of fans how? Higher ratings are important to the industry and NTRA, not fans. Fans make the ratings, not vice versa. I would have been more impressed had Big Brown, despite 94-degree temperatures, put more fannies in the seats.

Saturday’s crowd was 25,000 less than were there for Smarty Jones. What bettors really care about, on Belmont and every racing day, is service at a fair price, good food, clean restrooms--with adequate plumbing--and a lower parimutuel takeout. And if racing only did that, they’d be helping themselves, too.

But maybe the disappointing live Belmont crowd says more about the hangover from the losses of Barbaro and Eight Belles than the sport dares realize.

KIEREN FALLON TO RIDE AT SARATOGA IN 2009? Why not? Bring us your tired, poor and huddled masses… your alleged race fixers, recovering substance abusers… your great race riders. Outside the gates, six-time English riding champion and three-time winner of the Epsom Derby, Kieren Fallon hasn’t been as fortunate as he’s been between the fences.

A recovering alcoholic, Fallon currently is serving an 18-month suspension for abusing cocaine a second time, the ban scheduled to end next summer. Fallon’s current suspension came shortly after he was acquitted for alleged race fixing when a judge threw the case out of court. Fallon was charged with conspiring to hold back horses for a betting ring who wagered on horses to lose through betting exchanges. Fallon’s lawyer was able to establish the rider won about one third of the races he allegedly fixed.

Fallon will be 45 when he attempts his latest comeback and has said that he’d like to ride in America. When comparing their careers, parallels to the late Chris Antley quickly leap to mind. One of life’s saddest happenstances is wasted talent. Hopefully, Fallon can conquer his demons and display his considerable talents over here prior to hanging his tack up for good. I don't know Mr. Fallon personally, I should add, but wish him the best on and off the racetrack.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Clem Florio Had an Eye for Greatness

I read the news today, oh boy. Clem Florio died last Sunday night. He was 78-years-old. That’s not so old these days. And if you knew Clem, it was way too soon.

Florio was a turf writer by name, a handicapper by trade. I had heard that he worked for some paper in Baltimore. But I didn’t bother to learn which one then. If it wasn’t New York, it didn’t count.

I was an arrogant little punk back in the day, only little was never my strong suit.

It was the early 1970s. I was doing whatever I could in the Aqueduct press box to survive, a magazine piece here, handicapping gig, there.

My claim to fame, as far as my dad was concerned, was that I occasionally ghosted for a turf writer who worked for a big local paper who was--how do I phrase this--a non tea-totaller.

The lead was the same every day: “At Aqueduct today, before a crowd of 21,240...” After that followed the horse’s name, the jockey’s, maybe the trainer’s, the running time, margin of victory and win price.

Two hundred words: $20. Not bad for 30 minutes work. That was 10 bets. And exactas weren’t even invented. When exotics were expanded to include trifectas, they were called triples.

I remember the precise day I met Clem Florio, although I’ve forgotten who made the introduction. I remember him being ####-sure of himself, never lacking for an opinion. It was the Fourth of July, 1972.

He was good looking in a Jack Palance sort of way. If across-the-board wagering were offered on the proposition that he was an American of Italian descent, the payoff would read: $2.40, out, out.

It was a few years after the introduction of OTB. The politico in charge was a dapper fellow named Howard Samuels. The tabloids dubbed him “Howie the Horse.”

In those days Aqueduct closed for the season in late October, reopened on March 20. The best New York horses went to Florida, or Aiken, or Camden, in South Carolina. The selling platers went to Bowie in Maryland.

OTB was taking action on racing from Bowie back then. Local horseplayers dying for some live action took a subway into Midtown Manhattan then got on a bus for the five-hour ride to Bowie. One way.

In those days you didn’t even need proof of age to buy cigarettes then. You could get them from a vending machine: You stuck a quarter in and out dropped a pack of Lucky Strikes, with two shiny pennies, always heads up, enclosed inside the cellophane on the side panel of the package. With your thumb you would slide your change up and out into the palm of your other hand. Pretty good deal, if you didn’t mind rolling the dice with your life.

No one spoke to each other on those bus rides. Besides, horseplayers are more loquacious after a race, then only if they could say, “I had ‘em.”

During those five hours, horseplayers were deep in thought, circling little details in their forms so they wouldn’t forget those nuggets when they stepped up to the $2 window, which were always located on the apron side of the grandstand.

If you won, you walked, or ran, around to the other side of the betting bay to collect. If you had a good day, you might even get to visit the $5 or $10 window. In order to queue up at the $50 window, you needed the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant and a dream.

The ritual was repeated nine times a day. Simulcasting? You were lucky to see a video replay of the races.

If you didn’t have bus fare, or the 14 hours to spare, you bet Bowie at OTB. On Saturdays, you could watch “Racing from Bowie” with Ken--can’t remember his last name, think it started with W--and some analyst named Harvey Pack.

Seizing an opportunity to add to my free lance gigs, I asked the late Ike Gellis, sports editor of the New York Post, for a job handicapping the Bowie races.

“We’ve got Clem Florio. Why would I want to hire you?”

I suppose Gellis didn’t have to sugar-coat it that way. Which brings us back to Independence Day.

It was the second half of the daily double, a maiden dash at five and a half furlongs for two-year-old colts. Trainer Lucien Laurin had a reputation for having horses ready for their debuts. The money showed and Laurin’s horse closed the favorite at 3-1 despite an inexperienced apprentice, Paul Feliciano, in the irons.

A colt named Herbull won the race by a neck over Master Achiever, with Fleet n’ Royal a length farther back in third.

Juvenile races are always good fodder for trip handicappers, especially in fields of 12. When the results were made official, handicappers and writers gathered around the only closed circuit monitor in the press box to watch the race replay.

A racetrack press box is no less competitive than the jock’s room. No one shared information then, everyone watching as quietly as those horseplayers on the bus to Bowie, scribbling handicapping hieroglyphics into track programs. But not this time.

Within an hour of meeting Florio that morning, we had become fast friends. He was standing to the right and in front of me as we watched the second race replay. When the video ended, Florio walked passed me and said “I’ve got my Derby horse.”

“What?” I asked.

“You better go back and look at Laurin’s horse,” Florio said.

In those days, you had to wait until the following day before you could see the races for a second time.

And so, there was Laurin’s horse, breaking next to last, checking and steadying all over the lot, aiming for this hole; closed, aiming for that hole; shut off again. Feliciano held on for dear life as his horse mounted a furious finish, making up seven lengths in the final quarter-mile.

Laurin’s horse not only won the following year’s Kentucky Derby but the Triple Crown, too. Secretariat later graced the front covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and subsequently was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. His magnificent chestnut likeness even wound up on a U.S. postage stamp.

So when I think of Florio, I think of Secretariat, and vice versa. Why not? They were both champions.

Ed. Note: For More Reminiscences of Clem Florio, Read Bill Christine’s Lines In the Sand Blog

Written by John Pricci

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