Friday, June 27, 2008

Without Action Racing Might Not Survive Latest Firestorm

First, it was Jess Jackson, owner of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, that pleaded for help. Now it’s my turn, a former ink-stained wretch who traded in an old Underwood for a new Toshiba laptop. Congress, please help.

No, I’m not crazy. I fully understand the possible pitfalls here. Like Bill Burbas, a 64-year-old flat-bed driver who rescued me on the New York Thruway after a throttle position sensor, whatever that is, rendered my 2007 Subaru powerless, I, too, have lost faith in the system.

Burbas, salt of the earth life-long Democrat, worries that Barack Obama will be another Jimmy Carter--well meaning but ineffectual--and believes America never again will be the country he grew up in. Technology can’t save it; things have gone too far.

What was the old slogan; better living through chemistry? Well, it’s that kind of technology that’s gotten racing into a mess from which many of the well meaning-- inside and outside the industry--believe it can never recover.

I’m being an alarmist? The game is bigger than us all? It was once. But it’s not bigger than public perception. Racing’s approval rating is somewhere around that of Congress or even the lame duck, lame brain in the White House.

But, for better or worse, it's the only system we have.

I’m not naïve enough to believe it was ever strictly hay, oats and water. In a game of big, fast money, people will take an edge. It’s human nature.

Longing for the good old days?

Under the tutelage of Tom Smith, inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000 via the Historic Review Committee, the legendary Seabiscuit went on to win 33 of the 89 races, setting 16 track records in the process.

But a year after leaving the employ of C.S. Howard, he received a lengthy suspension for drug violations. So, in retrospect, does that somehow make Seabiscuit something less than? Isn’t it too bad that question needed begging?

Clichés are true, of course. Racing is a microcosm of what happens in life. But in no small measure is it ironic that, despite it’s excesses, this country remains puritanical in so many ways? You need not be a zealot to be a person that cares for the ethical treatment of animals, especially those that helped make America great.

Once a major pastime, racing now exists on the sports periphery. It has become a victim of its own success vis a vis its most visible prize, the one steeped in Americana. That prize is the Kentucky Derby, first leg of America’s Triple Crown.

Breeding a Derby champion no longer is about durability and longevity. It’s about speed and power. Everybody knows that, even in Washington D.C.

By now, the most casual of sports fans know what’s wrong with the racing industry, and therein lies its problem. That perception is out there. The problem for the industry is that perception in this case is built on facts.

Even racing’s harshest critics can accept that accidents can and do happen. But not when there’s so much evidence that man is causing the predisposition that leads to so many of these accidents. We breed a faster, more powerful race horse, pump it up with chemical additives, and keep it racing on therapeutic medication.

What was it that one owner-breeder said in last week’s House subcommittee hearing: The body of Schwarzenegger on the legs of Don Knotts?

In the dictionary, look up the word: “ther-a-peu-tic, adj. 1. used in treating disease: relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease and disorders 2. maintaining health: working or done to maintain health.”

Nowhere in the definition are the words “to perform at optimum level pain free while infirm.”

Many horsemen and horsewomen I know take better care of their animals than they do themselves. Trainers understand the argument that horses cannot decide for themselves whether or not they want to perform through artificial means, but they also hide behind racing’s permissive rules. But there are pressures.

When livelihoods include factors over which those responsible have no control; the pressure of the racetracks and, by extension, owners to run, and the pressure to win, not only for owners but for the stable help, most horseman will abide by the rules but some will choose to legally win by any means necessary.

Since the House subcommittee hearing, three prominent trainers, Rick Dutrow, Steve Asmussen and Larry Jones, have been cited for drug positives. And jockey Jeremy Rose was suspended an excessive six months for striking his mount in the face with a whip.

In Rose’s case, he claims it was accidental and inadvertent, trying to straighten out his lugging-in mount by hitting her on the shoulder, at once consistent with taking a standard safety precaution while trying to win a race.

Rose is one of the game’s top riders, the regular partner of dual classics winner Afleet Alex, the feel good story of 2005. The horse’s trainer, Howard Wolfendale, accepted Rose’s explanation and apology, and is still using Rose on his horses.

These suspensions can be viewed as the game getting tough while in the spotlight‘s glare, proving that it can police itself. But it also is an industry known for making examples of people before going back to business as usual.

I hope the powers that be--whoever they are--realize that this approach will no longer stand, that the problem won’t be buried in the short memories of the American people, that they can’t afford to wait this thing out.

I’m not sure when it became fashionable in this country to say “I’m sorry, but now it’s time to move on.” It probably was around the same time that people stopped being accountable for their actions. What will the industry say when the next accident occurs?

Animals deserve and require respectful care. As stated, the overwhelming majority of people tethered to the thoroughbred are excellent caretakers. But racing needs to ensure that behavior by imposing meaningful standards and sanctions on a national scale. The best interests of the industry will be served by taking care of the best interests of the horse.

Lamentably, I feel the same way about the industry that flat-bed driver Bill Burbas feels about the country he grew up in. When he said he lost faith because things have gone too far, I told him I couldn’t go there. I told him that as a writer and a horseplayer, a hopeless romantic, I couldn’t let my small piece of the American dream die.

So, why not do this, industry? Instead of waiting for Congress to meddle into your affairs, let every organization and racing-states representative convene in Saratoga. Come for the Travers then lock yourselves up in the Gideon Putnam conference center and stay there until you accomplish the following:

Therapeutic medication will be permitted but controlled; nothing can be administered within 96 hours of a race. Ban all forms of steroids, from birth. What buyers see is what they get. Eliminate all race-day medication. Establish one centralized national betting platform with a takeout so low as to drive rebate shops out of business.

Earmark a minute percentage of the resultantly increased simulcast handle for equine health and designer-drug research. Technology helped create the problem, now let technology fix it.

Make every state racing commission answerable to a central authority and call it the National Thoroughbred League. Appoint a commissioner, one from the private sector, not from inside the industry. Bill Clinton needs a job. Start there and work backwards, but not too far. Get someone who is Einstein smart and loves the sport, figureheads need not apply.

Do this before the House subcommittee calls a second hearing and have the NTL Commissioner tell Congress what the industry is prepared to do, starting with some of the recommendations above, and a reasonable time frame in which to get it all done. Show Congress and the rest of America that the industry is worthy of what once was--and can again be--a great sport.

Or not. Throw up your hands and do nothing because it’s all too complicated and there are too many reasons why it can’t be done, explaining that you live in the real world and there is no such thing as enlightened self interest only cover-your-ass reality.

Then watch all your chickens come home to roost and begin to reap what you have sown since the sport‘s golden age, the 1970s. Take no action and suffer the consequences or, worse, become totally irrelevant. Then look in the mirror we’ve created and ask: How did we allow things to go this far?

Written by John Pricci

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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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