Sunday, July 03, 2016
Independence Day: A Selfless Fan Practitioner Is Leaving the Sport for Good
I met Steven Roman, a scientist with a passion for Thoroughbred racing who closely examined how pedigree can shape the destiny of young horses seeking to become next year’s Kentucky Derby champion, as a fellow participant at the first-ever Handicapping Expo in Los Angeles decades ago.
I enthusiastically embraced his research and learned to understand how a sire’s aptitude for getting stout horses on the first Saturday of every May and beyond via his Dosage Index algorithm. I found it fascinating, a useful tool that would help answer an age-old question.
On his website last month, http://www.chef-de-race.com, Roman revealed that he is ending his association with Thoroughbred racing, sharing his complete thought-process for the decision and taking nearly 5,000 words to do so. When the financial arrangement with his server provider lapses, the site will go dark for good.
We’re reprinting his long goodbye here in two parts, today and Wednesday, editing for context and brevity. The purpose of anything we do here at HRI is viewed hyper-critically in the eyes of the industry. We all are trying to leave the game it a better place and that takes tough love. We don’t exist to create sensational headlines.
Our persistence is not an attempt to restore the game to its former glory. That’s way above my pay grade and, seemingly, above those who control racing’s destiny, from the boardrooms to the backstretch of America’s racetracks. I don’t consider myself--nor do I wish to be regarded as--a prophet of doom.
But do know this: If Roman’s words don’t resonate with all the practitioners who are tethered to the Thoroughbred, at this exact moment in time, then nothing ever will and the sport is in a far worse place than anyone can imagine. Every individual needs to serve the long range health of the sport and take action now. Racing’s present needs it; racing’s future demands it.
As my former boss at the New York Racing Association, Media Relations Vice-President Pat Lynch said to me nearly five decades ago: “This game’s been studied to death.” Sadly, that's true today yet the same basic problems still persist. Who does the industry thinks it's fooling?
Like climate change, the situation is dire, one that calls for dramatic action now. Lamentably, it already may be too late. If the industry can lose a man who once was as passionate about the sport as Steven Roman was then we’re truly at a tipping point. The following is Dr. Roman’s farewell address:
“I am ending my association with Thoroughbred racing. The web site will no longer be updated. The content will remain available until the current contract with my web host lapses sometime in 1Q 2017, after which the site will go dark. Until then, any and all of the information at the site will be freely available.
“My interest in American racing has been waning for quite some time and I had hinted at my departure to friends as far back as three years ago. After 60 years, initially as a youthful racing fan, then as a hands-on owner, breeder and caretaker of pleasure horses and finally as an active participant on the racing side, the rewards of the sport that once were motivational and inspiring are mostly gone.
“My perception of a decline in the quality and diversity of American Thoroughbred racing along with the industry's continual (and, I believe, intentional) inability to deal effectively with the abusive nature of the game has taken its toll. American racing's ongoing decline is real and I am not alone in this view. A simple Google search will return many links to web pages suggesting the same.
“I'm not retiring because “retiring” implies an end to a job or career... For me Thoroughbred racing always has been an avocation. I've never been directly involved in the industry… I was content to enjoy the thrills and excitement of the sport while remaining an outside observer. Now it's coming to an end quite simply because I would prefer to spend my time doing other things.
“I've never relied on racing to make a living. If I had, perhaps my views would be more mainstream and similar to those of people actively working in the industry and whose income depends on maintaining or at best tweaking the status quo. That's not who I am as you will see.
“By training and inclination I am a physical scientist with advanced degrees in chemistry, and as the author of over 60 U.S. patents and peer-reviewed journal publications I know a bit about scientific method. I trained with a Nobel Prize winner and for many years I managed a world-class exploratory chemistry research group, was involved in university technology acquisition and participated in strategic planning for an international chemical company.
“I have extensive research and development experience in agricultural, animal health and industrial chemistry. It is this expertise, training and academic discipline that I have continuously applied to my research into the relationship between Thoroughbred pedigrees and on-track performance.
“I was a hands-on owner, breeder and early-stage trainer of Morgan and half-Morgan show and pleasure horses long before I became actively involved in Thoroughbred racing. I fed them, groomed them, played with them, tended to their ailments and pretty much hung out with them on a daily basis for 35 years until leaving the U.S. in 2004. I cared for a few retired race horses as well. So I also know something about the mind and body of the horse.
“Our opinions and values are shaped and developed largely by our life experiences. Since those experiences are unique to the individual I have no expectation the opinions and values of others will necessarily agree with mine. And that's fine. It's how it should be. Our differences are what make life interesting…Our experiences entitle us to our own understanding of the truth.
“Native Dancer was the first Thoroughbred I ever saw race. The "Gray Ghost of Sagamore" became TV's first Thoroughbred superstar. Watching him finish second in the 1953 Kentucky Derby in his only career loss was devastating to an impressionable youngster. Despite the disappointment, I was hooked. My love affair with the horse had begun.
“Looking back I am fortunate to have seen many of the great Thoroughbreds that followed. I recall the excitement of watching Swaps, Nashua, Round Table and Ribot in the 1950s; Kelso, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser and Sea Bird II in the 1960s and, of course, Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Brigadier Gerard in the 1970s. Then I sensed a change.
“Good American horses still came along on a regular basis but none, at least for me, generated the magic of those earlier years until Ghostzapper appeared in the first decade of the new century. There really haven’t been any since, although I have enjoyed a few such as Rachel Alexandra and California Chrome. Lest the reader think that I'm blinded by nostalgia, consider that the best colt and the best filly I have ever seen over seven decades both raced within the last half dozen years.
“However, neither one was American-bred and neither one was American-raced. Some latter day American horses have been prematurely proclaimed as racing's next saviors, the horses that will rekindle fan interest and return the game to its glory days. It has never happened and it never will. The slow decline of racing in the U.S. has been ongoing for years and if Secretariat couldn't reverse the trend, I doubt any individual horse ever can.
“There are parallels between the trajectories of Thoroughbred racing and professional boxing. From the 1940s and into the 1960s boxing reached its zenith of popularity when the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was one TV's most successful series, bringing the best of boxing into millions of homes every Friday night. A short time later Muhammad Ali came along and his skills transcended those of all who came before. One could even argue that Secretariat was racing's Muhammad Ali.
“Then boxing changed. People's tastes changed. Why the public began to view boxing as excessively violent and corrupt is worthy of discussion but is not the point. What is the point is that our perceptions of the sport did change and that over time it lost favor with the general public even if retaining a hardcore base of followers.
“The American public seemingly has developed a similar attitude toward Thoroughbred racing. A growing number believe it is cruel and dishonest. This belief is continually reinforced when a prominent horse dies on the track or a well-known trainer or jockey is accused of cheating. I would argue that boxing's and racing's decline is the direct result of the respective industry's policies and internal activities.
“True latter day giants of the turf are becoming rarer as Thoroughbred racing has moved in a direction that has failed to sustain public interest. Today we are feeling the effects of Thoroughbred racing's persistent shift toward breeding for speed and early maturity in the hope of quick returns on investment. Since the 1980s the annual percentage of major North American stakes races contested beyond a mile-and-an-eighth on dirt has fallen dramatically. In 1987 there were over 50 major stakes races on dirt beyond nine furlongs. The leading horses among the winners were Alysheba, Bet Twice, Broad Brush, Creme Fraiche, Ferdinand, Java Gold, Personal Ensign and Snow Chief.
“In 2015 there were about half as many such races. The best horses included American Pharoah, Beholder, Shared Belief and Tonalist, hardly a comparable group in my opinion. For me, racing today is less diverse and less interesting. The emphasis on speed is reflected in the evaluations of classic races produced by many of the organizations that generate such ratings. For example, when Daily Racing Form's Beyer Speed Figures for American classic races are plotted by year, the trend line shows that the typical figure for the winners of those races has fallen from 111 in 1990 to 103 in 2015.
“Similarly, Equibase speed figures have fallen from 115 to 109 over the same time frame. My own Performance Figures (PFs) reflect an identical pattern, falling from -65 in 1997 to -56 in 2015. Even the Racing Post in the UK has noted a decline in their trend figures for the Kentucky Derby from about 123 in 1997 to about 120 in 2015. Horses, with some exceptions, apparently are winning the American classics at lower levels of quality than expressed two, three and four decades ago.
“It shouldn't be a surprise considering how excessive speed in a pedigree limits ability over a classic distance. This seems like the wrong direction for a sport that promotes classic racing as the ideal. It is not a coincidence that no major American record on dirt beyond a sprint distance has been broken in almost 30 years, while records at 5 1/2, 6 and 6 1/2 furlongs all have been set since 2009.
“As only an occasional recreational horseplayer…I don't really know how the trend toward ever-increasing speed affects the side of the game that supports and sustains it --betting. And as a casual and infrequent horseplayer, the wagering part of the game isn't nearly enough to keep me involved.
“There is another component of the sport that does impact the wagering side and that is the seemingly indiscriminate use of medication, both legal and illegal. The industry, clearly driven by short-term motives, has failed to properly address this serious issue even though many racing venues outside the United States seem to thrive while exercising strict control over the use of drugs.
“There is no convincing explanation as to why horses in the United States routinely race on Lasix and/or Bute while horses in other parts of the world do not. Apart from the potentially damaging long-term physiological effects of any pharmaceutical, their application could be considered abusive to the extent such drugs mask physical deficiencies that in their absence would preclude the horse from being able to race effectively if at all. Yet we still hear the argument that such drugs are not performance enhancing.
“That may be strictly true in that they don't allow a horse to run faster than it is physically capable of running. However, they undeniably enable physically compromised horses to run that probably shouldn't be running in the first place. I would consider that performance-enhancing in the broadest sense. It's a virtual certainty that the overuse of race day medication contributes to injuries and fatalities on the track. Yet it appears that the quest for short-term profitability inhibits any serious attempt to find a meaningful solution.
“Because of this economically-driven, self-induced paralysis we are continually subjected to the infuriating and obscene meme following any on-track fatality that "it's sad but it's part of the game." We've all heard this reprehensible comment even from the most successful trainers, riders and owners. In my opinion such comments are a disgrace and reflect poorly on those who make them. I doubt they would make similar statements about high school football.
“I guess in the end most people either don't really care or are in denial. It's also likely they are unaware of the Associated Press study conducted almost a decade ago that identified at least 5,000 track-related horse fatalities in the U.S. between 2003 and 2008, an average of about three per day. [Those statistics have improved but] I'm as guilty as anyone who tolerates these activities without protest.”
Part 2, Wednesday: Does the Industry Care Enough to Change the Way It Conducts Business?
Written by John Pricci