Trainer Christophe Clement said in an interview last month that the ban on steroids will make a profound difference in the way horses are trained and raced, that stamina now has a chance to overcome speed.
And so it would appear that the steroid ban, the proliferation of synthetic surfaces, and more conscientious maintenance of conventional dirt tracks are making it harder to maintain frontrunning speed (empirically, see Gulfstream and Aqueduct this winter) and, in a good way, places a premium on strength over speed.
Not long after Clement made his comment, Roddy Valente, a successful New York owner, told a racing audience on the Capital-OTB “Trackfacts” program that his trainer, Bruce Levine, has wrestled with the notion of steroids as performance enhancer for the last few years and concluded it didn’t make a big difference one way or the other.
Ackowledging this difference of opinion, it's interested to note that many regulars think Levine’s high winning percentage in most categories puts him in the category of the so-called “super-trainer.” Unfortunately, for both Levine and the industry, the perception that "super trainers" exist is reality.
From a business and moral perspective, this is racing’s biggest problem. The handicappers that remain have learned to factor the “30-percent trainer" into their handicapping. Either that or ignore them to your bankroll's peril. At minimum, most players believe they must use these super-trainers in a defensive betting posture.
As a consequence, “super trainers” are overbet. But if they win 30 percent of the time, does that definition fit? Savvy horseplayers know that the cleaner the punch, the better the value. Betting defensively can be very costly. Between the short odds and added expense of including unwanted horses into the wagering mix, finding betting value has become extremely difficult.
It’s no wonder, and no coincidence, that so many big players have walked away. And this is before addressing the nature of high parimutuel takeout rates that yield a short-term revenue fix but calamitous long term results for the player and the industry.
Good news for the industry been a long time coming, but not this week, when vested interests began to address their problems purposefully. There were two important developments; one from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the nation's vets, and the other from the Jockey Club.
The AAEP recommendations are forward-looking, will take time to implement and require an almost unprecedented level of cooperation. But the Jockey Club announcement that it will fund a frozen sample and retrospective testing program, beginning in April, 12 months after the establishment of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy--represents warp speed movement.
Not only will the freezing of samples at designated facilities act as a deterrent to the use of illegal substances, but an accumulation of positive results by the same owner, trainer or attending veterinarian would be considered “aggravating circumstances” in the determination of how fines and suspensions would be levied in accordance with existing Racing Medication and Testing Consortium penalty recommendations.
This is important news and a significant step forward. For it to work effectively, of course, there must be transparency regarding what those penalties are or should be. And they had better include possible lifetime bans for habitual violators. This is a brave new world we have all entered, one in which dishonesty and greed have forced us to peer into an abyss. The time for wrist slapping is over.
Also significant this week was an AAEP white paper that contained recommendations to protect the safety and welfare of the racehorse. Much in this nine-page paper has been discussed before but this time some new wrinkles acknowledged current racetrack realities and public perceptions.
Finally, there is acknowledgement that racing’s basic business model must change. Racing is a year-round sport conducted in 38 disparate jurisdictions, a situation lending itself not only to chaotic inefficiency but policies that place the racehorse in stressful situations, some of which can be ameliorated or eliminated altogether with thoughtful rule changes.
As claiming races comprise 70 percent of the average wagering menu, and with field size directly tied to revenue, the AAEP recommends that the practice of racing secretaries applying pressure on trainers to race be abolished. Racetrack and racino executives, especially, must be educated as to the health and welfare of the horse.
There is acknowledgement, too, that the racing model has evolved whereby peak earning potential for racehorses is late in the two-year-old year and in the three-year-old season, with less potential for earnings as horses age, the highest classes notwithstanding. Recognizing that some degree of training and racing is good for two-year-olds, the AAEP acknowledges that racing juveniles is preferable for long term health and quality of performance.
Additionally, the AAEP wants owners to be brought into the decision process of race horse care in consort with the trainer and vet. Pre-race testing procedures and the uniform reporting of injuries, including those sustained in workouts, long overdue, must be standardized. And the current reporting system which varies from state to state must be made uniform.
TOMORROW: Claiming races, the welfare of horses, and public perception