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?