Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NYRA Whacks Detention Barn, Clearing Way for Rachel-Zenyatta Summit

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July14, 2010--In a victory for common sense over window dressing, the New York Racing Association announced that its highly controversial security barn would cease operations as of July 23, opening day of the Saratoga race meet.

In doing so, it avoided the embarrassment of a horsemen’s boycott of the entry box Thursday morning, when entries will be taken for Sunday‘s card, the final program of the Belmont Park summer meet.

In making the announcement in a press release late Wednesday, NYRA chose to bury the lead, trumpeting that there will be expansion of the in-house drug testing program. The question remaining in the face of this well timed declaration is: What took so long?

As a member of Pat Lynch‘s NYRA press staff in the 1970s, I learned that as a general rule anything that’s good for the horsemen usually turns out to be a defeat for horseplayers. Today’s development just might turn out to be a victory for both.

The event also should provide relief for NYRA Director of Racing and racing secretary P J Campo by making it easier to fill racing programs at the upcoming meet by eliminating a huge concern for visiting trainers; the unfriendly environment of the detention facility.

The perceptionthat a big hurdle impeding the ultimate quality of New York racing has been cleared should have NYRA bean counters and Saratoga Chamber of Commerce members dancing and high-fiving on Union Avenue.

Of great significance to the sport’s fans, eliminating the detention removes the only significant barrier preventing a summit between racing’s two great race mares; defending Horse of the Year champion Rachel Alexandra vs. 2010’s leading candidate for that title, the mighty 17-0 Zenyatta.

Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs has been an outspoken critic of the detention facility, having had a bad prior experience. But now, the Personal Ensign at 10 furlongs and at scale weights at meet’s end eliminates any excuse that would keep either filly in the barn.

Conditions for Zenyatta could hardly be more favorable for her to take her show on the road for only the third time in her career. While Zenyatta obviously needs to ship here, she might find the weather a bit more refreshing in late summer. Meanwhile, Rachel would have to run farther than she ever has before. Yin, say hello to yang.

As exhilarating as the thought of a summit might be, ending the detention barn era has more immediate benefits. And for those who would argue to the contrary; that the facility helps level the playing field for horsemen, what is its ultimate effect on the player? What about horses that don’t lift a hoof after suffering a literal or figurative meltdown on a hot afternoon or becomes highly strung in an unfamiliar place?

For the horseplayer, having an animal improve its performance artificially is no worse than having an honest rival go off form for no apparent reason. How does that help anyone?

Of course, diligent scrutiny is not only welcome, it’s entirely necessary. Horse Race Insider has campaigned against the detention barn editorially and has suggested that security would be better served with the installation of web cameras at strategic intervals throughout each barn, a security person required to monitor and report all activity that deviates from the norm, doing so at regularly timed intervals. If that fails, video can substantiate later what may or may not have occurred.

The NYRA release stated that its soon to be implemented expanded program includes random out-of-competition testing designed to deter the use of blood doping agents such as Erythropoietin (EPO), bronchial dilators, and other illegal substances. That's about time, too.

“Out-of-competition testing will focus primarily on claimed horses, horses shipping in and out of NYRA tracks, horses running in stakes races, and other random occurrences.” the question is why should enforcement be subject to any limiting factors? Why not state that any horse can be tested at any time, with the record of those findings made public?

According to the terms of the agreement that gave NYRA back its franchise, it agreed to operate in a more transparent manner. So there is no excuse for not publishing these findings for the record, even when a test is passed. Wouldn’t that serve as a deterrent, too?

As stated in the release, "NYRA will initiate an 'in-today' process which will identify all horses, in their stalls, running in a NYRA race within 24 hours. This will afford NYRA the ability to monitor horses the day prior to and in the hours leading up to a race through the deployment of a stronger backstretch presence of NYRA veterinarians and security officers.

"Further, NYRA will continue testing for illegal levels of total carbon dioxide (TCO2, known as 'milkshaking') through an 'assembly barn' where all horses entering a race will be required to report just prior to moving to the paddock for saddling."

More welcome news is that the testing operation will be administered and supervised by Dr. George Maylin, director of the New York State Racing & Wagering Board’s drug testing and research program at Morrisville State College in upstate New York.

The program of thoroughbred and standardbred testing currently overseen by Dr. Maylin in New York is already the most advanced and comprehensive of any jurisdiction in the United States, the release said. It is widely accepted that Dr. Maylin‘s experience and reputation are above reproach. This development is a good thing for the customer.

TOMORROW, Part 2: Enforcement, Punishment and the Big Picture

Written by John Pricci

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