Tuesday, April 16, 2013
“Baffert-Gate,” Just Another Sad Chapter
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 16, 2013—The news from California is very bad on several levels, disheartening to those who love the game and love the animals and unnerving, too, considering how it’s all juxtaposed to what Derby week media coverage might bring.
In relation to the Lasix issue which has to this point only tangential implications with respect to the heart attacks polemic at Southern California racetracks, HRI has counseled that public perception matters and that the industry should pro-act before another tragedy shuts the whole thing down.
Then I remembered: There is no industry per se, just states that permit parimutuel horse racing for which they get a piece of the action. The only thing any national racing organizations do is create jobs for themselves, wielding no influence and having no impact on how day-to-day racing business is conducted.
Until the “me” portion of the industry turns into the “we” portion of the program, there will be continued adherence to the status quo, the reason why all these chickens have been coming home to roost in greater number lately.
In the wake of doom-and-gloom, I prefer a proactive response to the cover-up but it’s clear that I and other like-minded people are the clear cut minority. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
As to the spate in cardiac related deaths over the past few years in California, no one can truly offer a valid opinion until more facts are known. Unfortunately, I have no confidence that more facts will be forthcoming. I have seen these PPs before.
Thoroughbred racing, like other big businesses and politicians, knows how to play the wait ’em-out-till-they-forget game, indeed proving that some of the people can be fooled some of the time.
Whatever the cause of these sudden equine deaths, whoever the culprit, this was not what Hall of Fame California horseman Ron McAnally meant when he said of the Thoroughbred race horse that “they give their lives for our pleasure.”
Those words were spoken in the emotional wake of the Go for Wand tragedy on a Breeders’ Cup afternoon at Belmont Park when, in the often crude language of the racetrack, one equine put so much heat on a rival that it would buckle under pressure.
Parenthetically, it was no different with Ruffian, or with Eight Belles, also females that tried so hard that their limbs couldn’t hold them. But unlike those examples, five of seven cardiac-related deaths from one barn came during training hours, not during the stress of play-for-pay action.
It may be impolitic to judge without having all the facts but it would be irresponsible and inappropriate not to speculate based on circumstances. From where we sit, these cardiac related deaths are a possible indictment of not only individuals but the whole way the game is administered. It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the California state line.
Empirical information is damning. Whether the number of deaths spiked the last several years are irrelevant: There were 20 two years ago, 19 last year and 17 this year, likely higher because 2013 cardiac deaths will not be listed until the fiscal year ends.
For openers, why this data is not made public as soon as the cause of death is determined is a failed administrative policy. Whether or not Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is too big to fail may be a matter for the state to decide.
The industry cannot allow these deaths to go without consequence and it is unknown whether anyone in California racing circles has the courage to go wherever the findings might take them. To this point, the California Horse Racing Board at best has acted questionably.
Horse racing doesn’t want government involvement but its devotion to the status quo will someday end the game as we know it because people outside the sport will call on the feds to shut it down.
Common sense dictates that seven cardiac-related deaths from one barn in 18 months, five during training hours, is way beyond the pale. Horsemen interviewed by myself and others are warily suspicious to say the least, their observations going beyond the usual competitive jealousy. The animal is at the heartbeat of this way of life.
What is problematic has been the public deference shown toward Mr. Baffert by CHRB members one day before--through a public relations firm and on the advice of counsel-- he would issue the ill-considered “personally troubling” statement.
The fact that Commissioner Bo Derek reportedly would allow herself to be seen publicly with the trainer just before a CHRB meeting that was to review this matter was ill-advised at best. The idea that Chairman David Israel would be seen publicly with the target of an inquiry in his clubhouse box is thoughtless, arrogant or both.
And to have Dr. Rick Arthur walk back his remarks of the previous day regarding a “spike” in the number of cardiac deaths might be the most egregious insult to anyone’s intelligence with interest in this matter.
Further, what were trace elements of rat poison, reportedly not the same kind used by the tracks to combat rodent problems, doing in the stricken horses that died showing disparate symptoms that led to the cardiac-related deaths? Is blood doping an issue?
In his press release, Baffert noted that Derek and Arthur “made it clear that nothing I have done has caused any horse I have trained to suffer equine sudden death syndrome.” Clear to whom? If that’s an acquittal then why does he continue to work “with everyone…to find the causes of the unexplained deaths.”
In summary, Baffert’s statement read “I hope that research by the CHRB and its pathologists will discover information helpful to understanding the reasons that I, and many of my colleagues, have had horses suffer this unfortunate fate.”
Yet to date he has failed to submit veterinary records of the deceased horses to researchers performing post-mortem tests on stricken horses because in California there is no requirement to do so.
According to the Paulick Report, California horsemen have opposed an amendment to the necropsy program. Objecting were the Southern California Equine Foundation, representing veterinarians, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, who would capitulate only to a blind study for fear that specific inquiries would lead to a possible witch hunt.
Alas, when all else fails, obfuscate the real issues by striving for perfection, the enemy of the good.