Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Federal Intervention Weighs Heavily as Glamour Season Begins

SARATOGA SPRINGS, July 17, 2012—Boutique season has arrived. Del Mar opens tomorrow and the fabled Saratoga will host its 144th summer meet beginning Friday-- and that’s a powerful lot of history and tradition.

I mention this to our friends in the sports world because yes, Virginia, and Maryland, and Kentucky, and California, and here in New York, too, horse racing was thriving long before the advent of organized baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Never mind that the automobile wasn’t yet a gleam in Henry Ford’s eye.

With decade-awaited VLT legislation finally arriving late last year, this will be the first season that Saratoga’s purses, already America’s highest, will be slots-infused.

With $930,000 per day in purse distribution on average, it’s not very hyperbolic to refer to Saratoga 144 as “Racing’s Million-Dollar Meet.”

Given the money available in the Empire State, and the 25 percent bonus Del Mar will pay horsemen for ship-and-win forays to the Great Surf Place, America’s most popular handle leaders figure to enjoy memorable seasons, economic climate and all.

But there’s a thousand-pound Thoroughbred in the room and it’s the federal government. The action it will take in the future hangs over these meets as if it were a sword wielded by Damocles himself.

And no matter what side of the medication debate racing factions sits, no one can argue that the industry didn’t bring the specter of government intervention on itself.

In our view, Federal intervention would be the best thing for the industry if it is to survive the present and prosper in the future. When reason gives way to expediency and greed, only a third party with heft can flex the inflexible.

The irony here is that if the industry were given marching orders and immediate action was taken, it still would be the better part of two decades before the gene pool was cleaned out and what happens between the fences again would more meaningful that what transpires in the sales ring: Horseracing as end product; not marketing tool.

However, late breaking bulletins notwithstanding, I’d like to put all this away for a spell and concentrate on the beginning of the sport’s championship season, earning while I learn which the fairest animals of them all are.

Starting today, and again on Friday, I won’t have the time to sit before the computer and watch three more hours of Senate hearings; been there, did that, and it was as predictable as it was instructive.

Archival footage of the event is all over the Internet, and racing’s mainstream media has broken down the testimony and the reaction of legislators to the affidavits they witnessed.

But assessing the event for me was a little like “Playing the Red Board.” Even the analysis was predictable; reactive, picking at snippets of thought free of visceral, inflective context. The pictures as they were streamed live were worth thousands of words:

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on “Medication and Performance Enhancing Drugs in Horse Racing,” appeared to react reasonably, attentive and relatively agenda-free.

It may be argued that he harbored some pre-conceived notions, thanks to reports in the New York Times that were at once comprehensive and flawed. Still, Udall appeared to make an honest effort to seek out the truth.

If Udall’s queries appeared to lead any of the witnesses, he did so on both sides of an extremely complex issue.

One witness was Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a sponsor of the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act which would amend 1978’s Interstate Horseracing Act by banning performance-enhancing drugs on raceday, providing for stiff penalties for violators.

Of course, the severity of the punishment would be suitable to the crime and this is where the thousand-pound Thoroughbred reenters the room: What is the definition of a performance-enhancing drug, exactly?

Other witnesses were the industry’s practitioners, representing both the business and sporting aspects of the game, including testimony that addressed health safeguards for racing’s equine and human athletes.

The industry people were forthright and passionate, and all seemed to be speaking from their mind and heart. But depending on whom they were and who they were representing, their schemata began to show.

What was it that these people wanted? Did they just want to help make the current issues disappear? Do these hearings really matter, or is this just for show? What are the goals and what shoud they be, short or long term?

I will need until tomorrow to think this through. Right now I'm distracted; both divisions of the Oceanside Stakes require my undivided attention.

Wednesday: This Is the Business We Have Chosen, Part II

Written by John Pricci

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