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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The announcement that a House subcommittee will hold the first hearing on Jan. 28 on the Barr-Tonko Horse Racing Integrity Act, which has been kicking around Congress for years, is a step in the direction of drug-free racing. But reality tempers enthusiasm. History teaches there are few in racing who have shown any inclination to put the good of the game above their own selfish interests.

Pegasus World Cup 2020 is illustrative of this. The Stronach Group is going into its own pocket to fund a $3 million race (with another $1 million for a turf stakes). It might not be the $12 million or $16 million or even $9 million of previous Pegasus events but there are no exorbitant entry fees, either. It’s still the second richest dirt race in North America.

But some of racing’s biggest stars are passing to run in richer races in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. It could be the death of the Pegasus, especially after the late scratches of Omaha Beach and Spun to Run left the race without a real attraction. This is a $3 million race with a $300,000 field, to be generous.

If the Pegasus were allowed to grow in prestige and tradition, which it appeared to be doing until this year, it could serve as the launch pad for a new season of championship racing, just as the Daytona 500 does for NASCAR. The first three runnings each attracted the Horse of the Year, which was virtually unheard of for a January race.

Now this is unlikely to happen. There’s more money to be made in the Middle East, so who cares if it means America’s stars will be unavailable to U.S. racing for half the year, at least.

Maximum Security, the defrocked Kentucky Derby winner; McKinzie, arguably the top older male dirt horse other than Maximum Security, and Midnight Bisou, the past year’s top female, are all heading to the Middle East. So are a herd of other outstanding runners for the multi-million dollar features and their rich supporting races in the dessert. These horses really would have dressed up the Pegasus program, which is nationally televised in America. It’s an opportunity squandered to put the game in a positive light against the backdrop of all the recent negativity. 

The prevalent attitude of selfishness extends from the backstretch to the owners’ boxes to the track executive suites to the breeding operations.

The Triple Crown is the engine that drives racing. The beauty of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont is it’s a series of races. Fans could anticipate and debate how the horses will fare from one race to another at different tracks at different distances.

Horsemen have all but reduced it to a one-day stand in Louisville. Only two horses from the Derby competed in the Preakness and War of Will was the only entrant in all three. This is nothing new. It has been building toward this in recent years.

Maryland is fretting over where to anchor the Preakness, while horsemen for all but the Derby winner are in the process of making the second jewel of the Triple Crown irrelevant. Last spring half the Derby also-rans claimed maladies that would have embarrassed Ferris Bueller.

Getting back to the Derby, there is no more contrarian, selfish organization than Churchill Downs. They shut down Calder and sold Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows fully aware that it would mean the end of racing.

CDI is in the process of doing the same to Arlington Park. Racing in the Chicago area has been declining in recent years because purses not enhanced by casino dollars could not keep up with those in neighboring states that have casino support.

Illinois tried to rectify this by giving Arlington the right to operate a racino with part of the proceeds going to purses. This should have been the salvation of the breathtakingly beautiful track. It won’t be. Churchill has no plans to add a casino because it has a free-standing casino 13 miles away from which it doesn’t have to share profits with horsemen.

Churchill is pulling a similar stunt in South Florida. Its agreement to shut down Calder and allow almost all racing to be conducted at Gulfstream included a stipulation that in addition to running a state-mandated 40-day meeting at Calder, dubbed Gulfstream West, it would contribute about $8 million to purses from its casino profits. This year, it created a joke of a jai alai fronton to fulfill the 40-day requirement and is trying to get out of its commitment to horse purses.

Those in Kentucky who would point to the major investment CDI is making to renovate Turfway Park are naïve. Churchill isn’t investing in racing. It is expanding the facility to create additional floor space for a casino.

Churchill’s anti-racing shenanigans seem boundless. TVG is one of the best things ever to happen to racing. It spends the entire winter and spring pumping the Kentucky Derby. Yet the past couple of years Churchill management has barred TVG from originating from the track in the run-up to the Derby because TVG has an ADW site that competes with Churchill’s.

NYRA and The Stronach Group have their own ADW sites, too, but TVG is more than welcome at their venues.

Churchill even tried to deny media credentials to Caton Bredar, who wears many racing hats including coverage of the Derby for a local Louisville channel, because one of her jobs is for TVG. It took an uproar from the media to make them back down from that.

The Racing Form is the Bible of the sport. But Churchill barred it from being sold on-track in Kentucky and at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans because DRF also has an ADW site.

Perhaps the only good thing that can be said of CDI is it openly admits that it no longer considers itself a racing company. It is a casino-operating corporation, which happens to have racing in its portfolio.

This is not a company likely to join in any coalition unless its goals are totally in line with its own.

Racing is facing an existential crisis because of the perception that it is more chemical warfare than sport. Nevertheless, 600 horsemen, including Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, signed a petition indicating they will dig in their heels against any attempt to outlaw race day medication, the heart of the HRIA. These horsemen are effectively saying they would rather have no racing than drug-free racing.

Gulfstream Park has been dragging post times four, five and six minutes the last few years. If there is anyone in racing from fans to TVG to other tracks that doesn’t wish it would stop, they haven’t gone public with these feelings. The Stronach Group doesn’t care because the thinking is it increases the bottom line, a debatable point.

Breeders have absolutely no regard for fans. Omaha Beach, the morning line favorite until he had to be scratched from the Pegasus, would have been running his last race. He is the latest potential crowd magnet rushed away to the breeding shed before they even reach the peak of their ability.

Anyone who thinks these various factions will ever unite for the good of the game are like the winner of the 2017 Kentucky Derby—Always Dreaming.

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11 Responses

  1. The fact that the same people signing the petition stating how cruel it is to deny horses Lasix, are the ones bringing their horses to the Middle East, running their horses without Lasix, shows what duplicitous greedy liars they are, who care nothing for the welfare of the animal.

    1. Remember the movie, The 300? How a rag tag team of 300 Spartans held off a huge Persian Army from taking a city. 299 died and one brought the story back to the people. The Lasix 600 are facing similar long odds, it would seem. Not sure they will do what Leonidas and his rag tag team of “300” were able to do, ‘tho.

  2. They have 20 million reasons why…

    Good to support a regime that not only dismembered an American journalist but FBI recently foiled a plot by Saudi is to kidnap a You Tube activist who criticized His Royal Highness Dictator. Of course, no official response from the Criminal in Chief…

  3. TJ, you’re right about the Triple Crown losing it’s lustre. Gone are the days of entrants in DY going for the three bagger. Maybe if Visa brought back the million dollar bonus but upped it to more of a Powerball sized jackpot that would help. Maybe Run Happy can sponsor the TC races. Loved Run Happy and wonder what he thinks of this fine mess. Thanks for the posting, despite it’s subject matter.

  4. Tom, In an era when everything fake is true, it is getting tougher and tougher to maintain a mindset of optimistic realism. From the simplicity of “there’s never enough you see” all pervasive greed (Brothers’ Grim Cat and Mouse Partnership) now capturing the horse racing industry, to the deception currently in play in Washington that threatens the very foundations of our patriotism and democracy, where and when does it all end?

    I proudly served in uniform in years past, but now carry a somewhat more diminished optimism regarding our future. Early yesterday I watched a show on Normandy, and today am left wishing we could turn the clock back, and recapture our sense of honesty past. I suspect that Time itself has a way of evaluating all of us. Evaluating our very worth.

    Currently Time is not being served very well mind you. Whether a race day medication influenced contest often challenged by the staff and contributors at HRI, to a morally bankrupt four year presidential term, time captures it all. I suspect that the values that can help us reset the gyroscope of our currently spinning out of control collective mindsets can all be found in our past. If we would only look to our past. So wishing our best days, as with racing itself, are not all now in our rear view.

  5. Where would one watch and wager on the sinful Saudi spectacle on-line since commerce clearly trumps all else on our climate-changing planet? Will the Kentucky Derby ever again be run on a dry track?

    Will there be on-track wagering at KAR or will it be like MEY?

    Which U.S. ADWs offer wagering and PPs on the UAE Derby and the Dubai World Cup?

    1. Same goes for Preakness. Saw Deputed Testamony splash home in 1983. And a couple of years ago American Pharoah jogged at a gift price in slop. Storm happened just before post and wet going made him even more of a lock. Now owner Zayat is wiped-out. Talk about a Riches to Rags story. Lost breeding rights to the banks. You can’t make this stuff up.

  6. I’m almost positive the Saudi race will be available at race tracks and ADW’s.

    Their target audience isn’t the locals. They are trying to put a positive spin on their barbaric nation.

    1. …and they’re off in the desert! read that Dave Johnson copyrighted the phrase, “and down the stretch they come.” He’s sued people for using the phrase and WON. Jack E. Lee should’ve done the same with, “This field is on gate.” Going to RR in early 70’s was a gas. Beautiful track. Johnny Chapman in the bike. Some really good drivers, too.

      1. Stop it ! You force my mind to voluntarily wander through the time tunnel ,,besides reminding us all of some three million residents of both Suffolk and Nassau got taken from another political scam.That was a great location and joint accessible to anyone who knew how to follow directions from a couple of highways,,,,similarly later the Nassau ‘Mausoleum’ got abandoned, cheaply rebuilt rebuilt losing a popular hockey team when after some ‘finagling ‘ between politicians,owners and would be investors when “For a Few Dollars More’ the ice rink and its feverish,local hockey fans would have been able to see NHL hockey without any bad seats..instead of ‘moving’ to the cold,dark and alien joint in Brooklyn and now someone is picking some $ 2 plus billion $ outta local taxpayers.What a deal,Not an additional $ 100 mils to fix the old joint but it will be okay to splurge over $ 2 BillionS for a new one in a crowded environment ? Where`s the LOGIC ? I thought Islander taxpayers were smarter than that,,or at least used to be. Brainwashed to pay taxes over and over again ? They “Need a new drug “,,as the song said.Ps my favorite Horse in those 2 minute Roosevelt miles were Niatross,Seatrain; the former a train of a horse,the latter lost so many races because of his size,,,Used to watch harness on saturday nights with my late father with whom i spent his last night while watching racing from Roosevelt with mister Bernstein on the microphone after Jack Lee`s calls.The Best times of and on Long Island while today with the many failures of OTB and lack of interest those old people [there are no young customers at any OTB making feel it like nursing homes ! }who try to stay as patrons feel like being PERSONA NON GRATA,unwelcome so many go to the nearest Casino,Racino which” IS Better but it Costs more ‘ robbing a line from Moonstruck . PS; just read a long 6 page article on this week`s BaRRON`S ABOUT THE INVESTMENTS IN TRACKS,SIMULCASTING WITH ITS,OF COURSE, BETTING PARLORS. ELDORADO,,MGM ,PENN are some of the companies and stocks mentioned.Interesting that Eldorado`s Numbers have gone up some 40 % over the last year.. `Til next week.

  7. One of my all-time favorites was Cam Fella. Stan Bergstein really knew his stuff. Would read his column in Sports Eye because I knew it had to be good. Would take train from Penn to Mineola and RR had a bus to ferry us to track. Would go to Ranger games and hear the chant, “Islanders suck.” Then I thought to myself, how can they suck if they won FOUR cups in a row? Don’t get me wrong, I am a Rangers fan and the rivalry back then was intense. Bobby Nystrom was not a favorite at The Garden. But Bossy and Trottier, among the best I’ve seen. Heard that Rangers had a shot at Bossy in draft and passed. Hey, what can you do? This guy’s “snap shot” was so fast you never even saw the puck go into the net. And don’t get me started on trading Rick Middleton to Boston for Ken Hodge, Espo’s line mate in Beantown. A month later he was shipped out. Worst trade in NHL history! You’re correct, good times back then at the oval in Westbury. Tom Jicha just posted a piece about the geniuses at Churchill Downs who will let Arlington fail. Al Capone would not be happy. He liked Hawthorne a lot, too.

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