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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


This year’s Breeders’ Cup renewal will be viewed with at least as much anxiety as excitement as what’s left of America’s top thoroughbreds will be tested over surfaces where seemingly excessive numbers of on-track equine deaths have occurred since Accelerate won last year’s Classic.

LOS ANGELES–Racing’s newest Big Cheese is pizzeria proprietor, Patrick Battuello, who may one day become known as the person who broke down horseracing’s resistance to revealing information regarding equine breakdowns.

Whether or not one agrees with his objectives, however, one should appreciate his accomplishment in compiling a valuable subset of that data on which the industry continues to deny access by the public in too many racing jurisdictions, and thus in the aggregate as well.

If all such data were readily available through official sources, many believe that not only could causes of “spikes” in occurrences of breakdowns be found more rapidly but also new practices preventing them — and proof that progress was being made in reducing them — could be developed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Battuello’s remarks in his Letter to the Washington Post editor also revealed an intention not to fix what’s wrong with the sport, but rather to eliminate it altogether.

Unlike some other horseplayers, I can’t simply dismiss such animal rights activists despite their questionable tactics. I believe extensive reform of horseracing is clearly necessary, and if it can’t be driven from within, then it must be imposed from without.

That the game’s decision makers are inclined to make poor choices could not be clearer than in the Breeders’ Cup’s decision to not allow trainer Jerry Hollendorfer to participate in their events.

By extending The Stronach Group’s controversial ban of Hollendorfer from its individual tracks to an independently conducted event of national if not world prominence, opportunity, and entertainment —  without credible justification or proof of wrong-doing — shows that even that body has become tainted by the same lack of integrity and transparency found in some regulatory bodies in other individual states.

Make no mistake! Statistics can be either a weapon or a beneficial tool depending on the circumstances and their interpretation. Where were the specific rules that defined Hollendorfer’s fourth breakdown at the Santa Anita winter meet as a career-ending violation?

Racing has attracted or repelled a variety of people for a variety of reasons since long before I first became involved in the ‘60s when Kelso was “The” Champion, but now the opposing groups can communicate quickly and widely 24/7; both among themselves and with the general public.

When people still had to attend racetracks to bet legally, playing the races was a more social experience. New customers were more readily recruited to replace those it lost. And if one went to the track alone, one might actually make a new friend.

Under racing’s monopoly on legalized gambling, most factions were relatively content with their share of the pie. There was little incentive for institutionalized edge-taking, and forms of misrepresentation and/or abuse were limited or at least virtually invisible to the general public.

What we have today is a state of increased agitation to complement the ever-present disharmony.

Today fewer and less-enthusiastic horseplayers are pounding their keyboards as they watch in high-definition detail the unwarranted race riding, questionable steward’s decisions, and gut-wrenching injuries to jockeys as well as horses.

They, and even the game’s non-participants, are further aggravated by a mainstream media manipulated not only by politicians but anyone with an agenda and their own version of “supporting facts.”

Indeed, we have arrived at the Age of Misinformation or, worse, Disinformation. Even past performance data from racing’s “Bible and its competition,” are not considered as reliable predictors as they used to be.

Even figure-makers themselves occasionally find erroneous measurements and observations requiring multiple interpretations.

The disadvantage of these flawed tools is dwarfed in consequence for today’s recreational bettors as they attempt to compete on a playing field tilted in favor of rebated professionals; including some with special access to parimutuel pools information at the last minute.

I have to admit that my appetite for both pizza and betting Graded Stakes in 2019 has contracted as I can almost spot the footprints among the sausage and mushrooms of those trampling the pastime I used to pursue with passion.

I do, however, still look forward to joining a few old friends on SKYPE for a foray into the BC Classic vertical exotics. I won’t bother asking Mr. Battuello his opinion; I already know.

May everyone return home safely.

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9 Responses

  1. Lack of transparency? No one could argue that; twas ever thus in this industry.

    But lack of integrity? IMO, that goes too far. I put myself in the shoes of both Santa Anita and Breeders’Cup and I know what I must do at this particular place and time.

    If, heaven forbid, something happens in one of 14 national races because accidents do happen, authorities in California and animal lovers throughout the country will be up in arms–vs Santa Anita, Breeders’ Cup and horse racing in general.

    PETA would not have to pay people to carry signs; they would come out in droves, of their own volition.

    Are these decisions PR motivated? Of course. But the perception associated with any breakdown–i.e., “cruelty to animals,”–could spell the end of racing in California. And when the first domino falls…

    In terms of Mr. Hollendorfer, there was a “spike” of fatal injuries within his own barn. The Golden Gate breakdown was damnable, given the veterinary lead-up to it. Mr. Hollendorfer’s approach to cut his losses via a precipitous venue-and-class drop is obvious to any in the game longer than 15 minutes.

    The protocols that will be in place NOV 1-2 will be the best this industry can enforce, any time, any place. The glare from this BC spotlight will be blinding and the stakes have never been higher.

    This isn’t negative gloom and doom here; it’s an acknowledgement of what is–on the eve of pre-entries Wednesday, one of my particular favorite days of the year. So much greatness, so much promise and, because I’m a horseplayer, so many opportunities to score out.

    1. JP,
      I’m glad you brought more details regarding Hollendorfer’s tactics to the table, but I can’t believe he’s the only hardball-playing claiming trainer in the State.

      Your 15 minutes notwithstanding, was there actually a claim in for the horse you referred to at Golden Gate?

      Who else is a target of this level of scrutiny? If not, why not? If so, what percentage represent some level of threat similar to those ascribed to Hollendorfer?

      The integrity factor is underscored not only by Hollendorfer’s still being allowed to run at other top-level venues, but also the fact that a total shutdown of Santa Anita would actually be profitable for its ownership who decided to portray this trainer as a super abuser, and project him as an example of “what’s wrong with the game.”

      Indeed the CEO, along with leadership of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), and the Governor of California, have all contributed a measure of credibility to PETA whose goal is to put an end to horse racing. Quid Pro Quo anyone?

      Let’s not forget that after the Breeders’ Cup decided to roll the dice and stay with Santa Anita despite the lack of a definitive explanation for the spike in equine deaths, the head of the BC announced he’d be going to work for the Santa Anita ownership.

      Perhaps this is the “New Normal,” and while we probably should live every day as if it were our last, we shouldn’t have to watch each BC event in fear of its finality should a fatality occur.

  2. I, most, if not all, of you said I agree with; Hollendorfer is not the only “bad actor” in the game. In fact, some high profile trainers get a complete pass; environmental contamination, anyone?

    The fact that other venues have embraced JH’s presence means only that they welcome a high profile Hall of Famer with a barn filled with champions and top class horses. And if not that, then to fill races at minimum.

    The one disagreement I have with is your unwillingness to accept what a majority of fans have; that it was a variety of factors that led to the high attrition rate–not the least of it was, what, a record 11 inches of rain in one month and all the floating and sealing of the surface to follow.

    Ultimately, not only did Santa Anita close, get surface experts in to study and help correct the problem, which did, until it didn’t again, then did, cutting fatalities by 58%. SA then enacted the toughest drug protocols and veterinary practices in the game, to which no other track followed suit.

    This says more about the industry and its lack of a central authority and independent outside testing in a game that, on balance, has proven incapable of policing itself. Progress is being made. The too little-too late response would be an issue for another day.

    HRI sources have explained to me, and I accept it, that Belinda Stronach wanted to bring in her own team, which she has, and that Mr. Fravel was brought in to put a new public face on Santa Anita Park, is capable, well liked, a skilled communicator, something California desperately needs with political issues that require skilled and delicate handling.

    1. JP,
      Your rebuttals provide the balm for those who would prefer to put racing’s problems in 2019 on hold and experience the BC as if it were business as usual.

      And there’s nothing wrong with having that point of view as long as one is comfortable with the prospect that without even further reform, racing may no longer be conducted in a State where more than 100 graded stakes were scheduled this year.

  3. TTT

    All other factors leading to breakdowns aside, one thing they should do, is meet with the jockeys on Friday morning, and let them know that any occurrences of race riding will not be tolerated, and will be met with stiff suspensions, emphasizing that they want no inquiries and no unnecessary controversy due to jockey stupidity/arrogance. Please note that the foregoing should be applied each racing day, but we all know that this is racing’s premier day, and everyone is watching. They should also set up a separate close up camera on the notoriously leading offending jockeys, to ensure that their trash riding does not occur.

    1. Makes sense to me, TTT, but would a ride like Garcia’s on Bayern in 2014 be handled any differently this year?

  4. And if that results in an extra layer of precautionary safety, so much the better; excellent suggestion, TTT!

  5. TTT is right. Because of the importance of the two days maybe the fines/suspensions should be “doubled.” I personally don’t care if the purses are sky high and the jocks want to win in the worst way. You will do it the right way or you, in the words of Donald Trump on The Apprentice, “are fired!” A few of these talented horses won’t need much jockey assistance, they’re that good. Rocking chair ride.

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