By Indulto —
HRI owner/publisher, John Pricci, recently attributed disillusionment to the discouraging departures of his fellow journalists who had shared his vision and ably supported this website’s mission:
‘Part of the reasons why Mark and Tom “retired” is because nothing in the game will change substantively and is a waste of time and effort, i.e., continue trying to make a difference.
I don’t disagree with their observations but I know that the only way to affect change with respect to any issue in life, is from within.’
LOS ANGELES, December 17, 2020–My late friend, Willy, would often minimize the impact of short-term setbacks with his sarcastic mantra, “Nothing is so bad it can’t get worse.” Those prophetic words are as applicable to Thoroughbred racing as they were to the current pandemic.
The HRI executive editor has a point when he talks about making change from within, but actual reform also requires pressure from without. And generating outrage at proven outrageousness takes the kind of determination, dedication, and free discussion that gets the job done.
Racing participants were denied an important forum for exchanging opinions recently when the Paulick Report suspended reader commentary beneath its articles.
Apparently, the task of maintaining civility had become unmanageable for Mr. Paulick whose site’s success was largely due to the opportunity for the communication it offered since its inception.
Intended or not, absence of public engagement gives the industry greater control over messaging to customers while simultaneously lowering the volume on negative feedback. Worse, the industry reinforces its lack of transparency that only grows suspicion rather than alleviate it.
Never before has racing faced the volume of scrutiny and criticism from without, but not so much from within. Absent independent presentation and evaluation of readily apparent truths, we risk the need for reform being overwhelmed by a deliberate distortion of facts.
The ascent of animal rights activists alleging abuse of racehorses, and advocating the abolition of horse racing, has focused public attention on breakdowns and whip use.
Activists have exposed the industry’s failure to collect complete, verifiable data detailing breakdown circumstances in all jurisdictions and the suppression of such data by some. It also has demonstrated PETA’s ability to influence California’s largest racetrack operator and state government officials.
Parenthetically, if nearly half the general population was willing to accept allegations of widespread voter fraud without evidence that it actually occurred, how can racing be expected to survive an organized onslaught from an increasing pool of disgruntled critics?
In its heyday, the industry flourished with an image of integrity relatively undiminished except for occasional unrelated incidents of cheating exposed in the press. Expression of reader opinion back then was confined to Letters to the Editor.
On the Baby Boomers’ watch, however, racing has seen a steady reduction in the ranks of its participants, particularly among casual bettors and small stable owners.
Thanks to independent reporting and a variety of on-line racing forums such as this one, many who were not racing insiders became aware of the seeming increased in edge-taking.
An example of an issue that might easily have escaped examination was the elevation of economic reward from breeding Thoroughbreds rather than race them.
The result is now the distribution of most blue-blooded stock among a handful of “super-trainers” and the expansion of conflicted interests between trainers and clients as well as among multiple-investor groups with cross-membership would surely have evaded scrutiny without a free exchange of information and ideas in cyberspace.
Consider race-day medications, legal and otherwise, it is fair to ask whether or not investigations of suspicious activity would have come to light without the support of well-meaning individuals who share relevant perspectives on this issue?
Broadly, there has been general agreement that racing’s early failure to embrace television; the fumbling of simulcast parameters; emergence of alternative forms of legal gambling; an ever-decreasing foal crop that results in fewer races, competitors, and lower handle, when coupled with disparate racing rules, safety standards, enforcement, and oversight, has not helped racing’s cause.
It amazes me that all the above has not yet generated sufficient disgust among most non-professional bettors to drive us all from the game– although it surely has dampened our enthusiasm and curtailed our action.
What finally brought me to the brink is the glaring too-frequent absence of competition due to minuscule fields for most important graded stakes. The refusal of racetracks to collaboratively schedule stakes within divisions only exacerbates the problem. Tracks cling to notes of competition, not cooperation.
Indeed, the failure of racing to standardize rules for breeding, racing, and wagering, and to exercise adequate authority and unity to enforce them with consistency, leaves us with no accountable body with whom to petition redress. Regrettably, needed federal intervention only would increase the number of hoops to jump through.
As in most endeavors, winning takes priority and money buys privilege and advantage. When such advantage rises to the level of unfairness through self-interest or incompetence, cloaked by a lack of transparency, it becomes reasonable to question degrees of integrity.
Racing almost succumbed to COVID-19 despite the potential for lost jobs and fortunes. What saved it was the argument that racehorses require continued care, which in turn requires funding that would not be available unless racing were conducted. Not even PETA could challenge that logic.
In return, racing did provide a diversion for many locked down by the pandemic, but eventually the virus will be defeated. Will sufficient “casino dole” and disposable income be available when people can finally leave their homes, or has racing lost those loyal participants for good?
Further, will live attendance reach pre-pandemic levels after old customers have been forced to experience the comfort and convenience of watching and wagering from their easy chairs as newly acquainted fans think that this is the way it works?
What percentage of racetracks could survive today without continued revenue from other forms of gambling? What portion of rebated professional bettors would remain profitable without a significant presence of non-professional bettors to grease the pools?
Where will the funds needed to provide oversight come from now that handle and attendance has been flattened or worse? Maybe some miracle will create operating revenue by allowing track operators and state governments to act in concert, redefining the model for racing regulations.
Should a new paradigm, or expansion of the existing one, be created, how does the rank and file get a seat at the table? As it stands, without discussion forums, we have no redress. Without respected leadership to conduct meaningful debate, our influence will be limited, if it exists at all.
Achieving handle restoration and optimization will require level playing fields for both horsemen and horseplayers. Purses should more meaningfully reflect field size as well as actual quality of competition. Takeout rates should be equal for all bettors, not only for growth but for keeping the customers racing has.
Integrity and transparency must be improved with respect to, but not limited to, stewards’ decisions, parimutuel pool activity, equine medical records, multiple-owner entries, and riding crop use.
With independent voices abandoning the game, and without comment sections that give the racing public a voice, the likelihood of harnessing the power of collective dissent will be decidedly diminished until one day it is no more. That might have been the modern industry’s intent all along.