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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


“Horseplayers are a group of people who exist outside the mainstream of normal society, and as a musician who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I know what that feels like,” said John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny. “We were mocked, we were oddballs, but we reveled in it because we didn’t want to be like the squares. The people at the racetrack, they are just the same as us. They don’t want to lead a normal life.”

Peter T. Fornatale, son of the late radio personality, wrote the italicized precede quoted above in a recent tribute to his late father.

Pete Fornatale was more than a disc jockey. He not only played the music that was the soundtrack of my life in the 1960’s, he was a musicologist who often talked about music as much as he played it on the radio in New York City.

Southside Johnny’s message resonates in today’s racing game because society does not know much about horseplayers or the sport. Aside from seeing an occasional news broadcast, the public has little to no interest in the game.

That should be Thoroughbred racing’s greatest issue; not People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA is a small group with a loud voice that has effectively weaponized its message.

The Jockey Club wisely has formed alliances with the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

TJC, ASPCA, HSUS, the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Water Hay Oats Alliance and an independent group of trainers all support the Horseracing Integrity Act, aka Barr-Tonko.

They all talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. None of the people that have signed on to support HIA race their stock without drugs, even though they openly oppose it.

They do not want to lose the edge from supposedly non performance-enhancing medications. That in itself negates the claim that drugs regularly administered to racehorses are benign.

Not only that, HIA is not what they claim it to be and is no closer now to get out of subcommittee than it was when first introduced in 2011. HIA sets up a governing committee with the majority of its members being those industry leaders who have already proven ineffective.

It is easy to look good backing a bill with no chance of becoming law.

Last year, I criticized McKinsey and Co. for more than three decades of ineffectual support of Thoroughbred racing industry, following its presentation at The Jockey Club Round Table.

This year, McKinsey was absent on the surface but its activity behind the curtain was highly evident, working its forte, turning failure into fortune.

This kind of unified backing from the industry is the kind of secret sauce McKinsey whips up in its recipes for success.

TJC’s support of DOA HIA bill, and not the Racehorse Doping Ban Act of 2019, aka Udall-Wyden, or the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act 2019, makes it seem as if the stewards of racing are moving forward to improve the reputation and integrity of the sport, but not supporting Udall-Wyden and SAFE clearly shows it is a publicity ploy.

HIA not only lacks the necessary support, it faces the opposition of the National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell, who acts on the wishes of Churchill Downs, and has no mechanism to fund itself.

Supporting a bill that has no chance to become law is the perfect ploy to placate the public and the perceived enemy, animal rights groups.

HIA not only places the same ineffectual industry leaders in a majority position on a board with government backing, it sets up the United States Anti-Doping Authority for a fall.

Udall-Wyden and SAFE, which would both be beneficial to the sport are absent of TJC support. SAFE in particular because it outlaws horse slaughter in the US and prohibits the export of horses for slaughter in other countries.

TJC will not support a slaughter-free industry because it will cost $120 million per year to fund the care of the 20,000+ horses bred each year.

People within the industry are overly sensitive to criticism because they recognize the failures: drugs, racetrack fatalities and overbreeding, which created an impossible situation for management of the retirement system.

The big problem is drug use, not use of whips, but mostly competition from sports betting endangers horseracing and it has passed by with the quick brush of a champion racehorse.

Sports betting works best as a mobile platform and not a brick and mortar enterprise. In fact, sports betting is even cutting into the profits of brick and mortar casinos.

Those are the very casinos that exist on racetrack property and keep racetracks above water.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) causes death by blows to the head, yet the National Football League and the National Hockey league are not even remotely worried that society or politicians will banish Football or Ice Hockey.

Thoroughbred horseracing’s leaders need to wake up to the fact that the industry isn’t an endangered species and get back to competing with sports betting, which is likely to have a much greater negative effect in the industry than horse deaths.

In one year, the narrative has changed from how to grow the sport to how to save it. The issues of growth have not changed, nor has the chance horseracing will be banished.

The time has come to take the reins and drive the sport into the future, not shrink from the actions of animal rights activists.

©, All Rights Reserved, 2019

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12 Responses

  1. Marko, can’t argue with the reasoning, but the status quo in my view is unacceptable.

    What to do?

  2. JP-
    We need to push for the laws the establishment is not backing to break the status quo. Udall-Wyden and SAFE.

    1. Mark,
      Senator Udall has been on the right side of federal action since the original bill that he and KY Congressman Whitfield put forward, Does Udall have enough continued interest in this cause to make one final push before leaving office at years end? He may if he has someone to hand off his work to that will see it through to completion. if the Udall-Wyden bill gets a hearing this fall, many things may be possible. Your insight and instincts are sound.

      1. Mel-
        Udall first coupled with Whitfield, then Pitts and now Wyden. Hopefully there will be significant movement or Wyden will continue with a new co-sponsor.

  3. As I have said many times on this, the first thing that is needed is to do a five-year phase-out of Lasix in the following manner:

    Year 1: Lasix is banned in the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup along with other SELECT Grade 1 events, including ALL Kentucky Derby preps that are Grade 1 and races like the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Arlington Million, Turf Classic, etc. as well as ALL races for two year olds.

    Year 2: Ban expands to ALL races restricted to three year olds through Belmont Stakes Day as well as ALL Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes events.

    Year 3: Ban expands to ALL stakes events carrying a purse of at least $150,000, including state-bred stakes.

    Year 4: Ban expands to ALL non-claiming races other than starter races.

    Year 5: Complete ban on Lasix.

    The sport also needs a Commissioner with teeth. I would make it where ALL such interests would be REQUIRED to sign a “best interests of the sport” clause that would give a Commissioner complete power to do what is in the best overall interests of the sport. If that means for example mandating the Breeders’ Cup be a nighttime event because Millenials think every championship event has to be at night for a sport to matter, then that would be the case. That’s the kind of power a Commissioner would need.

  4. Walt-
    Let’s start at the bottom. There will be no commissioner, with or without teeth.
    The major leagues are protected by anti-trust laws and none will now be enacted for racing in today’s political climate.
    Lasix can and should be phased out. Major tracks will do so via the consortium. However, minor tracks cannot afford to do so and will allow Lasix for horses so they can fill the entry boxes with drugged horses forbidden at the majors. There will be two-tiered racing until the breeding industry changes and money is the only thing that motivates them.

    1. And to me, that won’t change until the Tax Reform Act of 1986 is completely reversed, re-instating tax shelters that benefited the sport greatly. When that act passed, many of the old-line “class” stables left the sport and were replaced by those looking for the quick buck and allowing the breed to decline greatly as a result. It would not change back overnight, but we’d likely see a lot more old-style owners return if that somehow ever got reversed.

  5. Walt-
    I see no tax breaks coming, and only more drive-thru owners on the horizon. Solutions have to come for what the industry is, not what it once was because it’s never going to be that way again. Maybe backwards, but not back.

    1. My point exactly. Arguably the biggest unintended consequence of that act was what happened to horse racing.

  6. PETA has said from the start: Get rid of the cruelty, stop the deaths, take care of the horses, clean up racing. How is that not in the best interest of the racing industry? All racing jurisdictions should follow California’s example and implement the new rules. The big problem IS drug use, but it won’t hurt racing to get rid of whipping–it can only help. It would also be nice if the trainers weren’t running the whole show and yes, HIA has been left in the dust.

  7. Kathy-
    We only disagree on whips.
    I hope the consortium of racetracks effectively employs the Lasix ban and other CA initiatives. The NYSGC already discussed testing some non-Lasix races, but first needs to change a couple of rules.
    The Interstate Commerce Act of 1978 gives hosemen control of simulcasts, a power that reaches to the core. That needs to change to move forward. Udall-Wyden and the SAFE Act also have merit.

  8. I posted in 2018 I thought Breeders Cup should take the lead in eliminating Lasix with a preferred/ points/ bonus program. And go forward from there. Good article, Mark.

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