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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Jerry Hollendorfer Hall of Fame photo by Mark Berner

The racing industry is under siege at the moment and everyone tethered to the sport is looking for a reason, a person or organization upon which it can pin the blame. Of course, looking outside the industry is easier.

PETA leaps easily to mind but that’s too easy, us vs them. There are the regulators, unknowing political appointees rewarded with administrative or officiating roles. The industry, once again: As is, held blameless.

Then there’s the states lording over racetracks. A track in one state may want to lower takeout, a fan friendly measure that has the benefit of being good for business, until it remembers that some of the largesse comes out of their pockets: “We want to do this but they won’t let us.”

Of course, there are fingers that point inside–at marketers who fail to promote the sport and the wagering. Or why doesn’t The Jockey Club do anything? And shouldn’t Belinda Stronach be burned at the stake?

The truth is that the real culprit is everyone. Since hay, oats and water have gone the way of whips, now known as riding crops, there is no single group to blame – the public has little problem shaming owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys, veterinarians, stewards, racing commissioners and employees in their search for a level playing field.

No one blames anyone for trying to make a buck, but at what cost? Where will the humanity and honesty come from, especially in the under-educated, under-motivated facts-free zone that is America today, a place where rule breaking starts at the top. Too political?

Politics is a huge factor, especially when it serves powerful interests. Wave the flag and use phrases like “due process” and “rights of the individual” when it suits the occasion, when it protects one of their celebrated own. I’m weighing in on the Hollendorfer controversy for the first time and I have fingers to point.

Horsemens groups, particularly the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association that are in league on the issue have begun circling wagons replete the with a warning: Members, you could be next.

You bet. When it suits their financial and political needs, they step up, as the NHBPA last week strongly backed Hollendorfer despite the absence of all the facts. Somebody knows, but is not saying. Why?

What is known is that in a matter of months, six horses died in Southern and Northern California racetracks trained by Hollendorfer suffered catastrophic injury. But why did they single him out? Certainly The Stronach Group had to surmise that barring a Hall of Famer would attract much more negative publicity.

Like some Grade 1 races, apparently not all Hall of Famers are created equal. Popular, uncommonly successful ones are treated deferentially by California racing as a whole but not so obstreperous, my-way-or-highway old-schoolers.

Taking the glare off Southern California momentarily, consider the latest new ban: Why would the New York Racing Association announce support of its decision to allot stalls to Hollendorfer after the Santa Anita banishment before walking that decision back a week later?

NYRA had to know the reaction would be unpopular politically; did they know something more, or were they just being careful because something untoward might happen at their racetrack located directly across the avenue from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

Despite the fact that Santa Anita Park is private property and horsemen know the terms when they accept stall space, the NBPHA and THA questioned the authority of The Stronach Group to rule Hollendorfer off the grounds of Santa Anita Park.

It may be tangentially useful to recall another recent development: Following an FBI probe, trainer Murray Rojas in May was sentenced to 27 months imprisonment for misbranding prescription drugs over a 13-year period at Penn National Race Course.

Additionally, the investigation resulted in owner-trainer David Wells being sentenced to three months for rigging a sporting event, and racing official Craig Lytel got four months for committing wire fraud. Four veterinarians are awaiting sentencing for their role in rules violation.  

We recall this example after learning from a racing official, speaking under the condition of anonymity, the NHBPA paid for Rojas’ attorney fees. Thirteen years of rule breaking and not a hint until another local super-trainer, Stephanie Beattie, blew the whistle.

“Everybody there treated horses on raceday,” Beattie said at trial. Some of that included shockwave therapy, a treatment that requires three applications over the course of four weeks and four days.

So now the NHBPA and THA are staunch advocates of due process and individual rights. Said NHBPA CEO Eric Hamelback; “Due process is a fundamental and accepted constitutional right in our country” and that TSG’s action against Hollendorfer “has clearly sidestepped those rights and exemplifies our concerns.”

Upon his accepting his appointment his appointment in April, Hamelback said: “To be part of an organization that has its primary focus being the health and welfare of the equine athlete, along with that of protecting horsemen’s interests.”

So it’s the health and welfare of the equine athlete that comes first, as long as it doesn’t require its members to rely on horsemanship and not veterinarians to ply their trade and doesn’t require them to support legislation that would ban the use of raceday Lasix.

“Every person in our industry who holds a license to participate is given a right to due process when their livelihood is threatened,” he continued. “We are an industry that operates according to rules and regulations, standards are clear, violations have consequences and we are transparent…” Really?

California Thoroughbred Trainers Alan Balch also weighed in: “The ongoing welfare of the sport as a whole must be the overriding concern of both horsemen’s organizations and racing associations,” he said.

Consider this: You are the new President and Chairman of The Stronach Group and you love horses. Twenty-seven horses suffered fatal injuries in the first quarter of 2019. You are under pressure from two large and vocal animal rights groups.

The Los Angeles District Attorney has you under investigation and you are being publicly pressure by the Governor and State Senator. The national publicity could result not only of the end of racing in the state but one whose success is vital to the industry nationally.

Scheduled for November, you may or may not, host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Ultimately, the SoCal ends with 30 equine fatalities, four of which were trained by a man with a reputation of training his horses very aggressively. His barn is also responsible for two more deaths at a track you own in NoCal.

There is talk of a ballot initiative that could put you out of business. The latest fatality you had to deal with at the time came within 24 hours of a hit job by CNN in which the trainer is named by the President of the local horseman’s group, stating the trainer in question doesn’t listen to anyone and does whatever he wants to do. Later the trainer says maybe I “should walk away for a while.” How do you interpret that?

How would you have handled the first spate of injuries that drew nationwide coverage from mainstream media? How so you get local broadcast networks to move seven production trucks out of your parking lot who can’t wait the next equine tragedy?

What is your mindset knowing that an entire industry is facing an existential threat and 2019 was the year the first horse in Kentucky Derby history was disqualified for “stacking up” three rivals? Polls indicate the racing public wants all practitioners to be treated equally, not by “Jordan Rules”? What would you do? 

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

21 Responses

  1. JP,
    Great job in discussing the more significant unanswered questions and conflicting suppositions that surround the Hollendorfer bans.

    The horsemen’s groups’ position might be more tenable if directed only at NYRA. One can only wonder whether any decision-makers involved in that about-face fiasco, also had a hand in facilitating former CEO Kay’s personal estate work project.

  2. Don’t know I’d go exactly there re Kay, I. Think that was more internal nonsense and someone objected he was out of line. Problem is he got caught, but he’s gone a while now… This is different.

    I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I just don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m thinking somebody does.

    And I don’t know what to make of “maybe I’ll walk away.” Remember when “consciousness of guilt” was a thing not long ago?

    If it had a voice, it might sound just like that.

  3. Who knows where to go with any of this? NYRA can’t keep embarrassing itself without someone noticing and remembering. Why not add in the Kay bogus bonus based on questionable performance statistics as well? If this is an example of a well-run organization, it sure fooled me.

  4. Somebody knows for sure. More than likely many in power to make positive change know, but all are “tone deaf” and busy counting their late wager computer based profits. The equines continue to give their all in this once majestic competitive sport, whereas the “somebody crowd” continues to exploit the game for all that can be had. “There is never enough you see”, all right out of a Brothers Grimm children’s verse.

    I so admire the efforts of Mark, John and Indulto in all of this. If only common sense could be given a try. Why can’t the Stewards of racing see that their blind vision is destroying the sport? I would be content with a return to a simple WPS & a late Double concept if that would help get us back to the greatness of the 70’s. The sport has been corrupted in so many ways of late, I wonder how it can ever be corrected. The Devil’s world and business has never been better indeed.

  5. McD, have absolutely nothing to add re your take. If there were only straight, double and exacta wagering, game would be better off in long run for sure–even though we’d miss our Dime Supers. Bet only bets being promoted these days are Pick Whatevers.

    Thanks for the recognition McD, kind words indeed. But you’re lookin for common sense. Do you know that industry Internet aggregators still refuse to recognize anything written at HRI? Even when we break stories occasionally? Spinning, spinning, spinning… into the future.

  6. I, it is sad when any racing organization, including this site, doesn’t learn from its mistakes.

    In HRI’s defense, at least I can say we’re trying. More news, commentary and industry support at HRI 2.0 seems to go unnoticed.

    But we’ll keep plugging for fans if the sport, horseplayers, and the HRI Faithful.

  7. For the conspiracy theorists:
    1- The Jockey Club got to Dr.Palmer, who in turn advised NYRA to exclude Hollendorfer.

  8. I can’t believe the old fashioned liberal I know (and platonically love) would ever describe “due process” and “rights of the individual” as “phrases.”

    If Hollendorfer is to be barred from pursuing his livelihood, all I ask is “why?” If there is a legit reason, throw the book at him, ban him for life. But let’s not have star chamber justice.

    The horse deaths aren’t enough, as dreadful as they are. They could be coincidental. After all, 26 other horses died. Hollendorfer might have had more deaths than any other trainer but he trains and starts more horses than any other trainer.

    The flashing red light for me was NYRA saying he was welcome, then without explanation (sound familiar?) saying he wasn’t welcome. That smells of an anti-trust conspiracy.

    Going back to WPS and one DD sounds good but that was a time when racing was the only way to gamble; take it or leave it. In the era of lotteries and casinos everywhere, $6.80 win tickets aren’t going to cut it. They might for the computer whales but not for the fans in the grandstand, especially when they have to pay $11 for a Racing Form.

  9. $6.80 works for me Tom, if I would only be offered the opportunity to witness once more the likes of Kelso, Forego, Alydar, Affirmed, Slew, Bid, and Buckpasser. I may be the exception in this discussion, as I treasured most the Championship and purity of the thoroughbred. If Slew of Gold had only seen Bates Motel coming up on the inside rail, he never would have let him pass. Those are my fondest memories, not how much a horse paid. Just wondering aloud did the super exotics bring on the needles, batch beting, and end the classics where Champions actually carried weight?

  10. Don’t necessarily have to be a computer whale to bet on a 2-1 shot, TJ.

    One day I stood looking lifeless while watching a race replay in the old Aqueduct press box–if you wanted to see a second you had to arrive 11 am the next morning, that was it.

    The magnificent tout Mannie Kalish of the NY Post walked over and asked: “What’s the matter with you, kid?” “Bored I guess,” I replied.

    “Well that’s easy. All you have to do is bet a little more,” advised Kalish.

    Not that it’s easy, but finding a 2-1 shot daily somewhere upon which to make a $100 win bet using the Kelly Criterion would yield about $50K per year. Now that would be a good example of trickle down economics my conservative friend.

  11. Sorry McD, your comment must have sneaked in as I was answering Tom, which inadvertently addressed some of the points you raised, too.

    But interesting the idea you raised that these life-changing payouts, which happen virtually every day in simulcast land, however infrequently, might be viewed as more of an incentive to cheat.

    Getting back to your point Howard, instead, we can all bet in our pajamas these days. But I would argue that going to the track is like attending a hockey game; much better when up close and personal. First, sink the hook, then reel in…

  12. John i know I’m in minority but think racing greatest tv sport there is. Looking at same color silk horses through binoculars may have been how we started. I appreciate a nice day at the track and in fact going to Del Mar in a few weeks. But on track attendance is dead permanently it’s never coming back. In my lifetime you will see same with NFL and other sports. Racing much more friendly tv sport. So many possibilities. Unfortunately can’t even get some of these clowns to have their races in HD.

  13. Indeed, Howard, racing has become an event sport on track, will have more on that take in Sunday column.

    Indeed, TV has changed the face of fandom. And why helps the gate die? Can you afford to take your family to a baseball game, NBA, NFL, whatever.

    Racing is a bargain–if only you could get the bodies in there.

    Totally agree; TV is the perfect medium for horse racing. And can you imagine; 2019 and HD still something they won’t spend money on, even those tracks that can afford it? Please…

  14. I recall betting on Rags over Curlin in the Belmont when Pletcher commented the day prior if you walked to close to her she would either bite you or kick you. No Lasix needed in that era. Remember her paying $10 and change that day, but the thrill of watching her unyielding fight down the stretch was priceless. Agree with Howard regarding on on track attendance in the big races going forward however. HD and 4K will alter the game forever. Way less expensive, and kind of like watching the races out back on the monitors at Belmont.

  15. What you say about backyard is true. Most serious bettors at the track watch the TV. I’ve watched several races with Todd as we watched TV–but it was in late fall at Aqueduct so there’s that.

    But don’t think it was the no-Lasix era when Rags to Riches met Curlin. But you’re right about one thing; it was a thrilling and dramatic!

  16. Frank Martin was charged in ’74 with the first Lasix violation in NY. I was only 18 years off. Drafted 51 years ago yesterday, I seem to have forgotten more than I ever knew. Lol.

  17. First, thank you for your service, McD!

    Lasix wasn’t legal in ’74. Don’t know specifics, First one, benefit of the doubt; possibly an overage?

  18. I wouldn’t be satisfied with just “why,” TJ, unless it’s made clear that the same standards and scrutiny are also being applied to Hollendorfer’s competitors.

    And can the number and/or rate of his fatalities be set aside other than to see if they are outliers with respect to the rest of his record. Perhaps that is where the problem lies.

  19. That’s what is most maddening John. Like you said the main sports have priced out the average fan. Instead of spending 500 at a game can go to track bet say 100-200 and possibly win. Unfortunately the fan I see going to say Monmouth is just there to hang out and bet two dollars a race. Not putting anyone down but hard to grow sport with the on track handle Monmouth sees.

  20. If all these reforms are what we say we want them why wouldn’t handle at Del Mar rocket upward? Even with shorter fields and higher takeout on exactas. Why wouldn’t we be sending it in with both hands on Del Mar and ignore Saratoga?

    The answer is that you’re not as committed to reforms as we say we are.

    People bet on two people in a ring virtually killing one another and it’s popular. Why? Because the price is right.

  21. Correct again, but we already know that almost 9 of every 10 dollars is bet off track. We have no philosophical differences; just saying that if you brought your friends to the Haskell or Travers or Breeders’ Cup once, they might get hooked on the scene and the betting.

    Besides, everybody knows people will win their first bet at the track; that’s how they get you! Hey, I went 3-for-3 at Roosevelt Raceway for the second International Trot with my parents, won $7 total. Easy game, Howard!

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