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?