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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, June 4, 2023 — On the eve of Belmont week, conducted against a backdrop of 12 equine deaths in less than two months at Churchill Downs, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association hosted a teleconference in advance of the Belmont Stakes.

Given recent events, the dialogue had as much to do with existential issues as it had with who would contest and take the third jewel in a Triple Crown.

The conference took place not long after the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Agency called a veterinary summit in Kentucky to identify the conditions that caused this cluster of catastrophic injuries.

Subsequently, Churchill Downs conducted its own meeting with horsemen as to root causes and possible solutions, after which HISA called for another added layer of precaution via post-entry, pre-race examinations.

The Churchill breakdowns attracted everyone’s attention, not just those directly in charge.

Prominent owner Earl Macke, former United States Ambassador to Finland, a Jockey Club member, NYRA trustee, and strong advocate for Thoroughbred aftercare, wrote an Op-Ed in Thoroughbred Daily News calling for dirt racing to be replaced by safer All-Weather surfaces.

“…This presents both a moment of leadership for HISA and an important test for the independent directors of the Churchill Downs Corporation to protect shareholder interests and ensure the survival of the entire horse racing industry.” wrote Mack.

“They must step up and meet the moment or step down. This can be achieved by ending dirt racing in America and transitioning to synthetic surfaces. These heartbreaking events in recent weeks have forced the horse racing industry to confront a harsh reality.

“… On average two Thoroughbred horses lose their lives every day on U.S. tracks. If we fail to take decisive action, the Triple Crown and horse racing itself may soon be mourned as relics of the past. Animal rights groups, emboldened by each equine death, are gaining traction in their campaign against horse racing.”

That last reference proved prescient. The following day we received this email  from PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo regarding recent deaths at Belmont Park:

“The Belmont Stakes, the third race in the Triple Crown, is just eight days away, but Belmont Park is silent about all the horse fatalities—and what it will do to try to prevent more…

“PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment or abuse in any other way”—opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview.”

Finally came a joint release that the Kentucky Racing Commission and HISA, after previously stating track experts and jockey interviews indicated the surface was safe decided it was wiser to conduct the balance of the Churchill meet at Ellis Park “out of an abundance of caution,” .while further investigations continued.

On Thursday’s teleconference, jockey Johnny Velazquez, rider of Preakness winner National Treasure, agreed with other jockeys that the surface was not the cause of the breakdowns before offering an opinion as to whether the spacing of the final two legs of the series be lengthened:

“Absolutely,” said the Hall of Famer and leading money-winning rider in racing history. “Every sport has changed for the better, I’m all for it if it makes things better. It would be a good thing for the horse and for the jockeys. It’s time for the sport to evolve with time.

“We should do anything we can do to help. Giving time to recuperate, that’s the way it should be, we need to concentrate on safety… better testing, scintigraphy [nuclear bone scans], MRIs before the races, whatever we can do to help.”

Trainer Brad Cox, who will saddle three horses in the “Test of the Champion,” was like-minded, commenting on his experience at the meeting Churchill held with the horseman that morning prior to a teleconference that resulted in a new set of safety protocols:

“I did a lot of listening and am convinced that [Churchill’s] investigation crossed every T, dotted every I,” said the prolific stakes-winning trainer. It has a pretty good team in place, I’m very comfortable. We do a good job evaluating our horses and have had a tremendous amount of horses work here. We’ve been very fortunate.

“As far as changing the Triple Crown format, I like history, but I think the two-week turnaround needs to be changed. You have to do something. It’s very demanding to just qualify for [the Derby]. I’m not certain that today’s horses are built for this.

“You have to watch your horse,” Cox explained. “My horses ran difficult races and [the Derby] took a little something out of them, then to have them ready to go in two weeks is hard. Now you often see five and six weeks between starts.”

The conference began with TRA President and CEO Tom Rooney, who told HRI this week he too favors lengthening the Triple Crown series, acknowledging recent events and the state of the sport in general, stating:

“This has been a challenging few weeks for our sport… We have made significant improvement in safety since 2009, and for the first time the sport will be operating with the same rules in every state…

“It’s important to remember Secretariat on his 50th anniversary and all those who came before him. We are dedicated to preserve the sport for future generations.”

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9 Responses

  1. I am all for changing the time between races if that cuts down on fatalities.What I don’t understand,has there been a great number of deaths in Triple Crown races ? It seems to me,the problem is more of an every day problem. On the outside the perception is that trainers and owners don’t care about anything but the bottom line,especially rich trainers and owners. To prove this point all you have to do is look at who the biggest owners use.

  2. Aaron, Cannot argue with anything you posited. Yes, fatalities are more of a lower class issue, but increased spacing of this American event is a strong signal that the industry is trying everything it can to alter hard cold facts and perceptions. Thing is that statistics DO show improvement but how many fatalities are too many?. This would be one small, but highly visible step

  3. Durability has been bred out of the North American thoroughbred.

    You will not find a Kelso or Forego or John Henry in this day and age.

    Legal sports betting is making it easy for longtime fans like me to turn away from racing.

  4. If your intended audience is breeders, your observation fell on deaf ears. They won’t care as long as those mega-six figure and 7-figure horses sell well to 1% syndicates while the average well heeled potential owner gets priced out of the game.

    If your comment was meant for racing leaders, I would add “be afraid, be very afraid.” The migration away from the game, even without the sports alternative, has been going on steadily in recent years.

    Let the late-odds drops continue and watch a longer procession go out the door. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped if it’s inconvenient and affects their near term bottom line.

  5. I like stretching out the Triple Crown schedule. I don’t think it even makes it too much easier to sweep the crown, since it also adds the challenge of trying to keep your 3yo in top form over a longer period of time.

    That late P4 sequence on Friday looks awesome. What a sick back half of the card.

  6. Have not checked Friday card yet but take you at your word, Doc.

    As to your first point, I agree that the task can be more challenging in terms of holding top form over a longer duration while allowing another month’s time for late developers to join the fray. I see both sides but would argue a longer series is a tougher series to win.

  7. I suspect the concept will never be accepted, but I would schedule the crown as a Derby to be run in Kentucky in May, a Preakness at Belmont in June, and last in the cycle, a Stakes in Saratoga in July. So much damage to the bloodstock as been done by the overuse of excessive medication and focus on Speed in the breeding barnes that racing of the quality viewed back in
    seventies will no doubt ever be captured in a ten year period or two, or quite simply in our lifetimes. Shame on all the greed and destruction.

    The very same process is now in play with LIV and the PGA by the way. All of the 9/11 led Saudi Shame of American Hate simply being erased. Money changes everything. It always will. Over 2,000 die in lower Manhattan. No matter. Even the basic fabric of America is altered by money. Ben F. was spot on. “A good system as long as you can hold onto it.”

  8. I would gladly settle for the 4 to 5 week TC intervals, clearly much more preferable to current schedule McD.

    As for the rest of it, I wonder if PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach will be renamed in “dishonor of Saudi SportsWashing.”

    1. More and more oats that have already been through the horse being offered up each passing day John. No shortage of buyers either. Basic morality itself is on life support at this point. Be true to yourself and make the best of what surrounds you. My passion for the sport of kings is now well diminished from what once was however.

      The Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and they are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing of those he considered rivals or critics.

      From the world of horseracing to that of the golf, we appear to be good with all of the Saudi wealth as long as money is being made. The Saudi Stench permiates the air more heavily than the orange smokey haze from Canada today. We are so preoccupied with wokeness our eyes a blind wide open. Disgusting is all. May they all one day account for their actions and rot in hell for the 2000 deaths in NY.

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