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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


February 24, 2020–I sincerely hope that the defending dual champion filly, Covfefe, whose retirement was announced early Monday, is in fine health and was not forced into retirement by injury.

Absent that, however, I think the retirement of this brilliant, charismatic champion filly effectively at the conclusion of her three-year-old campaign is disgusting and a huge disservice to the game.

Heretofore I will begin referring to Thoroughbred racing as a game, or the Thoroughbred business, but never a sport. I acknowledge that while this has been the case for some time, this development has taken lowering of the bar to a new level.

It’s not the same thing at all, but to me it’s akin to something we tweeted this week; that while the death of “favorite horses” is always sad, the passing of A. P. Indy at 31 hurt more than most. He was transcendent.

This juxtaposition for us–when measured against the decision to retire Covfefe so that she could be bred to the very hot Constitution this minute–allows me to think why invest passion?

Why fall in love with an equine hero(ine) whose storyline is only going to be ripped from some future headline? In a blink, Covfefe’s gone from the racing scene.

Meanwhile, Midnight Bisou is running against males in the desert on Saturday. Thank you Jeff Bloom et al.

CHRB Gets Something Right

We enthusiastically applaud two measures that recently met with approval from the California Horse Racing Board–whatever the future might hold for stat of racing in California.

Before we can do that, however, we must again acknowledge The Stronach Group for having the guts to clean up racing’s act in the Golden State just to survive the political atmosphere that envelops racing there.

It is hoped that in the long term their improved security and safety measures will allow the Thoroughbred business to survive as a competitive diversion, courtesy of the competition that arises among God’s most beautiful creatures. To wit:

The CHRB has decided it should limit the use of extracorporeal shock wave therapy [ESWT] on racehorses. The procedure may still be used but the treated animal cannot train or race for at least a period of 30 days.

Further, the treatment can be administered only in clearly designated areas and must be carefully documented by practitioners. The rule also applies to horses shipping into CHRB-regulated venues.

There was no language that included a video provision, which would lend context, substance and proof, delivered transparently. The same guidelines also apply to the use of bisphosphonates both within CHRB mandate and to horses treated with ESWT treatment outside California.

In another move that will help eliminate some of the hypocrisy, a 45-day public notice to discuss an amendment prohibiting “program trainers”– essentially an assistant trainer allowed to enter and race horses routinely while the sanctioned barn continues operating without skipping a beat.

On balance, most horseplayers would agree that this is a good thing.

Bye Bye Bast Hello Game Winner

Sad that the Oaks will lose a serious filly such as Bast come the first Friday in May. She was good, then very good, then disappointing then, wow, she’s back and might be a whole new horse.

Now will never know because she has been retired with a soft tissue injury with no deeper explanation. I say that because when I hear soft-tissue, I think synthetic surfaces. Good thing Santa Anita doesn’t have one of those right now, right?

But Game Winner is back and is one of my favorites; picked him to win just about everything at 3 including the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, two terrific “winning” efforts that resulted in defeat.

Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe he’s a bit of an underachiever? I truly don’t know. That’s why I’m anxious to see him as an older horse. In theory, if there was any more maturing left to do, this can be his year if his talent, strength and promise is totally realized. Fun to conjure.

Bob Baffert, who trains both, said that Game Winner was in catch-up mode as a three-year-old, but expects to “have a big summer with him.” Hope that means the Whitney and then comes fall. Horse of the Year potential? Why Not?

Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland Also Get Something Right

In an effort that should be expanded to all industry alphabet organizations that can afford it, or can figure a creative way to raise funding, providing a means of paying for retirement of racehorses at birth is an idea whose time has come.

In this instance, sales companies would charge buyers .05% tax on all purchases, the funding to go to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.

This is about the retiring rehoming and retraining if the racehorse. The participation is voluntary. As long as those are the conditions and in the name of transparency, we don’t suppose the sales companies will make a list of voluntary contributors public.

Think of it in terms of a political contribution, or racing’s equivalence of a wealth tax; everyone pays a fair share. Hell, call it socialism if it makes you feel better. But be like Mike—or whoever the candidate is—and just get it done. It’s not the end of a problem, but it might signal the beginning of the end…

In a prepared statement, TAA President John Philips said, “All industry participants have a shared responsibility for the animals that are the foundation of our sport, and these newest procedures ensure consistent and reliable funding for an industry initiative that is of the utmost importance.

“Industry participants must understand that aftercare is not an option. Aftercare is our inarguable responsibility to the horse and our obligation to the sport.

Passing of a Legend

I have recounted the story often here about my first day at a Thoroughbred racetrack: Memorial Day, Aqueduct Racetrack, 1961, the Metropolitan Handicap.

From an impossible five lengths behind at the sixteenth pole, Kelso, carrying 136 pounds and Eddie Arcaro, ran down the speedy All Hands, weighted at 117, to win by a nose; imposts assigned by Aqueduct’s racing secretary.

That’s what handicap racing was about and still should be, bringing horses of disparate talent together at the finish line. Those who could spot lesser rivals significant weight and beat them underscored their measure of greatness.

Of course, no one cares about that defining true greatness anymore; witness Covfefe’s retirement. More than ever, it’s about filling races and making babies, assigning various weights under allowance conditions. It’s OK, mind you, just farther away from delineating greatness.

Weights are assigned by the track’s racing secretary and handicapping official. Thomas E. (Tommy) Trotter was one of them. Like mentor John Blanks Campbell of Maryland, and Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe, who preceded him at Aqueduct, belonged in their company, men among racing men.

It’s become a cliché when racetrackers talk about the recently deceased, they invariably invoke he or she was “an even better person.”

In 1960, Kilroe took his talents for Southern California. A year later Trotter assigned Kelso’s weighty Met impost. Kelso’s reward for winning the Met was 133 pounds for the Suburban. Following that win, 136 for the Brooklyn and New York’s equally legendary Handicap Triple Crown was complete.

I met Tommy Trotter professionally a decade after watching Kelso win the Met Mile. He was congenial, affable and a man of generous spirit. In the day, they would, and did, refer to him as a “real gentlemen” He always was happy to see whoever greeted him; if he saw you first, he welcomed you.

I’ll resist the “better person” cliché in favor of another, one that more closely defines this man: The world is a little darker place with his passing. I loved this man. Rest in peace, Mr. Trotter.

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11 Responses

  1. I am in total synch with you on Covfefe. When I read about her retirement, I had exactly the same reaction: DISGUST. I was going to go off on this decision in my column but you’ve made it unnecessary.

    I don’t know why I continue to love and cover the game. It has always been about wanting to see the current and next great horses. More frequently than ever, I feel live a naif.

    You also mentioned Bast. The story about her retirement quoted Baffert saying the recuperation period is four months. That would take us into June, plenty of time for the big late summer races–Alabama, Coaching Club American Oaks, Breeders’ Cup Distaff, etc.

    To be fair, it also said there is no guarantee she would come back the same filly. Fine, but given how young she is, isn’t it worth waiting to see?

    Finally, I saw something on the Paulick Report that before the 2015 Preakness, the breeders who bought into American Pharoah negotiated a stipulation that if he didn’t win the Preakness, he would not run in the Belmont–a race he wound up dominating. The hell with one of the three most important races in the game, one that is nationally televised and draws more viewers than any race outside the Triple Crown.

    I have to stop now because if I go on, I fear I’m going to get to “To hell with racing.”

  2. TJ, you know I feel your pain. The game you love to hate because they’ve earned derision.

    Maybe we’re being selfish; it’s not our money and it’s an expensive business. I love, need the diversion of this sport we love; the handicapping exercise; the betting.

    Don’t think I l’ll ever lose the passion but, as stated, you need to have passion first or you have no right to be disgusted. (Interesting Pharoah chestnut; neither of us are surprised, of course. but still, it’s the SPORT we fell in love with. As you say, the next great horse.

    You find one and they’re gone, a safer bigger money-making machine. Good for them. The sport? Screw that…

  3. You both know how I feel about the Triple Crown and all those other horseraces involving blue blood three-year-old thoroughbreds which you both promote, free, for the benefit of breeders; overhyped with huge purses that do nothing for my wallet but make a few owners, trainers, and jockeys rich. You feel pain and are considering quitting the ‘game’ over a blue blood not racing? Come on, ‘cap the other eight races on a day’s card and enjoy what it’s all about: gambling.

  4. Had you gotten down on Giacomo or Mine That Bird your wallet would be bursting. Country House, too. The regally bred three year olds that knock heads in TC are head turners and that’s part of the appeal. Take a look at Nadal. This is a potential super horse. But editors Jicha and Pricci are correct in voicing their collective disappointment over speedy retirement (s). I would much rather be “locked in” to a KY Oaks/KY Derby DD than the ninth at Parx. Better value, too.

  5. No serious horse player bet on Giacomo, Mine That Bird, or Country House. Trust me, you will cash more tickets on the ninth race at Parx than you will trying to win an Oaks/Derby double that will, no doubt, have two prohibitive favorites which will propel you to bet against yourself as no value exists will the logical picks.

    1. Fair enough. Keep in mind, however, that the pools on “big days” are so large (even non-players come out to play) that there can still be value with medium priced winners. And, not to be discounted, the field sizes are large which also bumps up the payoffs. No knocking the ninth race at Parx, it’s the getaway race and some very strange things can happen. I remember Cinzano, a multiple stakes winner in Peru, that galloped in the ninth at Big A many years ago. Problem was he was entered as a cheap claimer under another name because he was the same color, etc. This could not, and would not, happen in KY Derby or any other major race. P.S. The ringer jogged, naturally, at 9-1 for those “in the know,” ha, ha.

  6. C, you are correct. Big days with heavy participation could provide a little extra value. But I’m not supporting the Saudi race on humanitarian grounds. Someone has to do it, and from what ‘m reading and hearing, I’m not the exception…

  7. No matter how you slice it, dice it, or toss it, the cheap 9th race claimer at any racetrack looks no different to the human eye than any stake race and may, in fact, be easier to handicap and most likely will pay more. Pool size is irrelevant, particularly if you have a winning ticket in your sweaty paw. I don’t bet based on pool size; I bet on odds!

    Mr. Pricci, your writing ‘big days with heavy participation could provide a little extra value’ is total baloney! Ya still gotta pick the winner (right, Alice?). What to hell does pool size have to do with it? What to hell does the size of the purse have to do with it?

  8. Went online. The Cinzano race was at Belmont, not Aqueduct. I agree w/you about workaday races, ‘tho. Some of my biggest scores, albeit very few, have been at places like Penn National and Rockingham Park (shuttered). Had a late $20.00 DD at Penn where the first leg won at 60-1 and was live going into the nitecap w/3 horses. Last race jogged at 3-1. Here’s the kicker: Tried to cancel the bet and the teller said she couldn’t because it was too close to post time. Nice drive home. The reason I tried to cancel was a friend who was participating in a contest there gave me the “bomb” as a possible in first leg. I put bet in and then checked the odds. When I saw nobody liked I ran to window to cancel. Caught a break when teller said “no chance.” Sometimes you just have to be lucky. P.S. This was 40 + years ago so you see there have not been many of these types of “stories” since.

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