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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The lunacy continues unabated. The most picturesque event in racing has been put on the shelf in the latest response to the deaths of 30 horses at Santa Anita this past winter and spring.

What’s really frightening is Greg Avioli, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said last week that there were 30 deaths and 30 different reasons. That means there still could be a couple of dozen additional over-reactions.

No meaningful connection has been established between the perils of the 6 ½ furlong downhill turf dash and the rash of fatalities. Only one of the fatalities occurred during a race on the course, which features the only right hand turn in American racing and a brief crossover from turf to dirt back to turf. Unique is an over-used term but this course is genuinely unique.

Santa Anita recently announced there will be no downhill sprints during its fall meeting, which includes the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1-2. All turf sprints will be at 5 or 5 ½ furlongs, the latter a new distance for what once was the Great Race Place.

This makes as much sense as another misguided solution to a problem that doesn’t exist to the extent it is being presented, curtailment of use of the whip. With new softer strikers “whip” has become a misnomer.

Worse, this idea is spreading. Jockey Club Chairman Stuart Janney said Sunday that TJC is supporting a ban on the use of whips to encourage horses.

This is in response to rigged surveys with thoroughly predictable socially acceptable responses in which people are asked if they prefer jockeys to not whip horses. What kind of response would you expect to get to that?

Have you ever heard a player complain about a jockey using the whip in an attempt to win? So let’s tick off the base in an effort to appease those who couldn’t care less about racing.

Like Janney, Belinda Stronach is a well intentioned person but her meddling in an area in which her expertise is limited is moving Santa Anita and, by extension, California racing toward irrelevancy. Eliminating downhill turf races is the latest example.

You never know what might be coming next. Is there any wonder that more than 600 horses reportedly have left Southern California?

Santa Anita and Del Mar announced last week that they were hoping to maintain a four-day racing schedule in upcoming meetings. But they more or less acknowledged this is a goal more than a reasonable expectation.

This is a process that feeds upon itself. Fewer racing days and the corresponding decrease in the number of races will lead to a continued exodus of horses and horsemen from the state until the sport will no longer be able to sustain itself.

What’s a layoff?

The Daily Racing Form has made an overdue, if unfortunate, alteration to its presentation of past performances.

The Form has been running an underline between races when they are at least 45 days apart. For much of the history of the sport, this was considered a layoff. In an era where many trainers adhere to techniques about frequency of starts from sheets produced miles from a barn area, 45 days is regarded by some as coming back too quickly.

It must drive them crazy when a filly like Got Stormy comes back in a week and buries Grade 1 colts in record-setting time. It was only a couple of weeks ago that King Zachary did essentially the same thing, coming back in a week to win the Birdstone Stakes.

But it would be naïve to think minds are going to be changed. In fact, Greg Sacco says his priority is getting a Grade 1 win for Bal Harbor but he decided against running in the Pacific Classic, possibly the softest Grade 1 spot he will ever find, because he doesn’t want to bring his 4-year-old back in four weeks. There is no hope.

The Form has reacted by moving the rule to races that are at least 60 days apart. What’s the over-under for when the Form will be forced to modify this to 75, then 90 days.

Or will the sport die from lack of participants before this happens?

Racing shouldn’t sell its soul
A $20 million purse with $10 million to the winner.

This is the pot being put up by Saudi Arabia for a new race scheduled for Feb. 28, four weeks after the Pegasus and four weeks in front of the Dubai World Cup. Theoretically a horse could run for $40 million in less than two months. If this doesn’t keep older horses in training, we should abandon the effort.

But there is a substantial downside for American racing. The new races in the Middle East could cannibalize the Pegasus, currently the richest race in the U.S.

As noted in the previous segment, there probably aren’t many, if any American horsemen who would point a stable star toward all three races within such a short period.

The Pegasus, worth “only” $9 million, carries a steep nomination and starting fee. The initial Pegasus cost $1 million for a starting berth. This was cut in half last year. With all the rebates that accompany merely showing up, it’s difficult to put an accurate figure on what it really is.

Whatever it is, it’s a lot more than the entrance fee to the $20 million race in Saudi Arabia and the $12 million event in Dubai. Both are zero.

If you’re an owner, which way are you going to go?

What’s more, it likely won’t be as challenging for an American dirt specialist in the Middle East, where the fields will include many horses who race primarily on turf.

A significant caveat is another problem with the new Saudi Arabian race. This is clearly an image repair attempt by one of the harshest regimes on the planet. Children and gays are routinely beheaded and crucified; women are regarded to be the property of their male relatives, subject to the command of their fathers, husbands and even their male offspring; and as we saw recently, any journalist who brings attention to these atrocities is open to murder and dismemberment. Also, anyone whose passport shows Israeli birth or even a visit to Israel can be denied entry into the country.

Racing should not, at any price, be a participant in the cleansing of this dirty regime.

©, All Rights Reserved, 2019

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⚠ Before you comment

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11 Responses

  1. TJ,
    I totally agree with your take on the latest Middle East equine extravaganza, but I believe their money will continue to talk . Just ask the White House. I expect Pegasus will soon fly away from its unrealistic entry fee scheme.

    The exclusion of 6-1/2 f turf races at SA is temporary and some think it is a worthwhile caution until the other steps taken so far can be evaluated. I’d guess the reduced Lasix dosages have more to do with the exodus of the 600.

  2. I, the 6-1/2 furlong turf races is temporary and precautionary, and the Hillside turf course will still be utilized but for longer turf races where the pace is much more moderate.

    If horses didn’t have to make that brief crossover on dirt at breakneck speed , perhaps the suspension of 6-1/2 furlong turf sprint would have been considered.

    Ironic that the construction of a new 5-1/2 furlong turf chute will start on the dirt. The difference is self-propelled level-ground speed vs. unstoppable downhill momentum.

  3. In a vacuum, the suspension of 6 1/2 down the hill would be no big deal.
    On top of the over-reactions in other areas it is an indication of a do-something, do-anything hysteria.
    What will be different about the winter meeting from the fall meeting?

  4. Tom, the underline used by the Daily Racing Form in the modern era has always irritated me. It is insulting, as though I am unable to read, or draw my own conclusions as to how many days between races, does or does not mean something in any given situation. The “Formulator” gimmick is also a great tool for linear-thinking liberals too lazy to handicap based on meaningful empirical data. Do you remember the “mud marks”? Ridiculous.

  5. TTT,
    Let the record show you said liberal, not me. I think there are lazy handicappers all over the spectrum.
    I do remember mud marks. I never put much stock in them because so many horses never had the opportunity to get one.

  6. Difference between winter and upcoming fall meet at Santa Anita? I’m taking the Under on 11 inches of rain and betting the new drainage system will allow the track to dry faster without using the heavy floats that squeeze out the moisture.

    And glad all is right in your world, TJ; was worried because that Saudi rant was a little of the Progressive side… I don’t disagree for the reasons you stated, just was surprised to see it is all.

  7. ……….and as we saw recently, any journalist who brings attention to these atrocities is open to murder and dismemberment.

    Tom, yeah, guess the current unacceptable form of censorship in this country is tame in comparison to other parts of the world. Live free or die.

  8. They made changes to Vegas, more kid friendly, some would say Disney like, and I liked the old format better. Remember walking down Las Vegas Blvd and not having to wait at a cross walk. Alice Cooper sat next to my sister at the BJ table at The Aladdin in the ’70’s, after his show. I saw Mort Sahl at the craps table at The Riv and Telly Savales at Caesars with his standard vodka and grapefruit. All in the late 70’s or early 80’s. So the winds of change are blowing in thoroughbred racing, also. Miss the old Hollywood Park, Rockingham Park, just shuttered Suffolk Downs, etc. Someone said that had their been a catastrophe in this year’s Maximum Security Derby the game would have been on life support. This may have been the luckiest DQ in the history of the sport.

  9. MS,
    I miss HOL too!

    SAR was my first love and site of the best times with close friends and chopped liver sandwiches at Chicken Sadie’s, but HOL was a place to go and meet new ones, or just to relax. The smoke-free room in the clubhouse had comfortable seating, viewing, and hearing in the simulcast era.

    Went to Personal Computing conventions in LV during the ’80s. Nice rooms and great buffets cheap! Not any more. Great experiences talking with many PC pioneers. Most horse rooms I visited were empty while I was there.

  10. All that has been said about Vegas is true. It’s far from what it used to be–but isn’t that true about everything, including us.

    I’ll have more on the new Vegas in a subsequent column, time and space allowing.

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