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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Selfishly at first, I was miffed by the retirements of my colleagues and good friends, Mark Berner and Tom Jicha, because they believed prevailing industry attitudes make needed and meaningful reform impossible.

I argued the only battles worth fighting are those you’re likely to lose, but they wouldn’t buy in.  Now I must admit that if it weren’t concerned that a cessation of daily routine–readin’, writin’ and handicappin’—would result in brain atrophy, I, too, might be on the sidelines.

Then came a couple of news developments this week that gave me pause and I put that notion out of my head: I cannot walk away because sunlight must continue to shine. Besides, my retirement would make entirely too many people happy.

Recent industry talk has centered around how the current worldwide pandemic that has brought the American sports scene to its knees and turned out to be a good for racing, the only pastime left standing.

Sadly, this latest irritation was simply more of the same old, same old.

In Kentucky, the Horse Racing Commission tried to do right by young horses in training, those of future generations, and also raise racing’s perception profile by phasing out raceday Lasix starting with two-year-olds of 2020, choosing patience and horsemanship over the needle.

In California, the Horse Racing Board approved language that would restrict the type of whips used and how they should be used during competition: To wit, the kinder, smaller GT 360 model engineered by retired Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez.

The second element would more clearly define the appropriate use of a riding crop that absorbs shock and eliminates sting according to an independent testing lab last month. The GT 360 measure passed without objection.

The second item, appropriate use of the whip, was far more problematic. The language of the ruling, which has satisfied a 45-day public comment obligation, was finalized this week:

Whip use would be limited to the shoulder and hindquarters, not to the sensitive flank area, and not more than twice in succession to be followed by response time, and no more than six total strikes.

Jockeys would be penalized for striking a horse that’s out of contention and has not responded. Whips are not to be used in training except for safe, course-correction concerns.

The ink on the ruling was hardly dry when the Jockeys Guild asked the CHRB to hold off on a final decision pending a possible agreement with the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.

The Guild is considering a TSC model rule allowing underhanded encouragement up to the quarter pole and placing a limit on the number of total strikes.

The contention is that this model rule is not the same as having a national rule and that each state or consortium of states is still empowered by state commissions such as the CHRB.

Slings and arrows were thrown at the meeting. The Commissioner argued that jockeys want to maintain the status quo but even if they weren’t, the Governor still wants reform because the public is demanding that horses not be whipped.

Jockeys were not asked for their input and said that “status quo” was a misrepresentation of the relationship between horse and rider, that it is a matter of safety concerns for both entities. They placed blame on the industry for not educating the public.

The whip issue has been tossed around for two years in California and so each must share some culpability. All racing commissions act unilaterally but the CHRB seems to do so more than most, exceedingly bowing to political pressure.

And as far as the CHRB being a bastion of integrity, one word: Justify.

Last year, when a rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita placed the sport under a white-hot spotlight of national criticism, pressure was put on elected representatives to have horse racing go the way of the circus.

In that context, the riders should be more willing to try: It’s horse racing; perception is reality.

As such it can be argued that hands and heels should be enough. Isn’t that the true definition of horsemanship and athleticism?

All participants are licensees and that makes riding a privilege, not a right. The earliest the rule can be enacted is October 1.

The notion of privilege also applies to trainers. Churchill Downs and Keeneland enacted house rules that juveniles would compete Lasix-free on raceday.

The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association filed suit to prevent the tracks from enforcing those rules, citing harm to horsemen, but on June 1 a Circuit Court Judge rejected the KHBPA’s specious argument absent proof the rule was “harmful.”

However, the KHBPA was back at it this week, making it about process and filing a motion that the Court’s dismissal should be vacated and set aside.

The horsemen’s group argued the finding was erroneous, procedurally premature and based on incomplete evidence. What the KHBPA really was doing was protecting its rights to represent horsemen going forward.

Right or wrong procedurally, the KHRC is a regulatory agency and the tracks and trying to err on the side of safety by using an overabundance of caution. For whatever reason, horsemen are fight the measure which shows little regard for the sport in the long term.

This is why we’ve stated for years, over and over, that with the sport’s existence in peril, the only way forward is national uniformity via independent oversight at the federal level–once American regulatory norms have been reestablished, that is.

Otherwise, the infighting will continue unabetted and nothing  of consequence will be accomplished. In other words, business as usual.

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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.

31 Responses

  1. Admire your effort John. If you were to follow Mark and TJ, please kill the lights. You and the I-man are the only reason I still have any belief remaining in following the sport. Without the HRI presence, count me out as well. All so very sad whith what has come to pass with most all long term cherished and treasured values. Racing included. Where have you gone Mrs. Robinson? The simplicity of Norman Rockwell as well. Turning the page and looking forward to the 7th from Tampa.

    P.S. You and Toni please keep your guard up in FL. Six feet and masks mandatory is my take from NY. Daily Mass back on in NY, but over 70 the doubting Thomas in me says stay away, six feet and masks. Safe at second is where I am. I’ll gamble on a horserace, but not on life itself. Stay safe my friend. Some would miss you.

  2. No worries, McD, I’ll go when He says it’s time to go. The fire still burns, flickers at times, but never quite goes out. Looking forward to the Belmont draw at noon Wednesday…

  3. John. Thank you for still fighting the good fight for us racing fans. Headed to Delaware Park for Wednesday opening day. A classic old track. Little Saratoga

    1. Love Delaware Park, Pete… Great paddock, cozy spot, speed on the rail, all of it.

      And always look forward to the Delaware Handicap, a treasure for fillies and mares at a mile and a quarter won by some great mares. Have a great day!

  4. I want to be excited by the Belmont. I’m trying hard to be excited. But I can’t help thinking this is an example of the emperor’s new clothes.

    This Belmont is to a real Belmont what Paris, Las Vegas is to Paris, France.

    1. But TJ, think about how you’ll be able to mock all of us when Sole Volante pulls off an upset returning in 10 days…

  5. On this cool Tuesday afternoon i agree with Mr Jicha. It s Like eating octopus without its head still on,using cheap Chinese pine nuts instead of the $ 36 x lb ones or having a cannoli w/o real ricotta cheese.😆.But these days not much is Traditionally Normal in sports or life in general.Other sporting events will have to adjust,minimize,post pone or even cancel,playoffs,seasons.,,losing customers,patrons abode interest Will swith to something more adult,responsible,logical. For myself,the interest in most sports has been diminishing,even jockey since they dropped fighting,,for a Good reasons,ie,Dont touch Our best players. Glad to have been able to witness rivalries ( Rangers Isles,Philly,etc) and also in racing ( Alydar,Affirmed,Seattle Slew,et all), Baseball (Boston ,New York,Mets,baketball ( Knicks,Boston,Chicago,L.A,Detroit,,),Tennis,,,.Things change,But thankfully,we get to Adjust,IF we are capable and willing. My betting average in horse racing has been Like a.290 hitter with an occasional HR. Many of my pix have not been mentioned by any television ,favorite -grabbing mouth piece,how else would i hit an over $ 300 cold exacta,or an over $ 26 placing horse ?Dont believe me ,Like some 98% of the people,friends relatives,brothers that i told them to.As. Degenerate liar, i still got the Tabs,notes that i de check with past results. I am not dreaming,but again,Dick Mitchell was Right on when he wrote that Nobody Will believe you,Me,,smiling at me with Sarcasm.,cinicism,Skepticism.So i go on,patiently keeping,hopefully,mu
    MY mouth closed and an open mind to the Real result$.Happy fathers day to all responsible,affectionate dads..Maybthe best horse win,,and Not Necessarily the favorite at this ,hopefully,temporary diistance,Of more than six feet.Ciao!

  6. Allow me to clarify. I am not picking on racing.

    The Covid pandemic is devaluating all sports as owners try to get the public to accept that sham “seasons” have any validity, solely to allow them to pocket TV windfalls.

    Baseball is still my national pastime. I watch night after night. But I am praying that the fake 50-game season isn’t perpetrated on us. It will be totally meaningless. After 50 games last season, the Washington Nationals were 19-31. The beauty of baseball is the requirement to sustain brilliance over six months–just like the mile and a half Belmont demands speed and stamina that a one-turn mile and an eighth doesn’t.

    By the time “this NBA season” picks up, it will have been away just about the same amount of time between real seasons. But the NBA owners will get paid the same money as if the playoffs started a few days after the regular season.

    Same for the NHL.

    After being denied our favorite sports for months, we will be played for suckers.

    The honest thing to do would have been to declare this season a “spit happens” situation and look forward to next year.

    Honesty. What a concept. What a joke.

  7. Tom,
    You are right, but sometimes we have to make adjustments. Of course 50 games is not a baseball season. How many times have we seen a player batting .350 after 50 games end up hitting less than.300. I will watch because I love watching baseball. Is the season any more illegitimate than the steroid seasons ? Of course the Belmont is a * race this year, but if you have the winner will you give the money back ? I guess what I am trying to say is why let the powers that be ruin our joys.

    1. That’s the spirit, Aaron. Thank God racing, whatever the rules or schedules this year, is around to give us respite from real world. e.g., did you know that yesterday there were 4,000 new cases in Texas and 3,000 where I live. As I said sarcastically on Twitter:

      “Meet me at the bar at high noon. Masks off!”

      1. John,
        Impossible to figure out.Florida,Texas,Arizona and even Montana have more cases, but NY does not seemed to have spiked. Is it because of testing ? Have the deaths increased ? I had a conversation yesterday with a race track buddy on whether we would go to Belmont if it allowed fans. The best answer we could give each other was maybe,but not if Belmont was limited like it has been.I have friends in Florida,some are very cautious and some are going to restaurants.IWe came back from Florida about a month ago and are basically doing the same things on L.I. that we did in Florida,which is being careful, going for walks and food shopping. Having racing is a plus for me,no matter the changes for this year.
        “May the Horse Be With You”.

  8. JP,
    The HRI faithful survived the eventual absences of Paul Moran, Vic Zast, and Bill Christine.

    It should be no surprise if they continue to show up without regular appearances by TJ and MB,

    IMO the most interesting dialogue among the six of you was your shared experiences “back in the day.”

    Perhaps HRI’s editorial focus should be on reminding us of what racing once was through the exploits of its independent observers, rather than the effects of what it has become on the lives of disappointed and/worn-out septuagenarians.

    How about a chapter a week on the “Memoirs of John Pricci?” I’d take a subscription for that.

    1. Sorry I, saving that for a book, if I ever get around to writing one. But it is food for thought and flattering, thanks for the vote of confidence.

  9. I might be a septuagenarian but even at this stage of my life I am not afraid to take responsibility for my opinions. I put my own name on them. I don’t hide behind unimaginative pen names.

    1. I include myself in that group of septuagenarians, TJ, but I guess that no one can prevent someone from being insulted who wants to be.

      Your decision to withdraw was yours to make, and not for me to either criticize or lament. No one should be forced to endure discomfort, and many at our age who still follow racing do so with decreasing enthusiasm.

      How an individual’s opinion in cyber-space is associated with those they previously expressed is a matter of personal preference, not courage. I’ve used the same recognizable pseudonym since I started posting on racing sites, and have enjoyed several off-line friendships that developed on-line as well as some that carried over from one site to another.

      You may regard “Indulto” as “unimaginative,” but I actually made an effort to come up with a meaningful (to me) horse for a namesake to comment on the Ragozin board whose posters at the time predominantly used the names of well-known T-breds. I won’t bore you with the process.

      Hope your day gets better.

  10. Two interesting developments off the Belmont Stakes draw; Tap It To Win drawing the rail, and Tiz The Law having Irad’s mount in the stall to his immediate outside. I think going into a NYRA race as a strong post time favorite, the last thing I really want to see is Irad Ortiz right on my outside with a horse with a similar running style to mine. We will be seeing some race riding on Saturday.

    1. All good observations. I didn’t care for rail draw for ‘Tap It’; would be surprised if Johnny breaks and rates; there is other speed in here so the break takes on extra significance here..

      I notice once in a while that when Irad is involved in inquiries, SA stewards notwithstanding, he gets the Jordan/Lebron treatment. You just know he’s going to shadow Franco…

  11. Race Riding is a good thing in my opinion.
    As long as not dangerous, makes it a Sport.
    I don’t go for that foul is foul/ ticky tack stuff they call sometimes.

    1. Philosophically, I agree. But depending on the men in the booth and interpretation from venue to venue, leads to too much inconsistency IMO

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