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.