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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Jon Stettin beat me to the punch. Penciled in for today was a column catching up with stories that slipped through the cracks this week while life, history and wagers were made.

The item of note was to be a piece written by Donna Brothers entitled “PETA Is a Bully,” which appeared in the Paulick Report this week. And I had some good snark to go along with the review.

In short, it was well written piece that attacks the organization that attacks horse racing submitted, coincidentally, several days prior to the Eclipse Award media-submissions deadline.

As one would expect, the story got a lot of attention from racing fans and horse lovers, sparking over 300 comments on the website in less than 48 hours. Lots of “you go, girl” stuff, how PETA doesn’t play fair, etc., etc.

Well, of course PETA don’t play fair. How can it raise money unless it’s visibly active stirring the pot; bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Having picket signs and a sympathetic public willing to listen doesn’t hurt them.

PETA is a lot like pro-life organizations which, when one thinks about it, is off-brand. Pro-Life really means Pro-Birth, since these hypocritical so-called Christian organizations don’t seem to care about those fetuses once they’re delivered.

But say this for those Americans; they love their animals, treating and caring about them better than they do their fellow man. But I digress.

Ridding myself of pent-up snark, I will not that the Eclipse committee has rules. Stories must be submitted by editors from reputable publications, of course, along with documentation that stories are authentic and appeared within the voting year.

Judges are not told in which publication the story appeared nor name of the author. The stories are to be recognized on the merits. However, it’s not unfair to wonder whether the judges are aware of the author, given its wide dissemination on the Internet and social media.

For its part, HorseRaceInsider has not submitted a story of any kind since inception in 2007. When your tagline is “the conscience of thoroughbred racing,” you often write things the industry would prefer to ignore.

But then that’s racing’s problem, isn’t it? It becomes about the messenger and not the message. Not intended as snark, here’s an observation worth pondering:

Instead of a tax cut in the form of lower takeout lowering or reducing the cost of basic past performance information, it’s the tee-shirt and hat giveaways and skydivers landing in the middle of the infield on big race days that have become the staples of the industry.

The focus is now on entertainment: Somewhere today will be a podcast battle between Brothers and PETA vice-resident and spokesperson, Kathy Guillermo. I’m sure each will get their licks in but it’s exhausting to even consider it.

Stettin nailed it in Saturday’s offering: “We Met the Enemy and He Is Us,” giving one example of how racetracks populate their betting cards by any means necessary. That exchange goes something like this:

“You help this race go'” suggests the racing secretary to the trainer, “and if we have enough horses that afternoon we’ll let you scratch off the program.” And if that doesn’t work? “I’ll write an ‘extra’, that N2L for 25-claimers you asked me about; I’ll have no problem making that race go.”

Of course, if by race day that horse is a little “off,” there’s legal medication for that.

When it wants, racing is good at sending messages. The problem is that it’s speaking to dwindling choir by the day as big stables get bigger with every owner’s phone call. The result? Over-bet horses from a handful of barns dominate the outcome.

Engaging the customer is no longer about handicapping horses in the traditional sense. All one needs to bet these days is a good set of form-cycle figures and trainer stats.

I cut my teeth professionally in racing’s glory days, the ’70s: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, along with his trusty sidekick, Alydar. The result often was the same but it was compelling racing theater each and every time.

And to witness the wizardry of Charlie, of Woody, of The Chief, three of the greatest horsemen to ever walk the planet? Priceless. But rarely did their win percentages consistently hit 25%. Today, one needs to reach almost 30% before anyone lifts an eyebrow.

To combat the negative publicity that comes with fatal equine injuries, racing resorts to, as Stettin pointed out, platitudes about how much the backstretch community loves its horses–they’re like family pets–which is at once true but sad.

Sad because love of the Thoroughbred knows no bounds until economies of scale are factored into the equation. Just ask Kentucky’s “Lasix 600.” It’s the only example you’ll ever need to cite.

Take a haircut for the long term health of the industry? Some of these folks wouldn’t even consider a shave.

Times change but the best part of the game shouldn’t; the horses. But they have morphed, too. One of God’s most beautiful and enduring creatures has gotten prettier and faster because today they are bred to be sold at auction, syndicated, then re-sold and re-syndicated.

Horses no longer are bred to race as “old money”owners did back in the day. Racing is about collecting Grade or Group 1 victories, increasing and protecting shareholder value. It’s no secret that the sport has been reduced to that of a marketing arm for the breeding industry.

In the run-up to Breeders’ Cup 36, the great John Gosden, sans the great Enable, was quoted extensively in racing publications and in mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Culled from those interviews are some observations and opinions worth noting. On medication:

“The therapeutic use of medication in training is not something that should be vilified, but is it morally right that an athlete should be receiving intravenous injections the morning of, or day before, a race?”

On racing’s popularity: “I realize with a more urbanized society there is an increasing disassociation with living creatures and certainly horses… At the same time, the world we live in now expects a higher standard of care. We have to live with that surreal contradiction and deal with it.”

On Santa Anita last winter: “There were two or three winters I was there [1980s] with rains of biblical proportions when Bobby Frankel, myself, and a lot of others were just jogging the wrong way on the training track… We backed right off a lot of horses…

“Alec Head always said to me ‘the most difficult thing is not to run’… So even though we live in a little bit of an instantaneous world now, inclined to value the short term instead of taking the long view, we must never forget we are responsible for the lives of horses.”

And so, like Brothers, Stettin and myself, we will continue to talk, write and argue about what’s wrong with racing and how to correct it. But we know that can’t happen because the game cannot fix itself from within, only from without.

The time for government oversight it at hand. Think not? Then consider this:

There are 20 million registered voters in California where the iconic Santa Anita and Del Mar stand. If roughly 600,000 of that 20 million back a referendum demanding that racing be banned, the proposition would appear on a future ballot.

In this climate, how do you think that would turn out? Then the talk and the written words would be about the beginning of the end.

People don’t need horse racing but horse racing sure needs the people. Racing must come clean, acknowledge its problems, and prove to all that the industry has made things better for the horses, actions that speak louder than platitudes.

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26 Responses

  1. Amen to all of the above. Think this piece deserves some well deserved recognition (yes I said it that way) – as do you, John. If anyone in this Industry deserves it, it’s you, for making this your life’s work, and never losing sight of what’s right.

  2. Thanks D, but I’m one of the lucky people who get to work at something they love; an avocation that becomes a profession and that’s the reward. Inform, entertain and enrich, although for the last year that hasn’t been working out too well. But we turn the page and carry on.

    D, if I can help leave the game in a little better place than it’s at presently while doing in my heart and mind what’s best for the animals, so much the better. This makes me a happy guy…

  3. John,
    There are a lot of people who love the game and the horses. Unfortunately,most of them are not involved or employed by racetracks.Doing the right thing doesn’t happen often in this industry. At a time when technology is so available,the sport has become a non-entity.Just remember,we will always have 70’s.

  4. Why slip in the anti Christian comment and the comparison to PETA? What does that issue have to do with Horse Racing? Your position on abortion is respected as it is a polarizing issue but this is not the proper forum nor do most care where you opinion lands.

  5. Sorry you feel that way, Thomas, but to me the analogy is fair because hypocrisy is where you find it and those troubled by it should speak out against it.

    I have roughly 2,500 followers on Twitter where I’m active politically. Some of those like-minded folks occasionally visit HRI even though they are not inveterate racing fans but when racing issues collide with wider, real-world sensibilities.

    While technically off topic–which happens often here because we encourage dialogue without borders, just respectful language and where personal attacks are strongly discouraged–I thought this analogy germane because well meaning words is not a substitute for meaningful action.

    Raceday medication is not the only culprit in the BC tragedy; track surfaces not uniform or maintained in perfect harmony, also share in culpability with respect to accidents.

    The only acceptable number is zero, but that is unattainable. Life and death happen, often accidentally. In the case of Mongolian Groom, tragedy seemed avoidable, however. And there lies the dichotomy.

    Just as there is with those who would protect fetuses but act less charitably toward less fortunate human beings, or with organizations such as PETA that exist to find homes for animals when in reality they euthanize nearly nine of every 10 domestic unwanted animals.

    Lines are blurred, to say the least.

    Parenthetically, it might interest you to know that my staff agrees with your position and tell me so from time to time. But, like Popeye, I suppose, I am what I am. I thought the analogy you question to be appropriate and not unfairly gratuitous, even if off-topic.

    I do not recognize your name from comments past but sincerely hope they won’t become comments last. Reasonable voices are always welcome here.

    Thank you for your interest in the site and this issue.

  6. Yes,the ‘Glory’ days of not just the 70`s but also the 80`s when we had time to read,digest and ruminate PP`s from the ‘Sports Eye’ and DRF besides the omnipresent early picks by public handicappers such as yourself,Harris and others.I remember great betting days at the New Haven Teletrack when Jorge Velazquez had maybe his best year ever besting Cordero and others but also types like Oscar Barrera Jr whose ‘claiming exploits’ with jockeys like Smith,Davis and Antley defied logic and made many other trainers wonder when would someone investigate his ‘ability’ to revive,even if x a short while, claimers who were winning at a much higher level. .Ask trainer De Bonis` clan. Yes,there were rivalries with jockeys[ Cordero,Maple,Velazquez,etcc] and great looking horses[ Alydar,Affirmed,Seattle Slew,Secretariat,,] who were followed by many of us as we waited between races at the smoky,overcrowded OTB`s when we`d argue about workouts,breeding ,drop$ and where our clothes,from socks to hats were soaking of cigarette smoke .Now it`s more superficial,almost synthetic,less popular and even looked at with disdain following the same path of the bleeding ,comatose harness ‘game’ where there`s rarely such a thing as Value x most bettors.Looking at the ever smaller fields and diminishing racing days it has become a ‘crap shoot’ to get excited about most available racing and if it were not for ‘special’ occasions like the Derby, B.C. the best of Saratoga and Belmont many of us former daily bettors would not even check results or standings just like if it were the Premier Soccer League or Canadian Football. Will i be a prodigal fan? No, the brass in charge never respected the bettors and in turn most of them left the game to whomever knows the inside ‘stuff’. “Gotta be in it to win”,just like in politics,after all it`s the ‘Game of Kings’,pawns are not involved besides betting,ie, spending,wasting Time and $$. There`s no joy anymore in being left out and it feels like being in a ceremony where you were not invited or welcome besides your hard earned $,,,which reminds of the last time i was in church ,hearing over and over again” Don`t forget the Envelope$,We have more envelope$ at the main entrance” Someone else besides me needs to visit the Confessional ! Simulcasting has killed the intimacy of ‘handicapping’;too many useless distractions and thanks to Casino $$ joints like the WV track ,and many others,are still ‘doin business’,even if running horses of questionable level and ability. Who would have bet some 30 yrs ago that they would still be goin` in 2019 ? We`ve always been outsiders,now more than ever like trying to pick a winner/combo/gimmick at the distant Australian turf race. A costly shot in the dark,,,

  7. I agree that the simulcasting smorgasbord has been tricky when it comes to leaving with a positive bankroll. Sure, there are the rare times that a 50-1 bomb from Lone Star keyed a winning trifecta but that is a fluke, at best. Could not agree more with woeful treatment of day to day patrons. Even Harry M. Stevens Manhattan Clam Chowder is gone, ha, ha.

  8. Gentlemen, simulcasting is the double-edged sword, providing opportunity for players to seek out bets they believe give them the best chance at success, but the sheer volume of choice is overwhelming and becomes a source of confusion.

    Consequently, horseplayers can get caught “in the switches”, looking for personal-best plays but the problem of making too many choices while not allowing enough time for anything approaching comprehensive study is a recipe for failure. So many choices, so little time for study and bet planning.

    It would follow, then, that the table is tilted toward high-volume players who, in addition to getting favorable takeout rates via rebates, have algorithms to separate the wheat from the chaffe with lightning speed. We suppose that’s in the best interest of bet-takers in terms of volume but is killing the sport by leaving a great number of rank and file bettors and fans behind.

  9. John,
    Agree with the double edge sword of simulcasting. At one time my handle was almost 100% NYRA. Simulcasting has allowed me to bet other tracks. I would say my handle is about 65% other tracks and 35% NYRA. I use a product that allows me to go from one track to another. My bottom line has been on the + side of the ledger, probably because I am not forced to bet some impossible races. While I don’t force bets,I do find some very good opportunities away from NYRA. I am not a professional player and I don’t make a fortune, but I do play about 4 days a week and I do enjoy it.

  10. Wow!

    Aaron, a story that actually has a bit of a happy ending: Doing OK, the game makes sense, you clearly play regularly, and still enjoy it.


    What are you trying to do; render this site meaningless?!

    1. John,
      Still enjoy the challenge and enjoy your site. In my opinion racing still is the best gambling game. Of course, the game has changed over the years and I would like to see some positive things happen.Eventually some one will step up and do the right thing in regards to racing, but each day you see interesting things happen, some almost make sense.For instance in yesterday’s 5th race at Aqueduct numbers 4 and 6 got bet down wildly in the last minutes. Both horses were trained by Mertkan Kantarmaci. Hardley,a household name in NY. One went from 9/2 to about 9/5. The other went from around 15-1 to 9/2. Both made moves but were not first or second.What a great game !

  11. Another journey down “Memory Lane:” An old-timer at Big A told me a gazillion years ago that the guys that actually grind out a living look to make about $100.00 per day (please adjust for inflation, this was the 1970’s) and pass many races. Pass many races. Say and repeat.

  12. Couldn’t agree more with every word of this article. PETA May very well be every negative thing said about it, and probably is, but that fact does not absolve the racing industry of their own responsibility in putting the industry in peril. Whataboutism is no excuse in politics and it is no excuse here either.

  13. Doc, right back at you, 1000%, on your respons.

    Whataboutism, aka, “her emails,” drives me crazy. It means you have no game, no policy, no vision for our country.

    If you will permit me… #SAD.

  14. Aaron, have noticed that outfit. No longer living on Long Island, I’m not in attendance every day and it’s once, maybe twice a year, I can visit the NY backstretch. I do it in South Florida but you do lose track of trainers on a particular circuit.

    And, ys, in terms of those mutuel dropdowns you spoke of that made moves bu couldn’t finish what they started, I thought of the WayneLukasism. “People have opinions, horses have the answer.”

  15. Malyou keep trying to take me back to the days when life, and the races, were easier. Funny, you look for chaos races because that’s where the potential payoffs are, then you’re surprised when your horses don’t pick up their feet.

    Don’t know what the answer to that issue is and I don’t want to sound like a paranoid a..hole–but you can’t help but wonder sometimes about the chemical warfare some outfits indulge in which wreck havoc with the race-to-race form, the prime reason, coupled with high takeout, regulars are finding another way to occupy their time ad discretionary dollars.

  16. Harvey Pack TV commercial showed him throwing ping pong balls up in the air (lottery) and asking, “What would you rather have, this (ping pong balls) or this (stretch drive)?” I know, that was back in the late ’70’s also but that was a time when things were less chaotic (your word). Forego, Slew, Affirmed, need I say more? Maybe we were spoiled back then. Forego Marlboro cup impossible win packing more weight than a Ford 150 pickup pretty hard to forget. Was it 142 lbs or 144? Oh baby, what a horse!

  17. Unsure of weight, will have to research it and get back. My enduring memory. I remember exactly where I was standing in the press box and thinking “impossible, he’ll NEVER get there. And he did!

    I felt like the late Jim Valvano in that iconic video, his running all around the court after NC State won the NCAA championship looking for somebody, anybody to hug. Absolutely thrilling…

    If I wanted to play that moment forward–I know, different time, feeling and people–Arrogate’s 2017 Dubai World Cup would do…

    1. John,
      Great comparison between the Forego and Arrogate races. I remember being on the 3rd floor grandstand for the Forego race. Some pretty hardcore players were up there in those days. At the finish all seemed to be in awe of Forego’s effort.Moments like that turn hard core players into fans. The Arrogate race was something special to see. Unfortunately we didn’t get much more out of him. Still a great effort. Probably the best I have seen in 10-15 years.

  18. In complete accord with all points, Aaron.

    Must believe that not only would an effort like the one made by Arrogate reach the bottom, but the fact it was a half a world away could not have hoped.

    To me, it’s 50-50 if a horse empties out in Dubai whether he will be the same animal from that point forward…

  19. John,
    Used to be that I always looked for regression after Dubai.If memory serves me correct Cigar did continue on his undefeated streak after his 1st time to Dubai. He never gets his due.

    1. Cigar was a monster. Travelled to Suffolk Downs for Mass Cap. No problem. Beloved at the old “Sufferin’ Downs” in East Boston.

  20. Good catch Aaron. Often thought of it but don’t believe I’ve ever written it: Historically, Cigar has been underrated as a race horse in the overall…

  21. I use a trick all the time..since I wash dishes with rubber gloves, there’s always one there…I did buy and OXO for trade shows, when I have to open multiple jars…

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