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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


This has been a week when I wished I was on a 24-hour news cycle like the cable channels, so I could regularly update things.

I’ve started and revised this column several times, only to have what I was writing superseded by breaking news, sometimes within minutes. My initial plan, of course, was to go all in on the Jason Servis-Jorge Navarro drugging scandal. I will still have plenty to say on that.

But coronavirus hysteria has overtaken that. It is only a matter of time–alas, possibly before this is even published–that racing will become another victim of the pandemic. As I write this, most of the winter  tracks were still planning to race, albeit without fans.

This can’t continue. Racing without fans, as NYRA, Gulfstream, Laurel, Santa Anita, Golden Gate say they plan to do, and press releases trumpeting extra places to wash hands is woefully insufficient. If nothing else racing should be shamed into taking a hiatus.

The NBA announced Wednesday that it is suspending its season. Thursday, the NHL followed suit. MLB has suspended spring training games and pushed  back the start of the regular season at least two weeks.

All the major college conferences–the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC, WAC, PAC 12, et al–canceled their basketball tournaments in progress (stripping ESPN and other networks of hundreds of hours of programming). The Big East game between St. John’s and Creighton was called off at halftime. Not long thereafter, the big shoe fell. March Madness is off.

International tennis tournaments have been put on hold for at least six weeks. Major League Soccer suspended its season.

Broadway has announced it is going dark. St. Patrick’s Day parades have been called off. Disneyland is closing. Colleges are telling their students not to come back from spring break.

In this environment, racing would come off as a bigger outlaw than it already is if it doesn’t shut down for at least a while. There is no justifiable explanation for continuing business as usual.

This wouldn’t be bad optics, it would be atrocious optics, which would not be forgotten or forgiven. Racing’s enemies, and they increased many-fold this week, would jump all over it in resuming their calls that the game be ended. Racing has been pilloried (unjustly IMO) for its lack of concern of horses. It would be tough to defend a lack of concern for humans.

One perverse side effect of the virus is that its domination of news coverage has kept racing’s drugging scandals off the front pages and the lead slots on cable newscasts. Even the scandal hungry NY Post has barely touched on it. But if racing persists in being the only sport still operating, it will crash the front pages.

I have a feeling that a prime reason some tracks are standing firm is because of their place in the Derby run-up season. This is foolhardy. Unless there is a miraculous breakthrough in controlling the pandemic, there is no way the Kentucky Derby, with 150,000 people squeezed together, and the Preakness, with 100,000 rowdies in the infield, will be allowed to go on as scheduled. Without those two as preludes, the Belmont is just another race. Besides Gov. Cuomo has decreed that gatherings of more than 500 people be canceled. Even without a Triple Crown candidate, the Belmont would draw more than that.

If the NCAA can suspend March Madness, one of the biggest sporting events of the year, arguably bigger than even the Kentucky Derby, racing’s Derby preps pale into insignificance.

Searching for any bright spot in this horrific situation, a temporary shutdown could be the catalyst for moving the Triple Crown later into the season, which many (not including me) have been calling for.

There is only one acceptable decision for racing. It is irresponsible that it has taken this long to make it.

More to come

The worst thing about the drugging scandal that broke this week is that the worst is probably yet to come. HRI spoke to Nick Biase of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan and he confirmed that the investigation is open and ongoing.

However, asked if more individuals could be named in the future, he said he could not comment.

We’ve all watched enough TV to know what comes next. The relatively little fish will be squeezed hard to give up bigger fish. With all the vets named so far, it would be naive to think only Servis and Navarro were hopping horses. There are probably a lot of bold-face name trainers who are not sleeping well these days.

Off the top of my head I can think of a half-dozen or more trainers whose other-worldly winning percentages defy logic. In our litigious society, I will avoid mentioning names but I doubt this is necessary. Anyone who bets horses has a list of his own and they are probably accurate.

At this point I am compelled to note that in our system of justice suspicion and allegations are not convictions.

This is just one reason why we must not rush to over-correct for these offenses. Midnight Bisou’s people are calling for Maximum Security to be disqualified from his victory in the $20 million Saudi Cup and the purse redistributed. They have a case, but only if Max’s sample can be re-examined and illicit drugs are found.

But rescinding Max’s Eclipse Award is a bridge too far until these cases play out.

If Servis is convicted it would be a kind of karma in that Max’s DQ in the Derby in retrospect wouldn’t seem so objectionable. I’ve been critical of the Churchill Downs stewards. I still think they made the wrong call. But I’m adopting radio silence for now when it comes to complaining about it.

At first, the news that Maximjm Security is going to Bob Baffert was a little surprising. He doesn’t need this attention, which is sure to dredge up conversations about the mysterious deaths in his barn a few years ago. But he trains for Gary West, so what could he do? Don’t be shocked if a reason to retire Max isn’t forthcoming.

What bothers me most is the Sgt. Schultz “I see nothing” attitude by some of the ranking people in racing. Michael Dubb, a member of the NYRA Board, had horses in Servis’ care. So did Dennis Drazin, who ostensibly runs racing in New Jersey.

People at their level can’t claim surprise at the Servis revelations. When someone is winning at a 40-50% clip, they had to at least suspect something was amiss. But they looked the other way, like a parent of a kid who keeps coming home with pricey phones, DVD players and wearing apparel accepting the kid’s explanation that he found them.

With smoke figuratively coming out of every window, didn’t Dubb and Drazin think to even see if there was a fire somewhere. How can fans have any faith in the integrity of the game with these people at the top?

One final thought (for now). We’ve been complaining about the late odds drops and blaming the computer guys. Now you have to wonder how much of this came from pals of Servis and Navarro.

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14 Responses

  1. TJ, haven’t read your take on the scandal yet, but while it’s fresh in my mind. Marc Lawrence had a note today in the HRI News section that television and marketing receipt for the 2019 NCAA Tournament was $867 million. By the way, the Masters was added to the list this morning.
    Don’t know about a “Fall Triple Crown” and we may be a few more weeks away from calling this shot, but CDI must think about breaking with tradition if necessary and delay the running of the Derby, and I can’t imagine the outfit that would help let Arlington Park die vis a vis their non-support of legislation establishing an onsite racino there would turn the Oaks and Derby into strict studio events.

    Churchill Downs is economically successful each year based on one weekend’s receipts. Optics re horse safety, and a PED scandal, is bad enough. Wanton disregard for humans and animals could be the impetus for shutting it all down.
    The hashtag no one wants to read is #PETAWins

  2. Let’s never throw logic outta the window. Congregation of a certain # of people is as ridiculous as health coverage over a certain # of employees . One less person changes the Law? Just like many don’t get basic benefits even if they work 28-33 hours? Just as “smoke in my coffee” status quo racing needs a break from itself as do clueless bettors who habitually keep on wagering on that thin wire between addiction, bad habits, social ineptitude and self loathing equal to depressed,illusionary poets. And we know what happens to that dead end.. Also let’s give those wonderful four legged creatures a deserved break. As X the owners,conglomerates,gophers and their ruffians ,as judges and lawyers on separate sides of legal arguments, we have to remind ourselves that they all belong to the same clubs associations and acting schools….besides modus operandi,,names change but the game stays the same. All the “outsiders”are annoying cockroaches, not even pebbles in their expensive platform shoes. Our habits, stupidity and addictions keep on making them richer as many of us even spend $ several to play with their crooked rules. Quarantine is “the now word ” to keep away from all of this insulting farce. Brenner anticipated all of us while I follow a similar exit and visit authentic, young, sober horses and trainers from nearby Camden, Aiken. “love the smell of poop in the morning” as even the yearly colonial cup was scratched.,,but the equines will still be ‘horsing around”.be charitable and thankful to them! It would be appreciated,, much more than most people at any gambling joint. Hey ,if you got money, room and a generous, altruistic heart, adopt one or two.. It will be good for you!

    1. Last ‘writes’ from moi : Berner and not Brenner. Yeah,rambling just like those old ,lazy,greedy folks who hide at OTB and other similar joints,bars just to kill precious time like if they`ll live another 100 yrs. Wonder if there`s a page about Greyhound racing where helpless old people can complain just to hear or read about themselves. I`ll do you all a favor by avoiding this silent chatter about something which you wont ever be able to change,nor accept how asinine it really is.,,Rambling and Not doing anything consequential about any subject matter. Leave you with a scene from ‘The Gambler’ movie with James Caan,,, He ,a degenerate gambler who owes $$ to several ‘bad people’,willingly goes into a dark valley knowing that he`ll either be beaten up or killed. Personally,I left that ‘hood many moons ago as i close with the title of ” They Shoot Horses,Don`t They ? “. 10-4 !! Thanks and Sorry for your ‘precious’ time.

  3. Very thought provoking, TJ.

    My take on a delayed Triple Crown, though, is somewhat different. With so many people confined to their homes by the pandemic, and decreasing recreational respite from the increasing stress associated with it, racing could perform a great public service by carrying on without crowds.

    If Churchill Downs isn’t willing to take the attendance hit while ADW handle increases as racing finally gets favorable media coverage as a result of such patriotic gestures, some other track should step up and provide a 14-horse, 10-furlong invitational based on R2KD results for an alternative first TC leg on the first Saturday in May.

  4. I think it’s a disgrace that racing is the only game of all the major sports that hasn’t taken a hiatus during a national emergency. March Madness is bigger than racing. The Masters is bigger than racing. This is not to mention all the pro leagues.

    No fans in the stands is a BS copout. It is unadulterated greed.

    It also tells you what race tracks think of their customers. Screw ’em, we don’t need ’em. All we care about is the computer geeks.

    I don’t expect it to last long because without the regular players there is no one for the sharks to feed off, so they’ll move to more fertile waters. Remember, it’s not just tracks that are shut down. The simulcast sites and OTB are off limits, too. TVG is a drop in the bucket, especially when you need money in your account in advance. It is one huge pain in the ass to keep feeding the account.

  5. Can’t and won’t argue with you about the Computer batch bettors. Rebates represent greed begetting more greed. Now’s the time to take back the sport.

  6. My play has decreased for about the past 18 months because I have never had suffered through such a protracted losing streak. I have told my gambling buddies, inquiring minds, and have written here, it’s not horse racing any longer, it’s jockey and trainer racing with stats replacing running lines.

    As the late, great Paul Moran wrote years ago, and has been repeated here, the name of the attending veterinarian should be on the PPs owned by Equibase, and printed in official track programs. Like equipment changes, it should be included on the trainer’s card at time of entry.

    Thing is that backstretch people sleep in dorms and the job for all racetrackers means tending to Thoroughbreds 24/7/365. Seems like only a matter of time.

    There is a way to conduct racing safely without crowds, just go from receiving barn to racetrack, extend warmup time, bring the horse back to another barn while horses for the next race are led over, a safety-first post drag.

    Now what happens when a jock or his wife or children contact the disease from a stranger who doesn’t keep their distance while food shopping and carries coronavirus into the jock’s room, where riders live in very close proximity. Many, many moving parts.

    Not comparing apples to oranges here, but the potential loss of life from unsuccessful containment, this pandemic might turn out to be 911 on steroids, no snarky PED reference intended.

  7. TTT

    My take on the whole thing is a little different. If somebody wants to shut down racing, they missed the boat. It is Spring. Have any of you degenerates ever heard of the theory of survival of the fittest? Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIH, spent all that money to get his doctorate, only to spend his 15 minutes of fame telling us how to wash our hands. Get the frig out of here. Cancel the Derby? Even if we have to climb over bodies (literally) to get to the window, no such thing should ever happen. The cat is out of the bag. There is no stopping whatever it is they have created. They created it, now we must live with it. All these leftist agendas giving the illusion they are trying to slow it down, are all pointless, because that is all it will do, slow it down. Let’s get it over with and see who is left standing.

    Instead of shutting down, tracks should reduce takeout significantly for off-track wagers to induce people to wager at home, and add to that give us the breakage you have been stealing for years.

    And remember, dirty hands made this country great. Dirty is good.

    1. Down & Dirty Teddy (DDT),
      The goal of this “social distancing” strategy is to avoid the “body climbing” experience that would result from overloading the hospitals and other critical healthcare tools and resources by slowing the spread of the disease.
      Further, Derby attendees come from all over the continent and could bring it back to places it might not otherwise reach. That’s where the body climbing will occur.

      Although not many casinos were originally closed, they will be eventually; and by local governments if necessary. Churchill Downs would be giving up far more income than necessary if it’s unwilling to run the Derby as originally scheduled without crowds. It would be shooting itself in the foot to give another track an opportunity to run an alternative lead-in to the other Triple Crown legs.

      By all means lower the takeout and breakage, and offer Dime Supers on Derby Day.

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