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I’ve started and revised this column several times, only to have what I was writing superseded by breaking news, sometimes within minutes.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.