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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, MARCH 9, 2021 – Maybe it’s because I just saw the Golden Globe-winning Nomadland that I don’t feel compelled to rage, to display a sense of moral indignation, because life is about the journey after all, and those tethered to Thoroughbreds understand day-to-day fortune.

At its essence, horsemen tend to the animals from flag-fall foaling to that’s-all-head-hooves-and-heart, life symbols for equine intelligence, speed and most of all, spirit. But the real world doesn’t know about this world and it has its own expectations. Many would cancel this sport on the spot.

The life, lifestyle and billion-dollar industry that has Thoroughbreds as its focus has been under siege throughout the world, and everyone knows that, too. The world has changed, but not the industry. It embraces the status quo, it spins facts, and sometimes creates entirely new narratives.

But whatever the pitfalls and shortcomings, however ineffectual, no matter how myopic or imperfect the fix, the industry does try. But the cliché applies here: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Thoughtlessness and hubris can bring this industry to its knees.

There is no room for error in today’s world that ultimately may want the sport to end. No more logs can be thrown on this fire, no more acts of self-destruction can be absorbed. Does the fault lie in racing’s willingness to embrace an “all part of the game” attitude?

I’ve been around the sport for a half-century yet I was unaware of what trainer Gordon Elliott had accomplished. At 29, he was the youngest horseman ever to win the Grand National, a race I remember from the black-and-white Movietone newsreels of my youth, the first time I realized horse racing was a worldwide spectacle.

But now I know because headlines called attention to a social media post of Elliott sitting on the carcass of a dead horse that had suffered a heart attack in training. Elliott was flashing a peace sign while speaking on his cell phone, mugging for the camera. It was as abhorrent as its sounds.

This past Friday, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board suspended Elliott for 12 months of which he will serve six. Not comparing the offenses at all here but it was akin to a recent 30-day suspension handed Doug O’Neill, of which he will serve 10 if his horses test clean within the next year.

Am I alone in misunderstanding when penalties are walked back the very moment punishment is meted out?

Is it because Elliott won two additional Grand Nationals, and back-to-back training titles at the Cheltenham Festival, or that O’Neill’s next Kentucky Derby would be his third? Do the Jordan Rules apply in horse racing?

The IHRB found Elliott guilty in breaching a rule relating to “the good conduct and good reputation of horse racing.” Not to mention “good taste,” which is not actionable but doesn’t play well in the court of public opinion, but maybe excuse enough to insist on shutting the game down.

The media should know better but like political idealogues, it often aids, abets, and is too willing to support and forgive the individuals it covers, invariably landing on the wrong side of history. These offenses, big and small, come as the game is through the looking glass.

One European journalist urged fans to forgive and forget once Elliott serves his suspension. The trainer might have been “in shock” after the horse collapsed; talking on a cell phone is “distracting” causing people to act without thinking. Thankfully, no attempts were made to defend mugging for the camera.

In addition to the Elliott and O’Neill suspensions, there was additional social media embarrassment when a video surfaced of multiple Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. sucker-punching Paco Lopez while Lopez was seated outside the Gulfstream Park jocks’ room.

The incident that precipitated the outburst occurred during the running of the fourth race on February 26. Paco’s horse drifted—intentional or not is the question—approaching headstretch where the horses brushed lightly, Irad’s horse leaning inward in response.

Paco’s foul claim correctly was disallowed but Ortiz’s defenders were quick to point out that Lopez is one of the most penalized riders in the game and that is a fair criticism. Lopez did not fight back as he has been on thin ice with Florida stewards for some time. But a sucker punch is not a good look.

Another point made was that jockeys fight all the time, also true. (The most infamous occurred on horseback between Don Meade and Herb Fisher in the 1933 Kentucky Derby). And, of course, the rare contractual agreement notwithstanding, if jockeys don’t win, they don’t eat.

Several weeks before the Ortiz-Lopez incident, a fight not captured on video was the dust-up between Manny Franco and Trevor McCarthy at Aqueduct after McCarthy’s mount dropped over sharply to the inside. Franco took exception and the matter was settled in the jocks’ room, according to an HRI source.

So these past few weeks have seen dark days for racing in America and the United Kingdom, which is the second biggest spectator sport in Britain behind soccer and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Justice is delayed and there is no transparency in horse racing. The Elliott snap was taken nearly two years ago. Like many are questioning the political timing of the Cuomo allegations, the query is why now?

Is a rival looking to jam up Elliott, or is it the work of animal rights activists who chose not to lay down on the racetrack, as was the case at Golden Gate Fields recently? And does this miss the point, too?

Those in the sport should take care not to embarrass themselves or the sport and do something they will regret. Keep tempting fate and the price could be extinction.

At the turn of the 20th Century, horse race wagering was banned in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. Today’s repressive environment is the same, only different. Think America’s multi-billion parimutuel industry is too big to fail, that it can’t happen again?

Like it or not, cancel culture is here, for how long is anyone’s guess. There’s plenty of reason to fear that if one state pulls the ripcord, others might fall like dominoes. So tell me stakeholders, are you feeling lucky?

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4 Responses

  1. John: I know that you have had some differences of opinion with some other posters on HRI in the past. I do not believe that HRI should be a political forum. However, you and everyone else is entitled to his or own own opinion.
    Nevertheless, and very reluctantly, I feel compelled to interject as to your question about the “political timing” of the allegations against Andrew Cuomo. As to the allegations against Cuomo concerning the thousands of deaths in Nursing Homes, the families have been raising these allegations since the Spring of last year. As to the allegations of sexual misconduct, the women were his former employees who have detailed Cuomo’s conduct over a period of time. Andrew does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. He has been running roughshod over this State for much too long. Moreover, he has never been a friend of NY racing ( neither was his father). John, the walls of Albany are closing in on our Governor. He needs a whole lot of luck, in the next couple of weeks, if he is to survive the current crisis.

  2. Fram,

    Over 1,000 words and your comment is about an analogous reference made about other people’s reactions? I must have done a poor job. Was there anything in this piece that hints at my support for Andrew Cuomo?

    Once I did give him the benefit of the doubt and credit for keeping the country sane in the early days of the pandemic. There was no federal leadership, God and Bob Woodward know, and we all could have been hugging each other by now if the former guy told the truth. Tens of thousands died needlessly as a result–and that’s with benefit’s doubt, it’s likely more.

    I have been angry with Cuomo since he was two-faced about his own “second chance law” and left a wrongfully convicted man, Rick Dutrow, to languish because it would have been an admission that a state investigator lied under oath and committed a crime himself by planting evidence.

    All the governor needed to do was contact the derelicts he appointed to the Racing and Gaming Board and said “OK, seven years of ‘career arrest’ is enough.” But it wasn’t politically expedient for this transactional politician.

    I am no Cuomo apologist, but I hope you agree that the timing of the sexual allegations is a little “convenient” with the SDNY all over the former guy’s criminal activities.

    Further, I did not conflate sexual allegations, nor did I confuse them with his scandalous nursing home lies and coverups. He acted no differently than the governor of my state. A pox on the houses of all those who use power for power’s sake and do not do the people’s work!

    Between “me too”, “political correctness” and “cancel culture,” the point of the piece is that racing people had better think twice before possibly skirting the rules which could serve as an impetus for the public taking this industry down.

    As stated above, it has happened before, and hypocrisy never seems to go out of fashion.

    And, like it or not, politics is baked in to our day-to-day existence. Who do you think has more political power in state capitals and Washington, PETA or horseplayers?

    1. JP,
      It wouldn’t surprise me if many among the HRI faithful have hot buttons you occasionally hit without trying. For me, recently, it was a similar off-hand reference to Saudi Arabia, that I felt compelled to challenge.

      Which is more idiotic than ironic: The jockey who defines aggressive race riding sucker-punching another overly aggressive rival, or no action being taken against the former by the authorities?

      Why aren’t animal rights activists willing to spend their time saving wildlife from human-generated environmental contamination as well as Global warming instead pf ignoring the progress they’ve already helped initiate?

      Nice piece, though! LOL

  3. Or at least go after the Qusay and Uday of America who just love big game hunting for the “sport” of it with the same vigor…

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