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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition this week is a commendable step in the right direction to deal with racing’s myriad problems. The alliance includes the most powerful tracks and organizations in the game–NYRA, Churchill Downs, The Stronach Group, Keeneland, Del Mar and Breeders’ Cup. The Jockey Club subsequently joined in.

However, it is difficult to not to think this could be another version of The Jockey Club Round Table, the annual carnival of platitudes at Saratoga where much is said but little is accomplished.

The goals, if implemented, would clean up many of the negative issues troubling the sport. The laundry list includes tighter control of medications and steroids, prohibition of the use of bisphosphonates in training or racing, widespread out of competition testing and setting standards for voiding claims for horses. The roster goes on and on.

Almost all the proposals are sensible. Many are long overdue. However, it is discouraging that not one major horsemen’s group signed on. So as heartening as the effort is, its pollyannish to believe the proposals are on a fast track to universal implementation.

Perhaps the major positive aspect of the alliance is it hopes to achieve its ends without Uncle Sam’s involvement. Tracks are aligning to take control of their own business. Many of the proposals will be done as house rules. This demonstrates that it can be done if the will is there.

It’s just as well government isn’t part of the program. Even on the first day, when camaraderie was at its peak, it was conceded there isn’t unanimity of support among participants for the Horse Racing Integrity Act, which picked up an important co-sponsor in the Senate, Diane Feinstein (D-CA), this week.

This isn’t a promising beginning, since membership in the Coalition is voluntary. Participants can drop out at any time and cherry pick which of the regulations and proposals they wish to follow. One of the issues under discussion is the transition (re-transition?) to synthetic tracks.

Good luck on getting total cooperation on that. “Been there, done that, didn’t like it, not going back” is likely to be the dominant attitude.

It’s important to note the Coalition has no leader or enforcement mechanism to keep members in line.

Once members of an organization can decide they will do this and this but not that, the group begins to fall apart.

A cynic might point out that this sounds an awful lot like where racing is now.

The mere formation of the Coalition is an encouraging step forward. How far forward will be determined as words are translated into deeds and participants show how far they are willing to go in surrendering independence for the common good.

Keep it real

Madeline Auerbach rolled a hand grenade into the room in announcing her resignation from the California Horse Racing Board.

Auerbach, a long-time owner who has been co-chairman of the CHRB for the past three years, said she thinks Santa Anita should have shut down after the Breeders’ Cup and began a transition to some form of synthetic race track.

Apparently Auerbach, who presented this as an equine safety issue, has learned nothing from history. Santa Anita had a synthetic surface from 2007-2010. Del Mar also had one from 2007-2015. Keeneland installed an artificial track in 2006 and kept it through 2014.

The fact that all of these tracks, among the most important in the sport, gave up on synthetics in a relatively short period of time, despite spending tens of millions to install them, is all anyone needs to know.

Equine deaths declined but did not come close to disappearing. However, statistics weren’t kept about the number of career-ending soft tissue issues, which anecdotally soared. It was said respiratory ailments as a result of the fibers kicked up also became a concern.

Most significantly, synthetics changed the game. American thoroughbreds are bred for speed. Synthetics changed that. Fake dirt racing became more like turf racing, slow early, fast late. Indeed, horses whose performances were stronger on grass than on dirt, began to win a disproportionate share of races.

Breeders have spent hundreds of millions of dollars under the assumption that American racing will remain conventional dirt track oriented. They are sure to vigorously resist a step backward to a failed experiment.

Handicappers also hated the new set of challenges presented by horses shifting from real dirt to the fake variety.

If Santa Anita goes back to fake dirt, it likely will be an outlier in the sport. An exodus of horses, trainers and jockeys is inevitable. Field size, already at a crisis point in Southern California, is likely to decline even more. The only way to combat this will be to import the caliber of horses now running on the artificial surface in Northern California.

Top riders Joe Talamo, Martin Garcia and Kent Desormeaux have seen this coming and have announced they are taking their tacks elsewhere.

If Santa Anita pursues this misguided folly, it need not worry about politicians killing the game. There will be nothing worth saving.   

Decisions must be final

I don’t think Maximum Security should have been disqualified from his convincing victory in the Kentucky Derby. I appreciate the frustration of his owners, Gary and Mary West. I have sometimes hated and aggressively challenged decisions regarding DQ’s.

However, I don’t think the Wests should have appealed the stewards’ decision and I am doubly disappointed they have decided to continue their pursuit in the courts of what they consider justice in the wake of their initial appeal being turned down by a Kentucky judge.

It shouldn’t have gone that far.

Racing is a sport and sports should be decided on the field (track, court, etc.). The decision of the judges has to be final. Without it, what is supposed to be entertainment and a distraction from the mundane issues and annoyances of everyday life descends into chaos.

Last season’s NFL postseason would have had to be put on hold while a horrendous non-call for pass interference—unlike the Derby call, almost no one disputes the officials erred–worked through the courts. We might have wound up waiting for the 2019 Super Bowl to be played after the 2020 Super Bowl.

Don Denkinger made the most infamous mistake by an umpire ever in the 1985 World Series when he badly blew a call at first base. It allowed the KC Royals to eventually tie the Cardinals and go on to win the championship, a title that rightfully should have gone to St. Louis.

Everyone, including Denkinger, acknowledged a horrible mistake had been made. But the result was allowed to stand.

This is the way it should be and has to be.

Greed outweighs shame

Into Mischief will have a stud fee of $175,000 during the upcoming breeding season. Mitole will be introduced at $25,000. Apparently this is not enough for their connections.

It wasannounced Wednesday Into Mischief and Mitole will be cross-bred to quarter horse mares. Into Mischief and Mitole won’t get near quarter horse mares. The insemination at $10K for Into Mischief and $4K for Mitole will be artificial.

This is not unprecedented. Some outstanding thoroughbred sprinters have been bred to quarter horse mares. But it has never been done on a large scale. This could be the foot in the door for those who feel there is never enough.

For the sake of round numbers and being very conservative, let’s say Into Mischief, one of the hottest sires in the world, covers 100 mares. He will produce $17,500,000. Chances are the number will be substantially higher.

Also for the sake of this argument let’s say the still unestablished Mitole covers 50 mares, although I would bet the over on that. This would come to $1,250,000.

This isn’t enough for their owners. Maybe they can also line up some harness mares, too.

The Jockey Club recently proposed a limit of 140 mares bred annually per stallion. The goal clearly is to prevent cheapening of the thoroughbred breed.

The Spendthrift plan makes a mockery of this.

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17 Responses

  1. “Perhaps the major positive aspect of the alliance is it hopes to achieve its ends without Uncle Sam’s involvement.”

    Do you think the individual states involved will agree to uniformity of regulation?

    “Tracks are aligning to take control of their own business. Many of the proposals will be done as house rules. This demonstrates that it can be done if the will is there.”

    I suppose that tracks banning individual trainers and/or owners until they eventually measurably reduce equine breakdowns (abuse?) might work assuming there would be enough horsemen left to fill entry boxes more than once a week.

    It’s possible the Triple Crown Trail might still be enough to keep interest in racing alive.
    I know lots of people who don’t follow NBA, NFL, or MLB until the playoffs.

    IMO this is another reshuffling of industry subsets without sufficient authority to make meaningful changes much less provide the transparency that would promote integrity.

    ‘Too little too late.’

  2. Per usual, much good stuff to chew on.

    First, did you notice that Harness Racing says that the RMTC doesn’t speak for them with respect to medication rules?

    I think Thoroughbred racing should get even by steadfastly stating that under no circumstance will they allow their studs to service harness mares (an intended lol).

    Although all who don’t know should realize that the blood of the great Messenger is coursing through the blood of many of today’s Thoroughbreds–yes, it goes back that far. And, BTW, Messenger was a bleeder, so there’s that.

    Second, would ask you to consider that–yes, I’ve mentioned this before–that the old synthetic Cushion Track at Hollywood Park played like dirt. Richard Migliore, who spent time in California and won 4,400 career races, rode at Hollywood Park and agreed.

    Consider, just consider, that if all tracks were synthetic, bettors would adjust. Agree with BB that it’s too hot in SoCal for many synthetic surfaces, but Hollywood had no issues with that back in the day. Further, the looser, safer surface at SA is also responsible for soft tissue, hind-end problems.

    And many dirt horses from elsewhere didn’t handle SA dirt on BC weekend. These are all issues of handicapping life. As an aside, maybe that’s why super-trainer clients are now buying “turf blood” at European yearling sales. Things do change, and we all need to roll with it.

    Now everyone knows that we stand on polar ends of the political spectrum and the following isn’t about our differences. But, as fellow Americans, you’re not saying that what’s going on the country today is a “mundane issue” and “annoyance?” Are you? It’s just a little bit more substantive than that, right??

    Now back to the major issues. Will you be at GP next Friday, Saturday, both??

  3. To work backward, what’s going on in Washington is not mundane although we both know it is going nowhere in the Senate, if it even gets there. More to the point, while you and I might be mesmerized by the hearings, most Americans aren’t. They are too busy living their lives. I would offer that there aren’t a half-dozen non-politicians in America who canceled any plans because the hearings were on TV.

    Now on to racing matters. One reason Hollywood’s synthetic might not have had issues with heat is The Track of the Lakes and Flowers is located close to the ocean with its cooling breezes. Santa Anita is in the San Fernando Valley, where it can be 10-15 degrees warmer than the areas near the coast. I know of what I speak from 30 years covering TV and spending six weeks a year in Tinseltown, sometimes near the coast, sometimes in the valley.

    Also, what many are not aware of is, SoCal has more summery weather in the early fall than it does during the traditional summer months. Hollywood didn’t race then.

    As for bettors making adjustments, do you want to wait a year or two for that to happen? Weekend players might not care that much but the heavy hitters don’t like intangibles they have to deal with.

    Like our good buddy Andy Asaro, I am through with California racing, even before the seemingly inevitable transition to a synthetic
    track. Killing the downhill turf sprints, the most picturesque and unique in racing, and preparing to outlaw whips are the final straws. The new whips do not hurt horses in any way but the noise does capture the horse’s attention. This is a bone being thrown to PETA and know-nothing politicians.

    The new idiots put in charge think they made a bold step in outlawing claiming races for less than $10,000. All this will do is make $8,000 claimers into $10,000 claimers.

    California racing is in the hospice stage. I’ll bid it a more extensive farewell when it’s officially declared dead.

    1. Thanks for letting us know the sobriquet for HP, Track of Lakes and Flowers. Never heard that before. Was there when Woody Stephens won fifth consecutive Belmont, ‘tho. Yeah, simulcasting was up and running even back then. Think I had Woody’s horse. Saw him once in clubhouse at Belmont at the bar. Diminutive in stature but a giant among trainers.

  4. TJ, rather than signing off completely–you’ve been a fan of West Coast racing since we first met in 1970, why not take the approach many take with Churchill Downs; big racing days such as Santa Anita Derby or Gold Cup day, the fall preps leading up to, and including Breeders’ Cup.

    Aside from forays into Churchill and Keeneland, weather conditions and tome zone differential might ensure that all Breeders’ Cups are run in California.

    Why the hell–since NYRA is on secure footing given quasi-state control–is Breeders’ Cup ever coming back to New York. (Horses could train on an inside training track in the basement of the new Islanders Arena…)

    1. Pending town approval, JP. Planning Board meetings would go on and on debating the wisdom of NYI sharing their sparkling new facility with equine stars. Chants of Potvin Sucks from the cheap seats would seem mild in comparison to the residents who live near Beautiful Belmont screeching about manure, horse vans, you name it. I once tried to build something in a commercial zone. A neighbor from an adjacent town, who lived in said zone, complained about the potential noise of a ball hitting a bat in proposed batting cage. My town sympathized with her and that was the end of “Centerfield.” The term Kangaroo Court comes to mind. Keep the horses out of the arena.

  5. How does increasing the minimum claiming price really change anything other than raise the reward for abuse(s) at the lowest level?

    Back in the ’60s, a horse named Riot Squad whose most recent races had included several graded stakes (though perhaps not in the same year) was dropped into a $3500 claimer. He won the race, but I never saw another entry for him in New York despite checking the NYRA track entries in the Daily News everyday (and reading Dick Young’s column, religiously). Anybody remember this horse and know what happened to him?

  6. No, but do remember Table Hopper and Palenque III, They were $3,500 starter handicappers than ran every two to three weeks in the finale on a Saturday and generally won; Frank Martin and Buddy Jacobson as I recall.

    Remember the name Riot Squad but that’s about it.

    TJ, Interesting ad on your favorite morning talk program this a,m., did you notice it?

    People may not be watching the hearings but they do watch the news when they get home from work. I think the picture may be coming into focus for them now…

  7. I’m very much pro-allweather racing surfaces.
    All statistics I’ve ever see show the to be safer, with a much lower rate of fatalities.
    The data is there at the Equine Injury Database maintained by the Jockey Club.
    Synthetic tracks keep improving all the time -there are hardly any fatal injuries in England.

    It’s the future of horseracing in my opinion.
    The reluctance to do what’s best for the horse has us where we are today.
    It’s why I no longer bet Thoroughbreds, and I will not till thing improve dramatically.
    All-weather tracks would be an immediate improvement.

  8. D:
    Synthetic tracks are the end of horse racing for me. It’s not the game I grew up with and came to love.

    Flag football is a lot safer than the real kind but I doubt you’ll ever see “Monday Night Flag Football”or “Flag Football Night in America.”

  9. Tom,
    Good insight and comments, but the game you grew up with is gone. In NY,without the Turf sprints we would have 5 horse fields all summer at Belmont and probably much smaller fields at Saratoga. I remember when most players wanted more Turf sprints, but now most of those races are meaningless races for horses who can’t race on dirt. Converting to synthetic would be mostly like having turf races all the time although in my opinion Turf doesn’t always transfer form to synthetic or vice a versa. At least that’s the way it appears to me at Woodbine.

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