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.