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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, September 5, 2023 – Everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred is all too aware of the events that at once made the storied, albeit star-crossed Saratoga race meet so unforgettable.

But the only thing that will have meaning for posterity in light of the tragic events that took place between the fences where two fast, undefeated race horses died doing what they were bred to do is if those tragedies result in substantive, positive change.

Mark Casse, a member of two Racing Halls of Fame, stated in the wake of the deaths of Maple Leaf Mel and New York Thunder who were unable to sustain the rigors of speed and strain on a hard-sealed racing surface, tradition is meaningless once you’re history.

The public will not permit the sport to continue unabated because the current model is not sustainable. Even given exceptional care, two speedsters were cut down in their prime because they could not survive the rigors of racing at the highest levels.

The only course of action going forward is the installation of more synthetic surfaces at America’s premier venues, tracks which the general sporting public has knowledge of and appreciation for. The data relative to safety is overwhelmingly positive.

“Doing what’s best for the horse” is lip-service of the most disingenuous sort if the industry does not take this crucial step in addressing existential concerns going forward.

Think we’re one of those nattering nabobs of negativity, a descriptive phrase coined by a disgraced former Vice President, or wait to ask your Congressman why he wants to shut the casino-dole spigot because animal rights groups are picketing state houses instead of racetracks.

All-Weather surfaces do not have to be the breeding industry’s death knell. To the contrary, it will create demand for racing stock that values stamina and soundness over speed. Think course correction. Or just keep asking sales horses to work a furlong in 10-and change or faster.

These are the things I kept asking myself as the curtain came down on Saratoga this holiday Monday instead of reveling in the great stories and extraordinary equine performances, tragic losses notwithstanding of course. The sport, despite its faults, continues to create magic moments.

In what other endeavor could a practitioner such as trainer Gary Contessa unretire, bring a couple of babies into Saratoga and win the opening day Schuylerville Stakes with maiden first-timer, Becky’s Joker, and last juvenile stakes of Spa 2023, the G1 Hopeful with Nutella Fella at 54.50-to-1?

In what other business could a man have his livelihood robbed from him based on the lying testimony of a state official, return 10 years later to Saratoga, and win the G1 Whitney no less with a horse, White Abarrio, sent to him a month before the race? But that’s what Rick Dutrow did.

In what other sport can a woman play on the same field with the largest collection of Hall of Fame males assembled in one race meet and walk away with a Travers trophy off a 77-day layoff, but that’s what Jena Antonucci did after becoming the first woman to train a Belmont Stakes winner.

And what about Linda Rice, who, going into the penultimate day of meet trailing the powerful Chad Brown operation by five winners, come back to tie for a share of a leading trainer title on the last race of the session with her 35th meet victory?

How can jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., despite a three-day suspension and taking stakes mounts at other venues, wind up blowing away all rivals with 62 victories, four shy of the Spa record, as brother Jose finished second despite his suspension and spending about a week on the ground nursing an injury?

But somehow Javier Castellano’s 20 victories seemed more impactful, a record that included a seventh Travers, of course, and winning stakes-photos by the score to earn some Eclipse Award whispers despite Irad’s prodigious numbers. It’s food for thought, all the more magical because it’s the Spa.

Female equines earned the spotlight, too, Echo Zulu, Nest and Brightwork provided great theater, especially the former. And wasn’t it appropriate that two of the more impressive debut victories by juvenile filly Ways and Means and colt Fierceness, introduced themselves in the Adirondack foothills?

But Maple Leaf Mel was a gut punch, and New York Thunder the knockout punch that sent Saratoga racing fans heading for the exits as simulcast regulars reached for their remotes.

We can’t assess the damage done to the sport until time salves some of the wounds. But we do know three things: U.S. handle in August was down significantly, 7.3 percent year over year, there’s no such thing as a coincidence, and PETA never sleeps.

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6 Responses

  1. JP–
    I thought you said that you were not able to be in Saratoga to attend the meet this year? For someone who was 1,500 miles away, you captured the highlights and lowlights of the 2023 Saratoga meet perfectly.
    And the most significant and impactful change that will come out of the 2023 meet is the commitment by NYRA to install a synthetic surface at Saratoga. While construction had already begun to introduce a synthetic surface at Belmont, there had been no comparable commitment by NYRA to modifying the traditional configuration at Saratoga. And it took two horrific fatalities to do so, but now there is a commitment and countless horses will be saved as a result—and perhaps the sport of horse racing will be saved as well.
    And for my part, the heart and soul of this “dyed in the wool” devotee to dirt racing was forever transformed as a result of those two traumatic incidents. How in good conscience could I remain steadfast and unwavering in my support for the tradition of dirt racing (and the accompanying convenience from a handicapping perspective) when it means life and death to the noble horses that race for my enjoyment? In the aftermath of the twin tragedies that occurred right in front of me at the Spa, I am forever changed–as is the future of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.

    1. As a loyal “devotee of racing,” I think you captured the new outlook of many fans after the in-your-face tragedies witnessed at the recently concluded meet.

      Like you, I love convention dirt racing and shunned All-Weather racetrack until my home track, Gulfstream Park, installed the surface a few years ago. The more familiar I became, I learned that a set of different variables needed to be considered in addition to conventional methodology.

      For me, the clincher was the excellent research of breeder and racing activist Bill Casner indicating that synthetic surfaces are far safter than conventional dirt. Indeed, there has been only one catastrophic racing or training on GP’s Tapeta Track.

      Yes, one is too many, but this one statistic underscores the need for safer footing for these animals. As stated, the breeding industry will adapt, valuing stamina and safety over commercially-bred soft-boned speed.

      If American racing is to survive, this appears the best foot forward.

  2. Bittersweet SPA meeting. Highest of highs and lowest of low, squeezed into the most anticipated racing circuit in the USA in 40 days.

    We are getting to a point where the public (PETA) is going to demand ZERO casualties. Racing fans know that is just not possible in this sports. If Poly tracks truly have the potential to decrease injuries and deaths. I say bring in on.

  3. Anthony, any fair-minded friend of the game is concerned for its future knowing the current model is unsustainable. The American racing industry must adapt to change in the name of safety. The data indicating that synthetics are significantly safer is overwhelmingly compelling.

  4. While mostly agreeing with I have read from your input, I’d hate to think that with All Weather Tracks the handicapping that many of us have positively used for the past years won’t be as successful. Honestly, I cannot make ” heads or tails” from those tracks that have that softer padding. In cold or hot weather, I feel like there is an obscure, indecisive way to make some certain decisions on who to play, bet and Why ! Too many races did not feel ‘right, without being convinced that the winner won because he had the best ‘figs’, or that my probable bet was out of the money because… well , there always was not a good explanation. Not with my humble logic. B) Many will disagree, but I don’t care, I don’t have to kiss anybody’s ring when I state that Saratoga Is losing its charm and stature, no matter what scribes, personalities and ‘ talent’ say or try to insinuate, after all, they rely on its image and success, otherwise many won’t be needed because they failed to sell the brand, i.e, image to the lowly, gullible new customers. More betting gimmicks, options are noT the answer. Many of us who started with just Win, Place, and Show wished, along time ago, that it would have stopped there, with those simple bets.. Then came DD, Exactas, Triples, Supers, Pick 3, Pick 4, Pick 5, Pick 6, and other bets so ridiculous that they will take 10,20 cent bets! In the year 2023 ! Yeah, but Saratoga is different! What, the country side? The location? What about others states tracks locations ? Tradition? Meaning what? That it Is in New York state? Wow, as former New Yorkers, are we really impressed by that? Even when considering the actual average age of its bettors? Not even new “generationals” care about that. Tell the Emperor to Wear Real Clothes because his behind is sticking out… and it doesn’t look good’!

    1. JG, Saratoga doesn’t need defending. The tradition is the great racing over the centuries speaks volumes on that, the fact that it is valued by owners, trainers, jockeys and fans speaks even louder.

      Believe it or not, I agree with your quasi-anti exotic stand. WPS, DDs and Exactas are all that’s truly needed. More money into the pools that matter. Most importantly, keeping horseplayer liquid so that they come back tomorrow and all the tomorrows thereafter.

      That will never happen because the tracks want you to spread your money in the horizontals so that they can promote six-figure payoffs and suggest you “spread” $40, $50, $100 or $1000 over a series of races and if you’re not alive in the P5 or P6, you will be subsequent P4s and P3s.

      Like so many policies, it caters to the short term, not the long term bigger picture.

      As for the AW tracks, you need to switch your focus. It is rare but biases develop on AWs too, though the default is to favor closing speed. and stamina and go from there. Horses for Courses are very important; not all AW surfaces are alike; atmospherics matter.

      It took a long time for me to gain confidence betting the synths. The best AW surface ever, free of bias and played like dirt, was the surface at now shuttered Hollywood Park.

      Studies have been done indicating that the final average margin between the first and last finishers is a lot shorter than on dirt. THat gives more horses a better chance to win as opposed to being outrun and hopelessly beaten off in the opening furlongs. #Patience

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