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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


It really doesn’t matter how I feel about the game I love to hate, or hate the game I love, I am thankful for horse racing during one of the most trying ordeals in the history of this nation. Any distraction in a storm.

Forget that handicapping is an exercise that helps keep the farthest recesses of the mind moving on a daily basis for racing fans, enabling them to hang on while senior moments effort to take up permanent residence.

Speaking for myself and many friends, thank the Deity that allows The Great Distraction to mitigate The Great Depression. From a pandemic of emotional distress, there is no immunization.

So I’m thankful for the courageous horsemen who tend to the animals by putting on a show for the rest of us and thankful for TVG, the racing network I hate to love and love to hate.

For all the loquacious pandering and seemingly endless equivocating in a game built on a foundation of opinion, it’s God’s work they are doing now. And they are doing it quite well.

I know the criticisms and many are unjustified. What’s the big mountain about a mole hill of split screens, or that certain tracks get preferential treatment when it comes to broadcasting races live, tracks that pay a premium for the privilege.

Most viewers do not have an appreciation or patience for how television production works. It’s not easy, just made to look that way.

Hosts and analysts appear cool and calm but not a single one escapes anxious moments before the red light goes on. Without those jitters, they wouldn’t be any good at their jobs.

Horse racing has benefited from a lack of sports programming and sports programming has benefited from the drama of sports competition that horse racing provides. A window has been opened, a door left ajar, a shelter from sheltering-in-place.

My only wish is that N-95 masks and rubber gloves could be provided to every human whose job it is to tend to animals.

No one wanted this “beneficial” lack of competition from sports betting, legal or otherwise, because there is no economic windfall, only survival.

Betting handle for the first quarter of 2020 is down 22%, compared to 1% in 2019. But the window provided by a lack of major-sports competition has been priceless for those seeking shelter from the harsh realities of the day.

At once, the timing of the pandemic came at the best of times and worst of times for horse racing: Triple Crown season. With no major counter-programming. cable networks such as NBCSN, in desperation for live programming has picked up the TVG feed.

Already committed, NBCSN uses prep season weekends to serve as a primer for Derby, Preakness and Belmont telecasts. It’s the time for developing new story-lines to keep casual audiences engaged, hoping to prime the sponsorship pump when the action shifts to the parent networks.

TVG has had to adjust to this reality of a larger audience that most likely is unfamiliar with the sport on a basic level, never mind the nuances of jargon, the interaction that exists between humans and beasts, the differences between vertical and horizontal betting pools.

TVG has done this by explaining things that its fans already know without talking down to either audience. It explains that changes in distance or surface is important because genetics or body type deems it so, that the real prize may come later; that a race is a stepping stone, not the brass ring.

There is inside betting information; arcane numbers that measure how fast horses run under prevailing conditions, that grit is as important as ability, that condition is king, and that bad strategy gets the best horse beaten.

TVG has done all this and in trying to appeal to the uninitiated, it reminded all of us tethered to the Thoroughbred they we can still be moved by the sport.

A behind-the-scenes look at production people witnessing American Pharoah’s Triple Crown conquest and how on-camera talent are fans first, then reporters and analysts. It was a masterstroke in rise-to-the-occasion programming.

After re-living 2015 in a brand new way, my wife of 51 years, who has been by my side for a lifetime of big racing events live and in person, turned to me yesterday and said: “I just got the chills.”

For as many times as I yelled at my television screen during a TVG broadcast, I spoke to my Samsung in a normal tone of voice: “Well done.”

Blinking Tote Board Lights Guaranteed to Spark Social Controversy

Considering I hardly ever get a chance to commend the stewards in the viewing stands of Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, I believe they had a good weekend in a couple of tough spots. Oaklawn Park, not so much.

Yesterday’s opener at Tampa was a little tricky in that it could have gone another way. But the stewards got the head-stretch incident correct.

The contact might have been incidental but a clear case of intimidation was exacerbated when the rider on first finisher Mancora applied left handed pressure an instant before making light contact.

Friday’s sixth race at Gulfstream Park was even more interesting because had the verdict been different, no one could have argued too vociferously.

At headstretch, it could be posited that Candy Machine purposefully closed the hole on Or’effice, who was charging up the fence to get within perhaps a half length from the lead, or that the rider was bulling his way through and made his own trouble, going up where he didn’t belong.

At virtually every track in America, the area at approximately the five-sixteenths pole is the most difficult to adjudicate. It’s the seam in the camera zone, not clearly covered by either a pan or head-on view. It’s the exact point at which camera angles shift out of necessity.

What is needed at that juncture is an overhead cam. Think 2020 Kentucky Derby. This race was not that momentous but just as with NFL replays, the call or actual events on the field must stand for lack of strong supporting evidence to the contrary. In these case, the stewards have no choice.

What happened at Oaklawn Park yesterday was amateur hour. The 3-5 favorite Answer In was, according to one trained eye, done at headstretch, failing to respond to the whip, remaining virtually one-paced.

Enjoying a perfect trip to that juncture, he did not go on with it when asked, either due to fatigue or inability to handle sloppy going under pressure. Lasting Impression made his run down the center, drifting in a step as he passed Answer In, victimized as much by a drifting General Trev.

West Point Thoroughbreds owes it to their clients to appeal this ruling to the Arkansas State Racing Commission. If the Commission rules the incident altered the outcome of this race in any significant way, they are as unsophisticated as the officials who made a bonehead call in the first place.

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

16 Responses

  1. I didn’t see the Oaklawn race so I’ll bow to your judgement. You know how to watch a race as well as any steward in America.

    However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again. Once the result has been declared official, and most importantly bettors have been paid or screwed, there should be no appeals.

    Racing is a betting game. We may wax poetic about the majesty of the horse and pageantry of the game but the fact that Gulfstream could handle about the same on Florida Derby Day without fans and Fonner Park (quick quiz: in what state is Fonner Park located?) is setting records proves beyond all argument that all most fans care about is making–and hopefully winning–a bet.

    Once that is out of the equation, nothing else matters.

  2. Hey TJ, if the appeals process is legally available, I know it won’t help bettors, but if I owned Lasting Impression I’d take advantage and exercise my rights.

    As small owners in the past, we know how hard it is to win a race. Why should I have to lose a purse because of incompetence? Find the replay and let me know if my suggestion is unreasonable?

    BTW, I used the “bothered” horse as a P3 single. I knew I was beaten at the quarter pole–but that’s not the point.

    When I heard on Twitter about a controversial DQ at OP, I asked which race. Someone told me, I looked and my last comment was the result. I’ll be damned if incompetence would be responsible for stealing my money.

    And if an appeal goes nowhere, that’s fine, but officials need to know that someone is watching.

  3. Mr. Jicha: For a decade at least here at HRI I have harped again and again that it’s all about gambling, about cashing a ticket. As you know, I could careless what blue blood wins the Kentucky Derby. Pleased that you wrote ‘all most fans (s/be bettors) care about is making ….. a bet’.

    Try as I may after many many years, I am still unable to note a difference, what-so-ever, between a claiming race and a stake race when the thoroughbreds are saddling, in the post parade, or during the running of the race. Give me a horse race without an odds-on favorite, anywhere, and all I want are the past performances and how to ‘get down’ (get the bet in, Alice).

    Love the ‘game’ and still managing to keep my on-line wagering account in the black. Thank goodness that Gulf/Tampa are still operating. I live a quarter of a mile from the best river for fishing for trout in the whole state of Ct. Numerous fisherman are now there.
    Cleaned my spinning rod this week. Sure hope I don’t have to use it. Have a compost pile that is providing numerous, fat, healthy, worms.

    What’s it gonna be this summer: gambling or fishing. Geez, even purchasing Foster’s has become a challenge.

    1. WMC, glad you still have your priorities in order and good to hear from you.

      It’s been a minute and in these times you can’t take anything, or anyone, for granted…

  4. There might never be a worse call (or non-call) than the one the year before last in the NFC championship between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The commissioner knew it, the official who blew the call knew it, there were lawsuits but the call stood.

    If there was a worse call it was the one made by Don Denkinger in the 1985 World Series. It cost the Cardinals the world championship. Denkinger acknowledged he was wrong. But the call stood.

    Both of these horrendous errors were a little more important than the last race of a day at Oaklawn.

    Racing and other sports are supposed to be a diversion from the real world. It’s bad enough that not-so-instant replay has screwed up sports. (Did his shoelace touch the line?) Do we want to get to the stage where each team has a head coach and a head attorney?

    When you play any game, you realize that referees and umpires are human and make mistakes (as do players). What happens between the lines has to be the final outcome.

    Every owner, who gets into the game, knows there are countless ways to lose a race. So do bettors. A bad stewards call is merely one of them.

    Just for the record, have you ever been put up as a result of a bad stewards decision? I’ll bet you didn’t bitch and offer the money back.

  5. TJ, I don’t normally do whataboutism, answering or defending an issue with another question or opposite example. But I’ll make a ridiculous exception here.

    Should wrongfully convicted prisoners have their sentences suspended and their names cleared when DNA evidence proves their innocence in a particular case, or should the original decision be allowed to stand? Told you it would be ridiculous…

    But I must admit you are fair; you argued for allowing the unofficial result of the 2019 Kentucky Derby to stand and against reversing the OP stewards decision re Saturday’s eighth race disqualification. That’s horse racing, right?

    If it were my horse, I wouldn’t expect the Racing Commission to reverse Saturday’s ruling. But I would exercise my right as an American to send a message.

  6. Totally agree with whataboutism? It only works if we can find an absolutely perfect person as a measuring stick.

    Comparing an unjustly incarcerated person to a horse who should or should not have come down really pushes the boundaries of absurdism. At least you concede that.

    Speaking of boundaries, there are, or at least should be, boundaries for running to the courts on sports decisions. “We are standing outside the Supreme Court, anxiously awaiting the judges’ decision on whether there should have been a disqualification in the ninth race at Oaklawn Park on April 3, 2020. The issues have deeply divided this Court…”

    Ridiculous? Maybe. But as soon as we accept going to the first court, we have to accept further appeals all the way up the line. It’s your right as an American. Right?

    But it’s a rainy Monday and there’s nothing better to do under a stay-at-home order than to debate nonsense like this.

  7. TJ, think your stretching to make the point is as absurd as mine. Sadly, I think our incarceration is just beginning and it’s gotten to us already, though I seem to be busier with less racing. Go figure…

    But I wasn’t thinking about a court of law, a la Gary West, just the ARK Racing Commission, who probably need something by which they can earn their per diem anyway.

    Knowing that Terry is a West Point grad, I doubt that he will challenge the stewards (hope his partners don’t fire him as a result, however).

    Stay safe!

  8. TTT

    My thoughts on inquiries and disqualifications will never be listened to, because social workers have taken over the world. Back in this old war horse’s day, jockeys did not veer in front of rivals, or they were taken down. Period. Period. Period. There were far fewer disqualifications, because there were far fewer inquiries, because the jockeys knew what would happen if they even came close to pushing that envelope. That’s why it is of no moment whether a man, or a group of 3 men make the judgment that it would not have affected the outcome; screw their opinion. That is not the point. Barry Goldwater said it best, in your heart, you know I’m right. Stop the nonsense. Demand a straight course in the stretch, and no lane changes unless you are absolutely, positootly clear, and do not hinder the forward progress of another animal. Ride like men, not like criminals.

  9. T,
    Not to mention that your suggestion would also be in the interests of safety, an issue everyone in the industry likes to talk about.

    Horse racing is not the NBA. If you have to ride another man’s horse, yours probably isn’t good enough.

  10. TTT

    Have to admit I’m enjoying playing Fonner Park in Grand Island. I would attend in the 70s when they would ride their entries to the track and the jockeys were weighed on a bathroom scale. Those bull rings are a whole different animal. Aksarben, the house that Jack (Van Berg) built, would also be one of my haunts, then back to Centennial where I ruled the roost for a few years. Never mind this virus, my best friend’s father used to kid me that I had the “bonified bug.” Live like you want to live and send it in.

  11. T,

    Personally, sticking with GP and Tampa, especially the turf there. We’ve had a pretty good winter by sticking with the lawn. But that’s enough action for me these days. Saturday is devoted is gambling but weekday’s the handicapping is dominated more by keeping up with news of every stripe.

    Best thing I learned this week came from an old Saratoga press colleague, old Doc Fonda, who came up with this 1980 Isaac Asimov classic: “There is a cult of ignorance in this country, and there has always been, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    Pardon this terrible analogy, but that philosophy appeared to reach its Apex in 2016.

  12. Here’s to you, as good as you are,
    And here’s to me, as bad as I am,
    But as good as you are,
    and as bad as I am,
    I am as good as you are,
    as bad as I am.

    An old Scotish proverb begs the question, so who knew Pricci had Scottish in his DNA?

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