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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By William G. Gotimer Jr. — As we enter the new year, the state of thoroughbred racing in the United States is a decidedly mixed bag. The economics of the industry have seen healthy numbers impelled in part by additional cash injected into the economy at large, the resumption of full racing cards compared to 2020, and increased visibility on television and via the internet.

The sales of thoroughbreds at auction have seen robust gains in most categories and increased pricing on yearlings and breeding stock. The combination of a healing economy, inflationary increases in cash in the economy and a workforce increasingly at home with access to daily television and online betting have led to healthy betting handles for most American racetracks. 

Lest one get too confident over the health of the sport there are ominous clouds ahead amid evidence of significant criminal malfeasance and ineffective oversight within the industry. The industry in general, including New York racing, survives in large part with hefty subsidies from the casino gaming activities that encroached upon racing’s previously exclusive territory.

These subsidies were the price of admission for casino operators to establish legal gaming activities in areas that previously permitted only horse racing or other pari-mutuel gambling.

In many jurisdictions, these subsidies were guaranteed only for a certain period and as is the case in New York, authorities are now questioning to what extent they should continue. A proposal to eradicate these subsidies to racing and direct them to more generalized needs has already been proposed in New York State.

While this current proposal is unlikely to succeed it would be naïve to think it will be the last attempt to “decouple” casino revenues from racing subsidies. Decoupling much like Gwyneth Paltrow’s term “conscious uncoupling” means divorce and this is and should be a frightening word to the racing industry as it is unclear which if any racing circuits could survive a full decoupling. ‘

Additionally, regulation of  horse  racing by the Federal Government has arrived with the passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (“HISA”) which promises to provide oversight of the myriad racing interests. It is axiomatic that the power to regulate includes the power to outlaw.

Those that think horse racing is too important or too ingrained in  American  culture  to face  extinction should  be mindful of the recent history of live animal circuses and theme parks like SeaWorld. Public sentiment and regulations can turn  quickly and dramatically. Whether horse racing likes it or not it is now subject-more  than  ever-to  political  and, by extension, public opinion.

The past year certainly did not burnish racing’s reputation but instead provided much fodder for racing’s growing number of detractors. For a full explanation of the numerous 2021 scandals that threaten horse racing’s survival you can read John Pricci’s detailed and superb recap and observations at what-becomes-of-american-thoroughbred-racing-now 

Two of those scandals stand out for their infliction of damage on racing’s public standing. The  criminal guilty pleas of former wonder trainer – Jorge Navarro, and his sentence to five year imprisonment, and the ongoing prosecution of another wonder trainer, Jason Servis, publicly portray an industry that sees the criminal use of performance enhancing drugs on animals by numerous players in both large and small roles and a general acceptance of such misdeeds by a host of industry members, licensed professionals, regulators, advertisers, and gamblers.

The official and public documents in the federal court cases are a damning condemnation of the sport and its participants. If you  like  racing  it  is  a  painful  read bereft  of “good guys.” It  is  truly  sobering  that  these multiple guilty pleas and the future incarceration of former trainers and veterinarians is not the biggest scandal of 2021 racing.

Sadly, that distinction lies with the sudden, yet  unexplained,  death of this year’s Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit. As is well chronicled, Medina Spirit was trained by racing’s best-known trainer and celebrity Bob Baffert. After his Kentucky Derby win the gallant thoroughbred tested positive for a prohibited substance – an event that spawned a spate of denials then retraction of some of the denials,  lawsuits,  and public ridicule on Saturday Night Live.

Accusations of corruption at heretofore respected testing facilities, an attempted ban of Baffert by the New York Racing Association, federal court intervention preventing that ban on  United  States  Constitutional grounds and uncertainty as to which horse won the 2021 Kentucky Derby and which horses will be allowed to compete in the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

While most or all of the above is still to be finally determined, the outcome almost does not matter for racing’s reputation and by extension – its future. While I certainly believe there is a case for racing’s future – its participants and regulators are providing ample ammunition to its growing detractors. The warning signs are apparent – it remains to be seen whether the industry is up to the coming challenge or whether it will be its own worst enemy.  

with permission, this story originally appeared in Saratoga Today

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8 Responses

  1. New York racing,the NYRA,should take some time off this time of the year, not a new idea but watching the available product as compared to what/where gamblers can pay attention to especially now that It is legal to bet on other sports with various propositions,ie gimmicks, which will attract a larger portion of the pot for the greedy,addicted patrons/gamblers especially those under a certain age but still with available credit cards and ‘ quick smart phones’ at the ready. Give it a breather to these small,second rate entries without the top echelon jockey colony already headed south and west. Cold,frigid days at the Ol’ Big A do not attract many outsiders esp. with the fast diminishing OTB crowd and it’s arthritic ,old citizens many of whom are there just to see and visit who s still alive among them. It was never planned to be a day time nursing home,but they mostly have become that. When the Florida races are shown it feels like more Energy, Enthusiasm and younger Oxygen,besides faster horses,are being involved. Put the dreary big a in mothballs for a couple of months,Jan-Feb, it will be the best thing for it’s survival. Nobody wants to bet witness how mediocre ,unexciting the product is while those horses,athletes are running on a cold,wet or even frozen ,track while the Sunshine is smiling on other,better tracks. Why watch,bet,be interested in a uninviting sporting/ betting event ?Come back in the Spring of both life and interest Last one out,blow the whimpering ,flickering candle out.

  2. I’ll never get used to the sight of snow in the Aqueduct infield, even when betting from the warmth of my home.

    Horses with slow running times, but high speed figures, discourage me from betting.

    Hey, if some entrepreneurial spirit were to build an affordable retirement home for aging horseplayers, I ‘d roll cross country in a wheel chair to get there (assuming everyone was vaccinated)! LOL

    1. I,
      My suggestion is don’t read too much into high figures with slow running times; it’s what figures are about: How fast a horse ran when measured against the speed of the track.

      I remember many hard drives from Long Island to Aqueduct for many years–not my favorite time either but the smaller outfits need this meet to carry them, and their help, through the entire year. Snow is the price they sometimes pay.

      1. JP,
        I understand what speed figures represent, but in my experience, they aren’t as predictive when ranking relative projected performances among contenders in cold weather racing. Perhaps it takes more out of them under such conditions when they “earn” a high rating; making then less likely to repeat it or improve on it..

        I’m not looking to close any racetrack, nor deprive hard-working people of their livelihoods. As long as enough people want to bet that product and keep it viable, it’s just another entity competing for my gambling dollar that I’m free to avoid (even if I can’t ignore it). LOL

    2. Indulto,it could have been worse like the longest winter of my life being spent in the Boston area and going to Suffolk
      Downs near Logan Airport and watching ‘horses’ running some 6F in over 1:16.The thing was that there were a couple of trainers who would win a large % of the races no matter the distance,track conditions or jockey. But as Pricci may insinuate,as long as it is worthwhile to anyone involved in the game,Status Quo remains as is,,but for how long ? Personally,i stopped checking out who`s running in which races or who is the leading jock or trainer at the big a. It`s not worth the time,,it never was watching second string horses and trainers run plodders in lower class claiming races ridden by many jockeys whose names will soon be forgotten. It Is What It Is,,but Why does it have to be this way ? Would you bet your favorite team sport when is mostly made up with Bench Warmers { excluding Jet and Giant fans,of course! } ?? Ps; darn,just found out that my once favorite Coney Island Hot Dog company,Nathan `s, has been owned by a Chinese conglomerate! Next time,gotta bring my homemade foot long hero ,,but what about the oil/red vinegar dressing, the red onions,banana peppers ?

  3. William, did not see anywhere in your piece that there is any obligation to bet on NY races in winter. It’s a big simulcast world out there with no shortage of choices. Thanks for sharing your summary of 2021 with HRI.

  4. Thank you for the kind comments. My overview was the sport as a whole. As an aside despite Aqueduct’s less than stylish accommodations the main track is an excellent surface and many very good horses have run there even in recent years. Bill

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