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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

JUST WHEN I SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED GETTING OUT, THEY PULLED ME BACK IN

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 28,2021 – It was termed “bargaining in good faith.” What does that even look like in a post-truth, facts-be-damned America? Like someone said in a recent movie: “Best story wins, right?”

This all became known on Christmas Eve when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced it suspended talks regarding USADA’s future role as an independent enforcement authority.

According to the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 mandate, HISA and USADA were the means of helping to clean up the game, find and prosecute cheaters, in the name of safety for horses, riders, and the continued viability of the racing business.

But the “good faith” negotiations resulted in a stalemate. Could the impasse have been over who will pay for expensive state-of-the-art testing, or how much authority USADA will have, both?

Predictably, and almost instantly, Eric Hamelback, CEO of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, went after the HISA Act again, “standing steadfast behind our belief that the HISA Act is an unconstitutional delegation of authority to a private organization.”

His meaning is clear. We will do our best to ensure that the status quo endures. We don’t need or want anyone looking our shoulder because we do a great job of policing ourselves with the new uniform rules in place. Or, if all else fails, we’ll change the narrative.

As regular readers of this space have realized since the site’s inception in the spring of 2007, HRI has one constituency: the fans and horseplayers of America. We will continue efforting to give voice to the voiceless.

Since the process began, cost was always an issue, part real, part straw-man, blocking the progress of meaningful federal oversight. No one wants to raise takeout, but the authorities (read tracks and horsemen) will try to create a way to make that happen.

One would think the least these stakeholders could consider is to give up its share of breakage. Of course, the states and tracks won’t let that happen. The across-the-board price against that becoming a reality is $2.40 – out – out.

One proposal that makes sense—also suggested as a means of funding Thoroughbred aftercare–is a surcharge on the buyer, seller, or both, of .025 percent, assessed on unraced horses sold at auction costing $250,000 or more.

When independent one-percenters or mega-syndicates partner-up to purchase some million-dollar baby, they are positioned to reap the rich rewards afforded by the sport of kings.

Isn’t it in their best interest to pay for the privilege of level-field competition since they control many of the world’s best bred stock? Unless, of course, they are part of the problem. Yes, many high-priced yearlings do fail, Then racing is a privilege, not a right.

I recall being crushed professionally and personally when former colleagues Tom Jicha and Mark Berner left HorseRaceInsider because they tired of fighting the good fight to no avail. But after last week, I get it, and no longer resent their decision.

Both believed, correctly, that a powerful majority of industry stakeholders lack the will to act in the long term interests of Thoroughbreds, be it the individual or the sport.

I countered with I can’t be that cynical; I love the game too much to give up. I must keep tugging on Superman’s cape. Then last week’s ill winds hurled the spittle right back in my face.

Over the holiday, I began to agree with my former colleagues: On balance, the will to change does not exist.

As Hamelback warned in the early stages of the debate, and again last week, horsemen will do whatever to maintain the status quo, including legal redress, to ensure that July, 2022 comes and goes with a whimper, not a bang.

Continued Hamelback: “Now would be a perfect opportunity for the Authority to mesh the safety regulations that have been put forth with the best of the model rules currently established throughout the United States.”

And there it is, status quo spelled out in black and white. It took the Feds to examine cheating by two prolific winners, Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro. The latter is going to jail; the former still awaiting trial.

Fans, bettors, and horsemen strongly suspected cheating. So what happened in states where these trainers most often raced? Why was no pressure put to bare before the FBI sting?

Apparently, authorities in New Jersey, Florida, New York, and Kentucky, to name a few, didn’t see it that way.

Tom Rooney, from a great football, racing, and gambling family, and incoming NTRA President and CEO, reacted in a manner which the old bosses would have been familiar and comfortable with:

“The NTRA is fully supportive of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. We along with other leading industry stakeholders will continue to work with the HISA Authority toward a successful launch of HISA.”

Without USADA, that’s not possible.

Thus far, USADA has led the way on processing new regulations by which racing would proceed in a brave new, cleaner racing world via the auspices of HISA. The NTRA did not even acknowledge that a problem existed.

As is spelled out in the statute, HISA now is evaluating options for engagement with other leading independent enforcement agencies. What that would look like is anyone’s guess. USADA is not perfect, but has a proven history. There is no Plan B.

It was hoped that racing was ready to clean up its act. The game is still home to edge-takers who push the limits of the legal-medication envelope, not to mention addressing new performance-enhancing formula that always will outsprint the testers.

The reality is that even if USADA isn’t the best option—which it is—it remain the only viable one if the goal is independent regulation of a sport that continues prove daily that it cannot police itself.

Racing’s alphabet organizations has an excellent record when it comes to kicking a can down the road but are feckless when it comes to substantive change. It has no legal authority to do so, but The Jockey Club must find a way to lead. If not TJC, then who?

The only answer is reconciliation. Money, rules and regulations, process, control, it doesn’t matter. Horse racing needs USADA, not the other way around. HISA without USADA is like running for purse money only.

The most telling line from the USADA release was this: “After months of negotiations, we have been unable to enter an agreement in line with the requirements of the Act, one which would have given us a reasonable chance to put in place a credible and effective program.”

Without the ability to do that, HISA will prove to be a worthless mandate signifying sound and fury but without meaningful action. Realizing that, for the first time, I seriously considered walking away.

Then, on the day after Christmas, Santa Anita renewed the Malibu Stakes and a winged horse took flight. My jaw dropped, my eyes widened, my spirit soared. Powerless, I dream about what could be. I am haunted by memories.

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10 Responses

  1. It may indeed be time to only watch and cheer the winged champions without wagering at this point John. Watch only for the grace and beauty of it all. The cash flow loss at the windows might be a message understood by racing’s elite “never enough to be had” overseers. If change does not arrive soon John, the sport is doomed to failure anyway. If enough players started with a simple boycott of the daily double across America, I suspect a change just might follow in regulation. If not, we the little guys you have represented so well over the years, could simply no longer follow any of it at all. Mad as hell, and we’re not going to accept it any longer. Let them choke on their greed.

    1. McD, Cannot disagree, and I feel your pain. Times have been tough parimutuelly but we’ve managed to avoid some the larger pot holes and have found an acorn in these lean time, but that misses the point.

      It’s not about only money, it’s the competition that’s been decidedly less than, with the emergence of more and more super-trainer types. And there are only so many good to great horses to go around and none of them look like they breathe the same air as Flightline.

  2. JP–
    Your frustration with the status quo is palpable–and understandable. The powers that be in horse racing are their own worst enemy and that seems to remain a constant–like the sun rising in the East each morning.
    But the excitement and pure joy of a horse like Flightline emerging as the second coming of Pegasus is what keeps us all in the game–waiting for the next Secretariat or Man o War. And the most satisfying part is that Flightline is not trained by Navarro, Servis or Baffert, so the hope and expectation is that his stellar performance is attributable to his genetics and talent, and not just a chemical concoction.

    1. Chuck, To be honest, the jury is still out with me as there are more super trainers than one would think, based on horses that often rebreak, fail to tire, or hit overdrive in the final furlong. But, indeed, Flightline sure does conjure those historical images.

      So, the next race is believed to be around two turns? That’s good because he would seem to be bottomless if his gallop-outs are any measure. But I want to see him go a flat mile vs. Life Is Good.

      Hey, you don’t think they’d try the Pegasus? Nah. Now they have an undefeated record to protect. Too bad the Met Mile is in June–even Memorial Day would seem too far away.

      When I was in my prime– if ever– it was the 70s, the decade that gave us three Triple Crown winners plus Alydar for good measure. Then in 1980, Bid. But I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen anything quite a facile as what was on display Sunday at Santa Anita.

  3. John,thanks for continuing the good fight.Hopefully one day,the owners and legit trainers will be on the same side.Probably won’t happen when big time owners sit on the board of major race tracks and continue to use questionable trainers. Have a happy and healthy new year.

    1. Thank you Aaron, and a safe and healthy new year to all the HRI Faithful and their family and friends.

      With the exception of Flightline, I’m looking at 2022 with a great deal of trepidation.

      The times have changed–and not for the better, or bettors…

  4. JP–

    “Facile”–a perfect choice of words to describe the ease of Flightline’s stellar performance! Love it!
    I was listening to my Sirius radio this afternoon which is usually affixed to “70s on 7” on the radio dial (or the digital equivalent of a radio dial). And I thought that perhaps I am living too much in those days of excess and nonchalance. But then when you reminded me of the quality of thoroughbred excellence that also symbolized the 70s, I take comfort that my fond memories of that era were to be savored rather than banished!

  5. Enjoy it all, Chuck. Besides, what’s a half century between great memories, yeah?

    Happy, safe, and a healthy new year to all my friends in Saratoga. You are missed.

  6. From Buckpasser, to Fager and Damascus, we transitioned to Secretariat, Forego, Ruffian, and Slew, and on and on. On top of that, five cents down on a Newsday, and you had John Pricci sitting with you in the bleacher seats at Belmont. Most of the Newsday saved your seat, and John’s analysis accompanied many of us to the windows. Life was indeed “Life Is Good” back in the 60’s and 70’s. How did we ever lose it all? To rebuild stamina into the sport at this point, we will mostly require the bloodstock of old from Europe.

    Happy New Year John, and please extend the same to Toni. And a Happy and Healthy New Year ahead to all the HRI faithful.

    Imagine. Peace and Good Health in 2022.

  7. Peace and health. Will settle for the latter. Don’t hold out much hope for the former in the coming year. On the first Wednesday of November, we’ll know whether or not we still live in a democratic republic.

    Right back at you, Mr. McD–only good things for you and your family, and maybe even for the game, too, who knows? As long as we are free to imagine, why not?

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