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November 26, 2018

Paradise Lost

An end of the year look at the Sport of Kings from Past the Wire

By: Jonathan Stettin



As the end of the year approaches, you’d think racing fans and bettors would be focused on the positives we’ve seen on the racetrack the past 11 months. We’ve definitely had our share of performances that would be considered outstanding in any era. Enable takes the Arc and Breeders’ Cup Turf. Justify takes the coveted Triple Crown. Accelerate has a championship caliber older horse year. Monomoy Girl almost runs the table capped by a win verse older in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Obviously, the game can still produce. Maybe not on a Wednesday afternoon but all in all we have had some good racing.

While some are appreciative and focused on these performances, the majority of fans, as reflected by my observations primarily on social media and when I go to the track and talk to people, is consumed with negativity. Most of it is well founded and unfortunately, it invades the space of the equine stars and achievements this game was built on.

Let’s start with something I have been talking about and writing about for about for four years now. Stewards and their lack of accountability to bettors, owners, and trainers. Stewards make decisions that affect our money. We have no input in those decisions and they are made at times without even the courtesy of an explanation. Case in point this past weekend at Churchill Downs. We all saw the double disqualification resulting in a large carryover in the jackpot pick 6 wager. Right or wrong call is not the issue for me. That’s way too subjective and we will come back to that. The issue at least for me is twofold. First, it is not a consistent call with other similar occurrences. We have all seen horses stay up for more of a foul and come down for less of a foul. That’s a problem. Second, there is no clear-cut reasoning and explanation provided to the people whose bank accounts were affected. No accountability whatsoever. No review process. No appeal or at least true appeal process. Nothing. Just take it on the chin. That doesn’t work for me and it shouldn’t for you either.

An underlying problem to these types of calls is perception, and we already have enough of a problem with that. We all know history repeats. If history has taught us anything it is where there can be corruption there likely will be corruption. Does anything corrupt more than money? I don’t know. Maybe sex. Maybe power. Perhaps something else, but money is on any worthwhile top ten list of corruption factors. There was a decent amount of money at stake based on that iffy call. The first two finishers both of whom would have triggered the pool being paid out were disqualified. The third finisher who was declared the official winner carried the pool over, which generated a whole new day of revenue fueled by jackpot chasing. Perception. This is why a clear transparent explanation immediately following the call was an absolute necessity. No ands, ifs, or buts. I have yet to see one of it was provided.

Now I don’t believe, nor am I suggesting, the carryover came into play in this decision. I’d like to think that was no factor at all. However, we know anything is possible and if some years ago I told you people were betting pick 6’s after three or four races had been run even on days like the Breeders’ Cup you’d have probably called me crazy. If you care about your customer, which like it or not is the bettor, or gambler, provide them what you owe them. A clear, understandable transparent explanation of what you decided because it affects their money as much as your employers. You owe them that, every single one of them.

The steward problem is ongoing with no real end in sight. The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, which I think is a benefit and great concept, tried to bring some light on this issue. I think they missed the boat. I suspect, but admittedly have not confirmed, the majority of their feedback and “ideas” come from industry people and not necessarily bettors. Too many people in this game lose sight of who stops the horses from running for blue ribbons which would end the sport. Too many people forget the customer is the bettor. The gambler. The bettors and owners are the only two groups putting money in the game while everyone else takes it out. The owners have a small voice sporting an agenda which benefit them. The bettors have no voice. None. Most of the people who decide what they want, or what’s best for them probably don’t bet or are maybe two dollar bettors. A long-term recipe for failure.

The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation proposes going from one system governing stewards decisions to another they think will make things easier, clearer and fairer. Respectfully, I disagree. Currently, the US and Canada use the category 2 system to adjudicate races. The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation suggests switching to category 1. Sounds like an old Chinese restaurant menu to me.

Category 2, our current system:

Rules provide that if the interferer is guilty of causing interference and such interference has affected the result of the race, then the interferer is placed behind the sufferer irrespective of whether the sufferer would have finished in front of the interferer had the incident(s) not occurred.

Category 1 which they propose switching to:

If in the opinion of the Staging Authority’s relevant judicial body, a horse or its rider causes interference and finishes in front of the horse interfered with but irrespective of the incident(s) the sufferer would not have finished ahead of the horse causing the interference, the judge’s placings will remain unaltered.

While the proposed change would likely cut down on disqualifications it would not change perception when results are changed, and more importantly, it would not get rid of subjectivity amongst stewards, and that is where the problem lies most times. We can argue whether a horse would have finished better if not for an incident all day long. We can debate about a placing being affected forever. These talks have led nowhere and caused the current dissension. We can’t agree on what if’s. We can agree on what constitutes a foul and what doesn’t.

There was a time in racing when a foul was a foul, and it resulted in a disqualification. Too many people started arguing but it didn’t affect the outcome, and that led to the subjective rules being implemented almost across the board. This put discretion into the hands of stewards with no accountability. It sounded great but doesn’t really work, does it? Today, herding out of the gate is practically allowed if not confined. Back before the subjective rules were put in place you came down if you fouled another horse out of the gate even if you won by 10. When the inquiry light went on, and you saw the head on you knew what was coming. Today, it is anyone’s guess and would remain anyone’s guess under the Foundations proposed change. Guess what, there was also way less herding back then.

Basically, there are two solutions fair to bettors. One is to have a clearly defined set of rules for s racetracks that explain precisely what constitutes a foul. If you commit one, you are down. Simple as that. All fouls affect outcomes or have the potential too. It’s just too subjective to leave that in the hands of people who can’t agree and see the same thing differently. If you think Bayern didn’t knock the wind out of Shared Belief and that having your wind knocked out before immediately running a mile and a quarter didn’t impact the race…….never mind. Some things are better left unsaid.

The other option which is used successfully in other jurisdictions is to harshly penalize the riders and connections with steep fines and suspensions and purse revocations but not alter the finish penalizing innocent bettors who got it right. If the fines and penalties are stiff enough fouls are indeed minimized and the opportunities for cheating are mitigated. Nothing, and I do mean nothing eliminates all cheating when money is at stake.

From a humanitarian standpoint, aftercare and horse slaughter are the two most troublesome issues the industry faces — both equally problematic. We have made great strides in aftercare. We have rehoming efforts, second careers and adoption programs. All of these things mean we are moving in the right direction. The problem here is, as is in any animal rescue situation, there are just too many to save. We can never get them all, and there is never enough money or people to help every horse. This fuels slaughter. Most accept this as the natural order of things. I don’t. Not in our game. Remember this is the Sport of Kings or so we are called. The richest and most influential people in the world play this game predicated on yes gambling. Why should there be any money problem? We have owners spending millions on horses who may not be able to out run a Shetland Pony and gamblers betting thousands and even millions in some cases every year.

I for one have no issue and am all for a piece of every dollar I wager, or anyone wagers going towards aftercare. I extend that sentiment to a piece of every dollar spent at the sales going towards aftercare. If we care more, it will cut into the horrendous slaughter numbers we don’t talk about at victory parties. We don’t talk about it, but most of us know that salespeople make commissions buying, selling and every which way they can. A piece of those dollars should go in the pot as well. While many of us love and revere these fine animals it is overdue the industry as a whole begins to.

Slaughter is a deeper rooted and more complex problem. The injured horses and those whose only crime was not being fast or brave enough to compete have become a depended upon food source, which in turn is an ugly convenience for our industry. Never mind the greed and heartlessness of the kill pen operations, this is a real problem. It can only be addressed from within. We need strict regulations on breeding or should I say over-breeding and stricter regulations that are enforced when horses are retired. Owners must be held accountable for where their horses wind up, but the industry must also provide a road that is attainable to prevent these horses going to kill pens. Even humane euthanasia would be better than what we have, as much as that pains me to say but that’s not the answer. It comes down to properly funded programs regulated by the industry. Takeout has to do more than pay lofty salaries and put on the show. The show does NOT end after the last race.

With the end of greyhound racing in Florida, people fear horse racing could be next. If that happens the industry has no one to blame but those who run it. Not PETA, not politicians, not the changing times. Just themselves. Change perception and clean up the yard or your neighbor's will, and they’ll just throw everything away.

It is kind of comical when some media member writes how everything is great, "just look at the handle." That makes me chuckle. You hear every meet the handle broke the record, but you can fire a cannon in most tracks on a weekday and not hit a soul. Now I get most action comes from ADW’s and off-track, but we are a spectator sport. Racing is exciting to watch and exhilarating to watch live. Tracks used to be a fun place to go where you saw the same people for years. I don’t know where these handle figures come from, but they are on the internet so they must be accurate. Racetracks have to get people to come back out. Not all these new people they can’t find or even identify, the old people, their customers. The bettors. The gamblers. That’s where your bread is buttered, not by the fan who overpays for a ticket, parking space and cup of coffee once a year and maybe bets $20. They don’t matter in the long run. The bettor does. Take care of them with a seat, racing form, and a cup of coffee. They’ll repay you tenfold.

I am against raceday medication — all of it. That said, I see the true benefits for horses who truly need therapeutic medications like Lasix. The problem becomes, do 98% of horses bleed and need Lasix? We have trainers saying, on the one hand, you can’t compete without it, and on the other hand it doesn’t enhance performance, mask any other drugs or speed up and clean out a horses metabolism. Which is it? If you really want to know, pick up a form and read the past performances. The answer is there. You can also look at the careers and longevity of horses who ran in New York prior to Lasix being allowed.

Getting a horse on Lasix is as easy as telling your Vet hey he worked a little slower today, I think he might have bled a little. Done, he’s on Lasix. We ruin things for ourselves. Illegal drugs are a whole different and worse story. We penalize people like Bill Mott, and allow what we see to go on daily like it is not even happening. Remember that yard thing, if you let it get bad enough your neighbor decides to do it everything gets tossed. Including you.

While we talk about attracting new fans and retaining ones we already have, we have front people for major circuits that have not been explained the concept of a thick skin while in a spotlighted position. They are fast to block people who simply disagree on social media, or even worse attack and condescend toward anyone who criticizes. That’s eroded to a threat of having people banned from racetracks we are trying to attract them to. Seriously, how is that ok? A prerequisite should be these front people have to be engaging towards people. They need to be easy to like. I can’t even watch without muting some track feeds anymore.

So yes indeed the racing has been great on most of the big days. I don’t think we could ask for more there. The other days despite over breeding we have field shortages. We have tracks closing. We have more problems than solutions. Horses being abandoned and slaughtered. Drugs rampant. We have management totally disconnected from their core customers. But, everything is great. I read it on the internet.

“You either understand, or you don’t understand.”

HIGH FIVE: Tell me who deserves it.

LOW FIVE: NYRA, why are you carding all these grass races now? Stronach Group. Holiday firings always get a low five. Timing is everything.