Category Archives: rants

Beyond The Point Of No Return

Horse racing has spent the past 6 months tied up in a chair in a dark room, a harsh, blinding light in its eyes, with interrogators playing good-cop, bad cop trying to get it to admit it’s corrupt, that it really did kill 25 horses a week, and that the Derby winner really was doped.

For those, like me, who have come into this sport as fans and then worked hard to be a part of the game, it’s a heart-rending time, to have to explain to people why I am so fond of such a dirty, heartless group of nere-do-well horse-killers.

And that was coming from the lady who rode performance Walking Horses!

Horse racing has an image problem, and it’s because of 30 years of inaction, looking the other way, selfishness, and good-old-boy power-tripping. And it has got to end TODAY.

We are past the point for “hands-off” approaches to fixing the drug problems that stain a black mark on the heart of racing. We have missed the chance to actually educate the public, which now cries out for justice for the horses they perceive to be killed while racing unsound and pumped full of painkillers.

There was a time not too long ago that I thought a well-planned, well-researched, expertly-crafted publicity and educational campaign could help the public understand why and how we care for our horses. It is becoming more and more clear that only a complete overhaul of medication rules, testing and transparency will save us now.

For too long, the cheaters have gotten away with murder, literally and figuratively. We must ban them for life, prosecute those who use substances like dermorphin, and fine them with amounts that can be used to perfect testing and help retired horses. We must flush out the cheaters, so that the honest people in racing can survive and thrive.

We must ban all race-day drugs, including lasix. It is too late to argue the merits – too many people see it as a performance-enhancer. While I fully understand the health benefits of the drug, I cannot overlook the questions I get from people I take to the track: “Why do they race horses who bleed out the lungs?” I can’t help but look at our overseas neighbors, who race such magnificent horses as Black Caviar and Frankel, without Lasix. Heck, we did it ourselves for 100 years. We can do it again.

All horses’ medical records should be public. This will protect the wagering public, who, like it or not, are the lifeblood of the sport. I’ll Have Another’s medical records were released to a firestorm of controversy, but we all know he was not treated any differently than any other horse at Belmont that week. But the public will never know that, since none of the other Belmont horses’ records were released. Now we have a “doped” Derby winner, and this magnificent horse’s image, as well as the sport’s, is forever tainted.

I have said a lot about “perception” here, and no doubt there are people who say why should we care what civilians think, they aren’t in the sport, they don’t know anything, the NYTimes is out to get us…

They may be. But we knew we had a problem before the stories came out. We knew we had a problem in 2008. But you all have missed the chance to educate them. With the expansion of social media, criticism will only get more heated. It will NEVER GO AWAY as long as we keep on with the status quo.

Why should the industry care about what I think? I am the future of this sport. I want it to survive and thrive in the modern age. I demand change, now. I will do all I can to force that change to occur, in the voting booth and with my hard-earned money, and as best I can with the platform I help steward. Because if you lose me, you will have lost everything.

 

 

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Election 2012: Horse Racing Fan’s Guide

Kentucky's signature industry is threatened by apathetic and even hostile politicians.

I rarely step into the political realm on this blog, but with the presidential race already in full-swing, I feel like I must discuss what it means for horse racing – a sport, industry and passion. You may not realize it, but horse racing is inextricably tied to the politics of America.

I don’t have to tell even casual fans that horse racing is a fragmented industry that lacks a central governing body and the uniformity that provides. But why is it (dis)organized in this way?

Because horse racing is a mode for gambling, states decide whether to allow it and how to regulate it. Each state manages its own business its own way –  and that’s where the problems lie.

Racing commissions that create the rules and oversee the participants are created by legislative acts. Racing commission members are either elected or are appointed by governors. Laws that expand gaming, such as to allow slot machines, poker rooms, instant racing, or even exchange wagering, are all enacted by legislatures or voted on by the public.

How many of the people in those state governments are racing fans? How many even realized that horse racing was part of their job duties?

I can imagine the conversation when a horse racing group wants to make a change to a racing law, while at the same time, another group is lobbying for education reform. Which group do you think will get the short end of the stick in this situation?

For example, in Louisiana, a rule change that lowered the testing threshold for Bute, a common anti-inflammatory therapeutic drug, was delayed by the state’s commerce committee. The change was part of new rules developed by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), which is the industry group who creates model rules for racing. These, in turn, are adopted by state racing commissions*. The rule change had been fast-tracked so that the state’s graded stakes would not face downgrading by the American Graded Stakes Committee.  The state Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) objected to the fast-tracking and protested the change. The squabble then reached the commerce committee – a group made up of lawyers, real estate developers, and salesmen. How could these folks decide when and how to enforce a rule change that would lower a drug test threshold from 5 mg to 2mg? Would they even know what Bute is? It would sure help if one of those elected officials had some knowledge of horse racing when faced with decisions like this.

So I ask that everyone who is a racing fan, owner, breeder, trainer, bettor or even groom to do your homework. Don’t just vote for a politician who says the “right thing” on TV about abortion or gay marriage. Neither of those issues has any bearing on the sport we love. Make sure that candidate has a record of supporting the issues important to racing in your state.

Still not convinced? In Kentucky, the Horse Capital of the World, anti-racing interests have slowly taken over that state’s legislature. With the downturn in the economy and historic declines in pari-mutuel handle, the signature sport has taken a massive hit. The introduction of casinos in neighboring states has attracted gambling dollars, and horse owners followed to where purses are higher. Allowing casino games at Kentucky race tracks would would boost purses, bolster state breeding programs and even the playing field, securing thousands of jobs. Despite the overwhelming public support for casino gaming in Kentucky, the legislature voted down a measure to allow Kentuckians to vote to allow them. One of the most outspoken opponents of casino gaming in Kentucky is Alice Forgy Kerr, who represents the legislative district encompassing the very heart of horse country – Lexington. How does a person with no regard for her state’s signature product get elected?

Kerr isn’t the only one, and disregard for the racing industry isn’t confined to one party. Please, racing fans, do your homework before you go to the polls this year. Be sure the person you vote for will do what’s right for racing in your state – it is the only way to make meaningful change.

*The Model Rules are used as a template for state racing commissions and may be adopted in full or modified to fit the individual state’s needs. For more info, see ARCI Model Rules.

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Night of the Living Racinos

To me, the scariest thing in horse racing is not breakdowns, synthetic surfaces or Frank Stronach.  The darkest horror in horse racing is that which began with the best of intentions, but like Dr. Frankenstein’s  monster, it has gotten out of control and threatens to destroy the industry it was promised to save —

RACINOS

(cue shrieking)

I came to this conclusion after doing a research project about Penn National Gaming.  The company has grown and flourished despite the economic downturn, and has even begun expansion into Las Vegas, the ultimate gaming market.  However, the company that began as a pari-mutuel horse racing organization has all but forgotten its original mission.  In the company’s 10-k, there are pages about its casinos, but the whole of the racing report is condensed to 2 paragraphs.  As you can imagine, the company is not planning on building a race track on The Strip.

When first pitched to regulators, adding casino games was to be a much-needed injection of cash to struggling racing jurisdictions.  The revenue from slots and other “dummy games” (as my mom calls them) would go into the dwindling purse accounts and help keep the horses from fleeing the poorer states for better racing areas.  With success, the higher purses could even attract better-quality horses to the racino states, or so went the line of thinking.

What actually happened, in many cases, was that racing became the red-headed stepchild to the more profitable slot machines.  The purses grew, yes, but the quality of racing remained the same – $5,000 claimers running for $10,000 purses.  There aren’t any Bafferts or Pletchers sending horses to Penn National.  The track doesn’t even run a graded stakes race.

Earlier this year, scandal hit Penn National when a series of horrific breakdowns caused a jockey strike – some blamed the horses’ controversial owner while the horse owner blamed the condition of the track itself.  This incident did not reflect well on the track by any angle – why would a track allow unscrupulous people to race there?  Why would a place seemingly raking in the dough with its slots be skimping on track safety?

Because racing by itself is not paying the bills.

It costs much more for a track to maintain stabling and the racing surface, and also pay into purses, than it does to purchase & plug in a slot machine.    The slots also generate much more revenue than pari-mutuel handle.  Why invest in a weaker product?  Just get by with what you can get in the starting gate.

Racino states are parasitic.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the crisis in Kentucky.  Yes, KENTUCKY, the Horse Capital of the World, is on the brink of losing its signature industry to surrounding states with racinos.  Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are seeing an influx of former Kentucky-based owners, breeders and trainers due to their slots-fattened purses and state-bred bonuses.  The dummy gamblers have left Kentucky’s beautiful race tracks for riverboat casinos, and the state’s horse industry has cried out to its legislators for an equal footing.  They want slots in Kentucky.

I just can’t stomach the thought of going to Keeneland and having to schlump through a room full of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Lucky 7s” to get to the track.  The two types of gaming are total opposites: dark, artificial, smoke-filled casinos vs. bright, outdoor, scenic racing.

But aside from asthetics, adding casino games does not solve the deeper problem racing faces.

What can be done to boost racing itself, which will increase handle?

I can see a day in the not-too-distant future where some of these racinos will lobby to dump racing completely to focus on the money-making slots and table games.  This worst-case scenario is playing out in Rhode Island, where Twin Rivers Racing and Casino, a greyhound facility, has lobbied the state for permission to discontinue dog racing and become a full-fledged casino.  True, greyhound racing has faced tremendous pressure from animal welfare groups that has shut it down in most other New England states.  But the same forces are working against horse racing as well.  A business that is successful is a lot easier to fight for than one operating with huge losses.

There are a few racinos that have reinvested their windfalls into racing.  Sunland Park in New Mexico hosts the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby, which Mine That Bird used as a launching pad to his Kentucky Derby victory.  Prairie Meadows in Iowa hosts the Iowa Festival of Racing, with three graded stakes that attracted full fields of competitive, quality horses in 2010.

But these success stories don’t lessen the greater worry about racinos – a quick fix that ignores the core, a beautiful, wonderful game that has much to offer on its own.  In my next entry, I will describe my ideas to boost racing itself and stave off the creeping menace of racinos.

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And Your Point Is…?

I hate it when sports reporters try to define what a “sport” is.  Several times a year I stumble upon another commentator’s subjective listing of his or her “rules” that supposedly determine into what category a certain athletic activity falls.  In an Olympic year, invariably, the columnist finds that such events as figure skating, gymnastics, diving and other “judged” competitions as unworthy of the “sport” title.  Whither boxing? Sure, a KO will crown a winner, but many fights are determined by judges’ scores.  And boxing is as old-school sport as you can get.  They even wear spandex shorts, too.  This year, columnists are arguing about why soccer hasn’t taken off in popularity in the US as it has in every other country on Earth.  A few of them have had the audacity to say that futbol is not a “sport” because the matches can end with a tie.  Ridiculous.  I think its because there are no time outs or commercial breaks for Americans’ short attention spans.  Of course, the one that all of these “sport” definers love to pick on is horse racing.  Just because the jockeys are not the ones running does not mean they aren’t engaged in athletic activity.  Poppycock!  I’d challenge any of the doubters to ride a thoroughbred during a race.  They’d come back huffing if they can even stay on.

My question to these writers is, why bother trying to define what a “sport” is at all?  It doesn’t make you any more of an “expert” than you already think you are.  Sure, it starts arguments, but just like the chicken-and-egg convo, there is no consensus when all the hollering is over.  Not all of these writers are any good, either, and this type of column only reveals their weakness in a harsh light.  I read a weak one today, which is what sparked my ire.  She listed her (lame) rules and then made her (lame) arguments for why these were the ultimate determining factors for the coveted “sport” title.  By the end of the page I just had to say, “And? Your point is?”

It must have been a slow news day, or the writer just wanted to see some words in print.  Whether or not events follow some hack’s “sport” rules doesn’t affect how many people love them, watch them on TV, read articles about them, create fan sites, and the big one, SPEND MONEY ON THEM.

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The BIG CAP is SATURDAY, But I Can’t Watch It

Once again, the national sports media has let me down when it comes to a MAJOR STAKES RACE!

Saturday’s Santa Anita Handicap is only available to watch LIVE on HRTV, a station I do not get and most people have never heard of outside of the racing world.

COME ON PEOPLE! This is the freaking BIG CAP! The historic “Hundred Grander” that was so important in the movie Seabiscuit! This is the race that put California racing On The Map! Legends have won it, from Seabiscuit and Kayak II to Triple Crown winner Affirmed, from Spectacular Bid to Alysheba to Tiznow and TWICE won by JOHN HENRY and LAVA MAN!

And I can’t watch it. It is not on ESPN. At post time on Saturday, ESPN will be bringing us a totally irrelevant exhibition baseball game between Panama and Puerto Rico; ESPN2 will be showing NCAA Men’s basketball (not the Tigers, not important); and ESPNEWS will be showing Sportscenter, which is on like 30 times a day. But NO BIG CAP.

What is wrong with the world? Maybe I should stop hating on ESPN. After all, the NTRA is supposed to be our promoter-why can’t they seem to book us any time for our MAJOR RACES?

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CURLIN REPEATS as Horse of the Year!

Congrats to Curlin, the Eclipse award Horse of the Year for 2008. 

curlinbobble

Eclipse voters cast 153 ballots in favor of The Golden Warrior, with Zenyatta getting 69 votes and Big Brown only 13.  While I would have loved to see Zenyatta get the Big Prize, the fact is Curlin ran a typical HOTY campaign.  Despite a growing embrace of changes for the better, the sport is still devoted to its traditions.  Curlin would have been HOTY in the olden days before the Breeders’ Cup, because he won the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, both Grade 1.  His JCGC was a repeat win, and he broke an earnings record with that race, both major pluses for traditional Eclipse voters.  He also won the Steven Foster Handicap at Churchill, and he ran a credible second in the Man O’War on turf.  He tried the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was beaten by better synthetic runners.  His races were all Grade 1 stakes against open company, and those are his US stats, the only record that is supposed to matter in Eclipse balloting.  Of course, that is not Curlin’s complete 2008 record.  The reigning HOTY travelled to Dubai and won two major races, the Jaguar Trophy and the Dubai World Cup, against the best dirt horses in Asia and the Middle East.  He won the Jaguar under 132 pounds, an unheard-of impost for stakes in the US.  The Dubai World Cup win was visually impressive as Curlin coasted home by over 7 lengths.

  Along the way, Curlin became the yardstick by which the ’08 three year old crop was measured.  His owner, Jess Jackson, appealed to racing fans by shipping the Golden Warrior to tracks across the nation and giving races on all surfaces a try.  With over $10 million in earnings, Curlin now sits atop the list of All-Time Leading Money Winners, breaking a record held for 13 years by the legendary Cigar.  When paraded on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs, the tipsy revelers cheered more loudly for him in the paddock than even the Derby victor in the winner’s circle.  I know, I was there for that one. 

Curlin may not be as fast as previous champions, nor did he win a Triple Crown or 16 (or 19) races in a row.  But he was the only member of the magical class of 2007 to continue as an older horse.  That was a great year, a return to thrilling, (relatively) safe racing, with tough, game rivals like Street Sense and Hard Spun and Curlin to help us get over the tragedy of Barbaro.  Yes, I said Barbaro – even if you’re sick of hearing his name, you must admit he had the potential to be a great one.  His loss was such a tremendous letdown, and his long struggle such a heartbreaker, that the 2007 racing season was like a salve on racing’s wounds.  When Curlin came back this year, it was with the hope that the goodwill would continue.  I should have known one horse was not enough.  Perhaps this award will encourage other owners to bring back their champions for continued campaigns.  It seems to already be working: IEAH is bringing BENNY THE BULL back for more sprints in fall!

Now that the Eclipses have been awarded and ’08 remembered one last time in all of its horrible, beautiful glory, let’s put it away and focus on 2009.  The Kentucky Derby is only 92 days away!

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Buzzers and Bolt Guns and Doping, Oh My! CSI: Miami Goes to the Races

All I can say is WOW.  Monday night’s episode of CSI: Miami featured a murder at the racetrack, and if you didn’t hate the sport before the show, the producers gave you plenty to help change your mind.  Battery-operated shocking devices, bolt guns, doping, race-fixing, corrupt jockeys, gambling-addict vets, slimey owners, and Horatio’s shades…all in a day’s work on TV tracks.

I know, I know, it’s CSI: Miami.  It’s a shlocky police procedural.  I have seen them do dumber shows.  I wouldn’t be so pissy if the show had been the least bit original.  It gets old watching the same stories about the same crooked jockey/trainer/owner hurting a horse.   

And what was the deal with that bolt gun?  Seriously?  “Everybody has one??”  Seriously????

COME ON!

The sad thing is people get the wrong ideas about racing because of shows like that.  When the worst happens, like the Eight Belles tragedy, people are preconditioned to see that as a normal case of racetrack “brutality”.  Just once I would like to see racing presented in an intelligent, realistic manner.  It *can* be done.  And no horses would have to die, or be buzzed.

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