Category Archives: Stories and Reporting

Stories and racing news

The End of Summer

It’s Labor Day weekend. The effective end of summer is upon us. Kids are back in school.  Night arrives a little earlier each day. Orion is already prominent in the southern sky.

The final races at Saratoga and Del Mar have been run. New York racing heads back to Belmont while out West Santa Anita gets ready for the Breeders Cup. I doubt I’ll make it to the Cup this year, but I’m glad Santa Anita didn’t have it ripped away by the anti-horseracing folks.  I’ve attended a BC at Santa Anita, and if the weather is cooperative it’s a great place to hold a marquee event.

My summer was hectic. I have no idea how many summers I have left, and I had a need to take some trips to see the many of the great friends I had made in racing.  When Lou Gehrig gave his famous going-away speech, despite having one of the meanest diseases on the planet, he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.  I think I understand why he said that.

When I got sick I realized how many people cared about me and wanted to see me recover. It’s a shame how blind we can be, until something serious happens. There is no colder slap than the realization that even with amazing medicines, you can only dodge death for so long. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or unfair. We came into a remorseless universe, and there is nothing we can do to stop time. We can only take advantage of the time we are given.

And here’s what I did in the summer of 2019.

I love New York City, and I don’t need much of a reason to go there. In June, I went to my favorite big city. I had John’s Pizza, Junior’s cheesecake washed down with with a chocolate egg-cream, and I topped it all off with a trip to the Belmont.  July took me to the British Isles. It was an opportunity to be together as a family. I’ll remember it always. It was a great reminder that I  really have great, successful,  kids. It was wonderful to enjoy a fresh glass of Guinness. Slainte. I like London almost as much as I like New York. There are spectacular sights in both cities and so much to do it could take months to do it. Same thing with Scotland and Ireland. They are truly beautiful countries. We happened to drive by the Curragh in Ireland and I seriously thought about bagging the Cliffs of Moher for Irish racing.

I thought about it, and I realized as interesting and beautiful as some foreign places are, we don’t really have to travel overseas to see great mountains and mighty rivers. What a great stroke of luck it was to be born in America.

After trekking through the best of the British Isles, I spent a week in Saratoga. From the time I was young, the closer I get to the track the faster I want to get there. I could not only see the grandstand, I could smell all the wonderful racetrack smells. I never feel so comfortable and happy as I am at the Spa. It is the womb that produced a lifetime love. It will always be the epitome of racing for me. In a life full of luck, I was most lucky to have Saratoga in my backyard.

I capped off the summer at Del Mar. Here’s my advice. Be careful if you go to that part of California. The scenic beauty, the slapping of the ocean waves, the whole lifestyle might just keep you there for a lot longer than you might expect.

I’m very happy I won a NHC qualifying contest and made it into the big show. It was a great validation of my handicapping/betting ability. Nothing has had the kind of impact on my play that contests have. I can’t stress loudly enough that a contest is a post graduate course in handicapping and betting. This year, at Saratoga there were 38 races I could have bet. I wound up betting 10 and hitting 2. I bet $30 win and a $30 exacta only. No place or show. No trifectas.  That may not sound like an exciting way to play, but the two races I hit had an $18 winner and a $46 winner. The exactas were exceptional as you might expect. Instead of betting $60 trying to hit a big trifecta, why not invest it in the simplest bets you can make?

Same thing happened at Del Mar. I watched a few and then popped a 33-1 shot. I haven’t given up on 5/2 horses, but if I use one it will be under a longer price. No more exactas with A over B, C, D, and E, and reverse..

This version of the contest betting is difficult because who doesn’t want to make some action bets. All I can tell you is that I learned how to pass a race. Go get an ice cream cone. Listen to the band playing. Go to the paddock and look at the horses. You can’t play a race to kill time, and you can’t get mad if a horse you wondered about wins. Play solid. Don’t let failure shake you up.  Stick with it and find your groove.

I got off on a tangent here. My main point is pretty simple. I may not have a lot of time, so I’m going to fill up my life as much as I can with family and friends. I also hope I can bet  horses until my final day.

I do feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I was given so many gifts and abilities. I hope I can continue to share them.

Post 2019 Belmont Stakes

What can I say? I came, I saw,  I won a little bit for the day thanks to Mitole. However, with $14 sausage and pepper sandwiches and $6 soft drinks I  couldn’t say I went home with more money than I had when I arrived at BEL.  But on days like yesterday, you just have to put up with mediocre food and drink. It’s worth it to be part of the raucous crowd.

Here are my views about the day.

  • The weather was glorious.  A wind came up for a bit, but really didn’t affect any of the races significantly. Humidity was low, temperature just right.  You have to enjoy those days when you get them.
  • The track looked great. I’m sure it was impressive on TV. And thank goodness no horse went down.
  • The grandstand was cleaner than I remember last year, but if they want another BC, they need to brighten some things up.  Some deep cleaning, paint, and lighting would be welcomed. Perhaps the lack of concern about the cob webs is telling us something. It wouldn’t hurt to upgrade some of the seating either.
  • There were plenty of younger people there. I’m not sure how much they bet, but I learned how many millennials it takes to use a betting machine. I have a proposal: you get three minutes at the machine. After that amount of time, the machine spits out tickets on any bets you made and returns your updated voucher. Here’s the best part of my idea. You can’t reinsert your ticket into that machine for five minutes. You can move to another machine, you can go to the back of the line, but you don’t get to stand there interminably handicapping and betting. Show up, make your bets, have concern for your fellow handicappers. It was great to see the young fans, but Belmont has to take the huge opportunity to make their signature day more than just the one day a year they show up.
  • They need an updated system for the betting machines. Something that is intuitive and quicker. A lot of the rookies were perplexed. I could hear the group of them surrounding the machine saying things like, no, push that button. It has to be easy to keep people interested.
  • They also need a few guys wandering  around to instruct people on using the machines on those days. Troubleshooters. Maybe have a continuous loop showing near the self-service machines.
  • There were a lot of lit cigars in the grandstand. It wasn’t bothering me, but some people were bitching.  It isn’t that hard to walk outside to smoke your cigar. After all, it is against the law to smoke in the grandstand even if you think you are “outside.”
  • It was impossible to get anywhere near the paddock or saddling area to evaluate horses for looks or energy. I don’t think there is anything that can be done, but it was frustrating because there were some horses coming off layoffs that I wanted to see.
  • They did have food trucks available outside next to the backyard. Unfortunately I didn’t see them until late. It would have been nice  to know we didn’t just have to order the suspect Philly Cheese Steak. I was pretty sure it was processed beef and absolutely sure the top was cheese whiz.  I know you’re not there for the food, but for me to last from 11 am to 7 pm, I’ve got to get some calories.
  • Using the LIRR was great. Trains were packed but on time.
  • I really love NY. Sitting on a bench under a tree in Bryant Park drinking some Rooibos Tea, watching a steady stream of people playing outdoor ping pong and something that looked like Bocce Ball but had a different name, was as relaxing as it gets. You’d hardly know you were in the middle of the horn-blowingest city in the country.

I may make the Belmont an annual trip.

Wrapping Up 2017

I hope everyone had a great Breeder’s Cup weekend. I was true to form. Friday always seems to be a better day for me. This year I hit either win, exacta or both in all four Friday races and was well on my way to my best BC ever. On the other hand, on Saturday I was having a mediocre (that’s code for losing) day. I had a nice hit on the smallish exacta in Race 12, keeping me well on the plus side for the weekend. It was a really great way to end the biggest part of the racing year.

I’ve never known a summer to fly by so quickly. One morning the leaves were forming on the trees, a few mornings later they were falling off.

I suppose the brief summer was related to how little I got to enjoy it. In March I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow-cancer. For a few months while I was taking killing doses of chemo I rarely got outside. Going from the couch to the refrigerator and back consumed so much energy I would need a nap to recover.

I won’t go into the details, other than to say I wouldn’t wish how I felt on anyone. It sounds kind of corny, but without horseracing I’m not sure I would have gotten through the summer, short as it seemed. I was able to post selections and write some opinion pieces. When I didn’t – or couldn’t – do anything else, I always had a racing form to look at, or Twitter to read, or a blog to write.

Racing kept me occupied. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I couldn’t eat very much – I’ve lost 25 pounds without trying. And if I did eat it was a small portion of something bland and uninteresting. Exercise was out of the question. Most days it was me on the couch either catching up on all the programs and movies I’ve taped, or watching a baseball game (I watched a lot of baseball), or betting races.

I’ve cut back on publishing selections. Just didn’t have as much energy as I needed to handicap every day. I also stopped participating in most of  the discussions on racing boards. Same reason. Chemotherapy kicks the hell out of you.

The good news is that the chemo seems to be working. I’m functioning a lot better, and the couch isn’t getting quite the workout it got during the summer. The bad news  is that I may have six more months of it. I’ve adjusted to the dosage enough so that I can go to the grocery store, putz around the house, things like that. I’m still not better than 70% on a good day though.

I’ve had a lot of friends stop by to see me and my family has been great. The support makes all the difference in the world. I want to say thanks for that.

Some of you may know that I’ve qualified for the NHC in January. No way I’m going to miss that. I have no delusions about winning. I’m just happy to be going.

For those reasons I’m only publishing picks for AQU on Saturday until after the NHC. I’ll still be publishing blogs and looking into racing issues, so please continue to check the site.

Thanks to everyone who follows my picks.

Is Arrogate the Best Ever

The other day I heard a historian lamenting that as the years pass, witnesses to history’s most significant events also pass. We’re left with the stories passed down, or the books that are written, but they are a poor second to the oral accounts of those who lived through events. Our great-grandparents lived through The War to End All Wars, our grandparents lived through the Great Depression, our parents – those whom Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation – changed the world during the second world war, and in the lifetimes of the baby boomers, we were witness to Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Having been there we have a perspective that only comes from being an eyewitness to history.

When Arrogate won the Dubai World Cup the superlatives flew and many horseplayers were quick to anoint the performance, if not the horse itself, as the greatest of all time. No less an expert than Arrogate’s trainer, Bob Baffert, proclaimed Arrogate the “greatest horse since Secretariat.” Well, perhaps his bias as Arrogate’s caretaker had something to do with that opinion, but there is little doubt the horse we saw yesterday was a rare talent indeed.

Arrogate had a troubled start, pinched between two rivals right out of the gate and dead-last in the run to the first turn. Mike Smith, his rider, never panicked, instead steering Arrogate to the outside, biding his time down the backstretch, and making his move coming out of the far turn. He won in powerful fashion in a time of 2:02.23.

After the race, Baffert, clearly emotionally caught up in the moment, said, “When he missed the break, I gave him no chance at all. I was so mad at myself thinking I shouldn’t have brought him – that’s the greatest horse I’ve ever seen run, it’s unbelievable, I can’t believe he won. That is a great horse.”

Sure, Arrogate was up against it after the break, and no horse of ordinary talent may have won as convincingly as he did, but I’ve seen on more than one occasion high quality speed horses miss the break and instead of rushing to the lead (what I call the death move), were allowed to settle and ran by the field in the end with the same reaction from the trainer.

Horses that prefer to run from the front fall into a few categories. There are rank speed horses, need to lead types, but also horses like Arrogate that have push button speed that they can use at any time. They don’t need the lead, but they instinctively prefer to lead the herd. They are, what I have defined previously, class horses. The definition of class I have offered is the ability of a horse to hold its speed over longer distances. A lot of horses can run a :21.4 quarter, or a :44 half, but fewer horses can do that and finish in 1:08.2, or complete a mile in 1:34. What Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby – running each successive quarter faster than the last – is as rare as a 56 game hitting streak in baseball. When Seattle Slew ran impossibly fast fractions – :45.1, 1:09.2, 1:35.2, 2:01.4 – and finished in 2:27.2, only to lose by a nose to Exceller, his performance was stamped as one of the greatest of the century. And don’t forget he demolished Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the process. Forego’s defeat of Kentucky Derby winner Honest Pleasure in the 1976 Marlboro Cup was equally one for the ages. The list could go on.

Class horses can simply do things that merely good horses could never accomplish.

As history points out over and over, those things to which you are witness seem larger than similar events from the past. Those who pronounced Arrogate the superior of Man o’ War were at least caught up in the moment, but let’s be realistic – nobody alive today can tell you they saw both horses and could pronounce the better of the two. And if you want to compare running times, you’d have to account for the different track composition and the lack of a sophisticated timing system. I’ll tell you this. The people I knew that had seen Man o’War and Citation would never concede any horses since were superior. It’s the nature of the horse being of your generation.

I never saw Man o’War or Citation or Native Dancer, and I have only hazy memories of Kelso, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser, but I have  vivid memories of Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar, and  I can remember having the same thrill from some of their races that fans got from Arrogate’s performance.

Was Arrogate’s performance in the Dubai World Cup the greatest of all time? Is he a better horse than the two standards by which all other thoroughbreds are measured – Man o’War and Secretariat? Unfortunately nobody can know for sure, but we can say this for certain. We saw a great horse give a great performance, and who knows. If Arrogate keeps up what we saw in his last four races, maybe our children or grandchildren will talk about comparing some future thoroughbred of the moment to Secretariat, Man o’War…and Arrogate.

Graham Motion and Methocarbamol

By all accounts Graham Motion is one of the good guys in racing. He has often been cited as the example of how to be successful without violating medication or drug standards. Do it like Graham Motion does it, and we’ve cleaned up racing.

Graham Motion has been training for over 20 years, and during that time he’s had over 11,000 starters and until 2015 exactly zero drug or medication positives. That changed when Kitten’s Point, winner of the G3 Bewitch Stakes at Keeneland on April 24, 2015, tested positive for the therapeutic medication methocarbamol (sold under the brand name Robaxin).

A small overage for a common therapeutic is not news, but this was different. The first violation in an exemplary career was enough to make headlines, but more significant was Motion’s response to the positive. In an open letter published in the Thoroughbred Daily News, Motion said,

“I always felt that if the day ever came where, by some unforeseen circumstance, I was charged with a drug violation I would not lawyer up to defend myself, but rather would take my punishment and move on.”

But when the test for Kitten’s Point came back positive, Motion did decide to fight. He fully believed that he and his team had done everything they needed to do to comply with the methocarbamol threshold by withdrawing the drug a full seven days before the race, or five days longer than the published recommended withdrawal time.

Motion suspected something wasn’t right, either with the threshold or the withdrawal time, and set out to prove it.

The Methocarbamol Threshold

Horses are athletes, and like any athletes the stress of training and competing inevitably leads to everything from small aches and pains to injury. Horses are also individuals, with predispositions to everything from bleeding in the lungs to muscle cramps to heartburn. When a horse is ailing, it is the responsibility of the trainer to ensure his charges are given the right medical treatment.

In many cases horses with minor issues can continue racing through treatment with therapeutic medications. Racing jurisdictions are clear to show which therapeutics are allowable, and they are equally clear about how much of a respective therapeutic a horse is allowed to have in its system after a race.

Methocarbamol, sold under the brand name Robaxin, is commonly used in the prevention and treatment of painful muscle cramping, sometimes called “tying-up.” Horses predisposed to this condition will tie-up even during training. Like many medications, in order to be effective horses have to be given regular doses – in the case of methocarbamol once or twice daily to keep the cramping from disrupting the training schedule.

There are various methods by which a horse can be given methocarbamol: intravenous injection, tablets, or an oral paste, with tablets being by far the preferred method of administration during training. The general guideline for dosage is 15mg/kg, meaning for every kilogram the horse weighs it should be given 15 milligrams of the drug. In a 1,000 pound horse (454 kg) the dose would be 6.8 grams of the drug.

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) publishes a schedule, known as the Controlled Therapeutic Medication Schedule (CTMS) that provides recommended dosing and withdrawal times for the approved therapeutic medications for race horses, as well as the post-race threshold. The current methocarbamol threshold was developed from a study done in 2013 by Marc Rumpler, et al.  and published in the Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in June 2013. Based on Rumpler’s work, in May 2013 the RMTC listed the methocarbamol threshold  as 1 nanogram/milliliter (ng/ml) through blood testing. It also listed the recommended withdrawal time as 48 hours, listed the administration method as either IV or oral, and suggested an IV dose of 15 mg/kg and an oral dose of 5 grams.

The RMTC has revised the CMTS for methocarbamol twice since the May 2013 publication. In December 2014 a footnote was added suggesting that when methocarbamol was administered with phenylbutazone there was a potential for reaction and the withdrawal time should be increased to 72 hours. Then, in February 2016, the dosing protocol was changed to IV only, with a one-time only dose of 15mg/ml. They also added a footnote saying an oral dose may be utilized but longer withdrawal time may be required to fall below the threshold. Trainers using methocarbamol orally for multiple days were encouraged to have the horse tested prior to entry. These modifications to the CTMS were made with no announcement to jurisdictions that had adopted the thresholds, no fanfare, no press release to warn unsuspecting horsemen; they were just quietly changed on the RMTC website.

The RMTC makes it clear that although withdrawal times and dosages are part of the therapeutic medication table, for compliance purposes the only number that is relevant is the residual threshold of 1 ng/ml. The withdrawal time and the dosing amounts and protocols are simply recommended guidelines. In other words, if a trainer gives his horse a 5-gram dose of Methocarbamol 48 hours before a race and the horse tests at 2.0 ng/ml, it is still a violation. As Graham Motion found out, even if you prove that you followed the dosing and withdrawal guidelines, it is no defense against a positive test.

While it may seem there is some unfairness in the way the residual thresholds and recommendations for dosing and withdrawal interplay, the RMTC, whether overtly or inferentially, was selling the idea that any trainer giving their horse the recommended dosage and allowing the recommended withdrawal time should not have a horse test positive.

Given that Motion had more than tripled the withdrawal time for Kitten’s Point, something didn’t seem right. The place to start was with the so-called Rumpler study.

We can start by explaining that in 2007 the well-known testing pharmacologists, Rick Sams (HFL Sport Science Laboratory in Lexington, KY) and Scott Stanley (University of California School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis, CA) designed a study to “determine the pharmacokinetics (disposition and clearance) of methocarbamol and to estimate the withdrawal time of methocarbamol after single intravenous administration of methocarbamol at a clinically relevant dose to athletically conditioned thoroughbred horses.”

Whether or not the study would be useful for standard setting would not be clear until after the results were published.

The research results were actually published in the Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics (June 2013) with Marc Rumpler as the principal author.  Rumpler was part of the team headed by Sams and Stanley, although his actual listed role during the study was to do method validation studies and sample analyses. (Note: The original data gathering work was funded by both the RMTC and the Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.)

Given that the RMTC was expecting to use the results from Rumpler’s paper in support of a methocarbamol threshold,  Rumpler slightly revised the purpose that Sams and Stanley had offered, stating that it was being published “to develop and validate a method for determining methocarbamol in horses and to investigate its disposition after intravenous and oral doses to exercise conditioned thoroughbred horses for the purpose of generating data that could be used to establish a regulatory threshold for use in horse racing.” 

Sams was careful to call it a pharmacokinetic study to determine how the drug was distributed and cleared in the horse, not overtly guaranteeing it was going to be conclusive enough to form the basis of a blood threshold. But Rumpler apparently believed there would be no problem adapting the data to setting a threshold.

Rumpler’s study had a number of less than ideal design aspects, starting with the test animals. The 2007 data collection phase used twenty thoroughbreds (9 mares and 11 geldings) ranging in age from 5 to 10 (with 15 of the horses actually between 7 and 10), and weighing between 468 and 605 kilograms (1031 to 1333 pounds), with the average weight being 531 kg. Compared to the typical population found at the racetrack, the study group was substantially older and heavier. At the race track most runners are under 5, and likely to be 400-500 kg, with very low percentages of body fat.

While the horses were exercised three times a week on a treadmill, that could not have simulated the exercise levels of racing stock – obvious when considering the weights of the animals. They also were not being fed a racehorse diet. Rumpler noted that, “horses were housed in grass paddocks at the University of Florida Veterinary Medical Center (in Gainesville, FL), maintained on a diet of commercially available grain mixture, and had open access to water and hay at all times.” As a researcher you take what is available, but clearly the study was not being done on the sort of active racehorses that would be tested after a race.

All of those characteristics could lead to very different results than if active racing stock and standard dosing were used. All 20 of the horses were given a single, 15 mg/kg intravenous dose of methocarbamol and then tested at various time intervals. Out of the 20 test subjects, 14 of the horses only received this single IV dose.  Why the investigators chose the IV method is not clear from the Rumpler paper, but it seems to have been at odds with standard veterinary practice if the dosing was meant to simulate how the drug is commonly used during training. On the other hand, as a means of assessing the pharmacokinetic component of the standard setting process, perhaps the IV administration was not that problematic.

After a ten-week washout period, six of the horses were also given five 5-gram doses of methocarbamol at 0, 12, 24, 36, and 48 hours. The Rumpler paper called this 5-gram dose “oral,” but it was actually 10 – 500 mg pills that were crushed, mixed with 60 ml of water and delivered to the stomach via a nasogastric tube, a subtle but significant difference from normal oral administration for three reasons. First, veterinarians do not administer the dose this way. They will crush pills and dissolve them in water, but then inject the mixture directly into the oral cavity; second, since many drugs are absorbed across the oral mucous membranes, use of the nasogastric tube does not mimic how the drug might be absorbed during normal dosing; third, even though the nasogastric tube was flushed with 60 mL (two ounces) of water, it was still possible that some of the dose remained in the tube and never made it to the stomach. In other words, there was a chance the dose was imprecise. In any case, it was interesting to substitute nasogastric administration for normal oral administration in order to ensure the horse got a full dose when there was no assurance of that at all.

Beyond that, the horses from the study group that received oral dosages of 5-grams were effectively given a lower dose than the 15 mg/kg a horse in training would get because they all weighed well above the weight for which 5-grams would be the proper dose. For example, the horse weighing 560 kg that received the 5-gram oral dose would have received an 8.4-gram dose if the dosing recommendations were followed. This means the study group could have lower residuals than would be expected for active race horses, since they were being under-dosed.  And given the discrepancy in body fat between the study group and active racehorses, the pharmacokinetics (disposition and clearance) could have also been affected.

The Rumpler analysis was flawed in other ways as well. Typically, thoroughbreds that are predisposed to “tying-up” (muscle cramping) will do so daily during training periods. This indicates that the medication would logically be used daily to prevent cramping in those horses.  While the orally dosed group was dosed over a 48-hour period, this hardly represents the kind of continuous dosing a horse in training might receive. The single IV dosing regimen used in the study certainly didn’t simulate how a veterinarian would normally use methocarbamol during the training period, and even if the oral dosing came closer, the dose of 5-grams was below the commonly used recommended therapeutic dose for all six horses treated that way.

Rumpler’s paper doesn’t effectively document why these choices were made, nor does he discuss the pitfalls of using a small sample size of older, heavier, minimally exercised thoroughbreds. He provides no discussion of the potential comparisons to actively-racing horses. The most obvious question: why the single intravenous dose at the recommended 15 mg/kg, but a seemingly less than optimal 5-gram dose for the oral administration? And while some might argue the 5-gram dose came from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), that is misleading. The USEF recommends a dose of 5 mg/Lb, OR 5 grams per thousand pounds, and allows methocarbamol up to 12 hours.  The horses were still underdosed using the oral method in the study considering their weights.

Even if one can ignore the fact that 20 horses is very close to the minimum number needed to produce a valid threshold, measuring the residual serum or plasma level based on testing ex-race horses after giving an uncommon oral dosage to some of them and an uncommon IV dose if you account for the training period  to all of them creates some uncertainty.

The odd part of Rumpler’s paper is that he only showed the results for the six horses that were given both the IV dose and the oral dose because according to the subject test table in the paper, the pharmacokinetics were only done on those six horses.   All six of the horses given the single IV dose were below the lower limit of quantitation, in this case 1.0 nanogram/milliliter after 48 hours, the withdrawal period listed by RMTC. The same six horses when given the oral dose also fell below the level of quantitation after 48 hours, although there was a single horse that demonstrated bioaccumulation of 2.7 fold. This was only mentioned once by Rumpler, in the discussion section of his paper. but never really explained. According to Dr. Clara Fenger, Secretary of the North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians

“This single horse is problematic when trying to extrapolate these data to the entire racing population because the typical use of this substance is for daily use in horses which have problems with tying-up. If one in six horses accumulates methocarbamol (17% of the study population), the risk of a positive with dosing for more days than two would be very high.”

What we also don’t know is whether the horse that accumulated methocarbamol might have been the only one to receive the full dose by stomach tube, given the potential flaw with that delivery method.

Of more concern is that the 1 ng/ml threshold was not determined by a statistical analysis of values achieved by horses in the Rumpler analysis, but represents the limit of the mass spectrometer used to detect the drug. In other words, we don’t know exactly what the levels were at 48 hours for the six study subjects. This can be a dangerous method to use to set a threshold, since without appropriate statistical analysis we only know that the research horses for which results were given were below the threshold after 48 hours and nothing about how the threshold would behave when extrapolated to thousands of race horses. On the other hand, the values at 24-hours were accurately available.

Given what appears to be some questionable choices by the investigators, RMTC using this study to develop a threshold must create some uncertainty. Almost nothing about the investigators’ approach – the test herd, the dosing methodologies, the dosing levels – mimicked what we would expect to see on the racetrack. If horsemen used the veterinarian recommended dose, depending on withdrawal time there could be a much higher likelihood of seeing a violation, and if they used one of the RMTC recommended approaches at the time they ran the risk of lowering the drug’s effectiveness.

Subsequent to the Rumpler paper, there was a study done by Heather Knych et al. published in January 2016 in the same Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

Knych points out some interesting background about dosing. While the RMTC standard dose is 15 mg/kg, she notes that the “label dose for intravenous administration is 4.4-22 mg/kg, and 22-55 mg/kg for moderate and severe conditions, respectively.” In other words, to do a study that mimicked dosing on active racehorses that were subject to tying-up, we would see a variety of administration amounts (based on weight and severity of tying-up) and dosing frequency. The obvious question would be, how can a threshold based on the sub-optimal dosing in the Rumpler analysis be considered valid for a horse that severely cramps and receives three or four times the study dosage during therapeutic treatment?

Knych further points out that, “elimination of methocarbamol is reportedly dose dependent (Muir et al., 1984) and therefore the potential for a positive regulatory finding in performance horses exists if doses in excess of those recommended by USEF (the United States Equestrian Federation) and ARCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International) are utilized.”

Unlike Rumpler, Knych makes it clear that dose size and timing can have a substantial effect on residual blood levels.

What Knych concludes is that further study on clinically used doses and dosing regimens for methocarbamol are warranted to assess whether a more prolonged withdrawal time recommendation would be advised when veterinarians are using higher doses and more frequent administration. In other words, Knych prompts the obvious question: what should the threshold and withdrawal time be considering how the drug is commonly used on the backside?

The Knych study used 16 horses (eight mares and eight geldings) between 4 and 7 years old, and weighing from 419 to 610 kilograms. This was still not ideal, but was slightly better than in the Rumpler analysis.

The Knych study administered methocarbamol using three methods: tablets dissolved in 40-60 mL of water using a syringe and administered directly into the oral cavity; a paste, also administered directly into the mouth; and an intravenous administration.

One major difference between Knych and Rumpler is that the Knych study used higher doses, more accurately reflecting the clinically useful dose. This led to something that didn’t emerge from the Rumpler study – the plasma clearance rate slows and the disposition curve flattens as it approaches the 1 ng/mL threshold, indicating that blood levels may actually remain close to the level of the threshold for many hours.

In the discussion section of the paper, Knych says this:

“The detection time and time above the ARCI-recommended regulatory threshold following administration of both single and multiple doses of 15 g of MCBL were more prolonged in the current study compared with the previous reports that utilized a lower dose (Rumpler et al., 2014). Fifteen of sixteen horses exceeded the ARCI threshold recommendation at 48 hours (the current recommended withdrawal time guideline) postadministration of the final dose. It has been suggested previously that the clearance of MCBL is dose dependent with decreased rates of clearance and a longer elimination half-life reported as intravenous doses increased from 4.4-17.6 mg/kg (Muir et al., 1984)”

In other words, if you are going to base a threshold on the clearance rate and residual concentration for a substance, using the common dosing and administration protocol makes a significant difference to where the threshold is set.

In 2011 Rick Sams, the principal investigator on the study on which the Rumpler paper was based, subsequently did a presentation to the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) stating that the same data used to generate the Rumpler paper did not support a threshold of 1 ng/mL if an oral administration of methocarbamol was given, instead suggesting that a 20 ng/mL threshold at 24-hours withdrawal would be more appropriate. In fact, based on documents subpoenaed by Graham Motion’s attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, in his words, “the SAC unequivocally recommended that the regulatory threshold for methocarbamol be set at 20 nanograms.” If anything, methocarbamol when first administered would have a slight sedating effect on a horse, but certainly at 20 ng/mL post-race level no one would rightfully argue that the drug was in any way performance-affecting.

Sams later provided deposed testimony in a subsequent Kentucky Racing Commission prosecution of a methocarbamol case that the threshold ultimately adopted by the RMTC Board was done so at the insistence of one Scientific Advisory Committee member and lab director to accommodate that member. Sams stated in his testimony that the lab director was unwilling to change the 1 ng/mL at 48 hours threshold already in place in his jurisdiction.

Amazingly, the RMTC dismissed the results of the study they funded in favor of an historical threshold in place in a single jurisdiction, despite the fact that there was no solid scientific basis for concluding there was a correlation between the 1 ng/mL concentration and any pharmacological effect of any kind. In essence, Sams concluded the threshold adopted by the RMTC was done at best for political reasons, since in his opinion 20 ng/mL – especially if a 48-hour withdrawal time was used – would have been sufficiently protective of the racing public. And while Sams didn’t know it at the time, the subsequent work done by Knych confirmed the threshold was arbitrarily low.

The final piece of information came from the actions of the RMTC in revising the Controlled Therapeutic Medication schedules. In May 2013, right after the RMTC had the Rumpler analysis, they established the methocarbamol threshold as

  • 1 ng/mL (serum or plasma)
  • 48-hours withdrawal time
  • IV or oral administration
  • 15 mg/kg dose for IV, 5 gram dose for oral

Despite the fact that they knew the 5 gram oral dose was going to be insufficient for most horses, the Rumpler analysis used that dose (apparently without strong documentation) and it was transferred to the RMTC schedule.

In December 2014 the RMTC added a footnote to the schedule

Note: There is a potential for reaction when methocarbamol is administered with phenylbutazone. If you elect to use these medications in concert, the withdrawal time for methocarbamol may need to be increased to 72 hours.

Finally, in February 2016 the RMTC changed the schedule to exclude the oral dosing from the table, instead moving it to a footnote, and clarifying that the IV dosing was only meant to be given once.

  • 1 ng/mL (serum or plasma)
  • 48-hours withdrawal time
  • IV administration*
  • 15 mg/kg dose for IV, once

*An oral dose may be utilized but longer withdrawal time may be required to fall below the threshold. Trainers using methocarbamol orally for multiple days are encouraged to have the horse tested prior to entry.

It seemed that the RMTC recognized the high number of positives for methocarbamol since the adoption of the original threshold, and much like what happened with flunixin, rather than change the threshold to match with the likely results from the veterinarian recommended dosing, they recommended an unspecified increase in withdrawal time for oral dosing, and suggested the primary means of administering the medication, deposit in the oral cavity, could result in a positive, a fact that many trainers had unfortunately become aware of the hard way.

Once Graham Motion uncovered all this information, his decision was clear. He would fight the violation.

The KHRC Decision

No one was more surprised at the positive for Kitten’s Point than Graham Motion. He didn’t dispute she was given methocabamol – in fact, 7.5 grams twice a day for the period between her last race, the Orchid, and the Bewitch Stakes, as prescribed by Dr. Jeff Blea, coincidentally a current member of the RMTC Scientific Advisory Committee and someone very familiar with the methocarbamol threshold. According to veterinary records, the medication was withdrawn seven days before the Bewitch Stakes and she was not given any kind of dose 48-hours before the race.

Blea had  employed that dosing routine on Motion’s horses in California without suffering a positive, and even given the change of venue, a seven-day withdrawal should have worked.

Motion’s attorney argued that since Motion withdrew the medication well before the time specified in the CTMS, as well as pointing out potential problems with how the sample was maintained – the room that handled the samples doubled as the outriders’ tack room until two days before the start of the Keeneland meet – there was enough mitigating evidence to dismiss the case.

It is rare for racing authorities to find a trainer not responsible after a medication positive, and Kentucky was no exception in Motion’s case. Kitten’s Point was disqualified, purse money was taken back, and Motion was fined $500 and given a five-day suspension.

Motion responded to the decision by saying, “while I always realized the possibility of a violation despite the highest degree of diligence and understand the need for penalties, in these circumstances I am convinced that my staff and I followed all the required protocols and I plan to appeal the decision for a variety of reasons, all of which were presented at the stewards hearing.”

Motion’s most significant concern was directed to the published RMTC guidelines. “We have to, as trainers, have guidelines. If we can’t follow the guidelines that are issued then I’m not quite sure how we’re supposed to operate. Forty-eight hours is clearly not enough to withdraw from this medication–I withdrew seven days out and it still wasn’t enough. It makes it very hard to operate under those conditions.

This was not the only time that the RMTC was accused of using bad or absent science. Todd Pletcher beat a positive for Princess of Sylmar in the 2014 Delaware Handicap for the corticosteroid betamethasone because the Deputy Attorney General advising the Delaware Racing Commission identified that the lack of published and recognized science to support the RMTC recommendations would not withstand a court challenge.

Motion’s appeal of the initial stewards’ ruling to the KHRC only resulted in them dropping the five-day suspension but leaving everything else intact. But because Motion was not allowed the opportunity to defend himself by speaking to the KHRC, he published an open letter stating that the threshold for methocarbamol in place at the time “was not supported by good science, including going completely against the recommendation set by the head of KHRC’s testing lab, Dr. Sams.”

Motion saw the elimination of the five-day suspension as at least a partial admission there were concerns with the case.

Motion’s letter prompted Dionne Benson, Executive Director and CEO of the RMTC to respond. Benson fired back against Motion’s claim of a lack of good science.

Quite simply, the science is not lacking. All existing published scientific research supports the current RMTC-recommended threshold and withdrawal guidelines for methocarbamol, when used in conjunction with the route of administration, total number of doses, and total dose provided in the recommendation.”

What Benson was saying was that if Motion had followed the RMTC guideline instead of the advice of his veterinarian, he would have been fine. At the time of Motion’s violation the RMTC recommendation included two approved routes of administration (IV and oral), a recommendation still in effect in Kentucky, and there was nothing in the CTMS about total number of doses or the frequency of dosing. Benson was asking Motion to follow a protocol that was clearly ambiguous. How could anyone read the May 2013 CTMS and conclude that the RMTC was only specifying a single dose by IV or oral, especially because Rumpler’s paper had used a twice daily “oral” administration of 5 g? It’s impossible for Benson not to have seen how the the publication of the threshold could cause confusion.

Benson, in fact, dismisses the argument that the dosing specified in the CTMS was uncommon by frequency and method of administration by saying,

Veterinary practitioners desire numerous administration options. The RMTC, however, must focus its finite research and funding resources on thresholds that protect against the route, frequency and dose that represents an administration used closest in proximity to racing. For methocarbamol, that is a single intravenous dose.

Clearly, Benson was suggesting that a 15 mg/kg intravenous dose was the standard in the industry, despite evidence to the contrary and despite the obvious contradiction in dose size between IV and oral. But remember that at the time of Motion’s violation the RMTC’s recommended dosing included IV and oral. The RMTC must have seen the problem after Motion’s positive because they took action by revising the CTMS in February 2016. It is difficult to not see Benson as misleading, since she knew the dosing recommendation was different in 2015 and she knew that the Knych study come to a very different conclusion when horses were dosed more in line with standard veterinary practice, but chastised Motion for not following a guideline that was not in place in that form in 2015. In other words, they revised the CTMS and then blamed Motion for not following it.

She continues,

“Contrary to Mr. Motion’s assertions, the studies published by both Dr. Sams and Dr. Knych included single intravenous administrations of methocarbamol. Under each research protocol, all results were below the RMTC proposed threshold at 48 hours. Thus, all existing published research supports the RMTC’s recommended 48-hour withdrawal guideline for a single intravenous methocarbamol administration.”

Benson’s rationale is once again that Motion used a different methodology than the RMTC recommendation, and that was the cause of his problems, completely ignoring the conclusion Knych came to that, “The detection time and time above the ARCI-recommended regulatory threshold following administration of both single and multiple doses of 15 g of MCBL were more prolonged in the current study compared with the previous reports that utilized a lower dose (Rumpler et al., 2014). Fifteen of sixteen horses exceeded the ARCI threshold recommendation at 48-hours (the current recommended withdrawal time guideline) postadministration of the final dose.”

Remarkably, Benson concludes by saying,

It is simply impractical to perform research and provide guidance for every route of administration, dosage, and duration of administration that each trainer or veterinarian may prefer. This is cost prohibitive and, frankly, a misuse of resources. The RMTC recommendations are based on common dosages and routes of administrations from practicing veterinarians and veterinary pharmacologists. If used conscientiously as recommended, they will allow the use of therapeutic medications in training without fear of a post-race violation.

Even if you grant her point about practicality and cost, there is no reason that the RMTC should have ignored the clear recommendation of the SAC and Rick Sams to set the threshold at 20 ng/mL, and seemingly ignore the breadth of the work done by Knych. Given the RMTC’s problems with regard to the flunixin, betamethasone and methocarbamol standards, it is becoming more difficult for horsemen to trust them. The message to horsemen seems to be, when the CTMS is in conflict with what your veterinarian recommends, ignore your veterinarian if you want to stay out of trouble, regardless of what he tells you is necessary for the protection of the horse.

Graham Motion is committed to seeing this case to a final conclusion. While he remains overall supportive of the efforts of the RMTC to develop fair, science based thresholds, Motion believes it is important for trainers to have confidence that following the RMTC guidance will not lead to violations of the thresholds.

Motion spoke for many horsemen when he said, “It’s a real problem when you’re trying to follow the rules and still have a positive.”

It’s a problem that can and should be solved, at least for methocarbamol.

Kent Desormeaux and the Photo Finish

Back when I first started going to the track, photo finish pictures were often posted in a shadow box for all to examine. After one close race, a four horse finish, I went over to check the photo. They had actually posted two photos, both exactly the same but one with the line in front of the winner’s nose and one with the line showing the show finisher.

A man standing next to me starting complaining that they had used the same photo to determine the win and the show. It took me a second to realize he assumed someone had snapped a picture at the moment the first horse hit the finish line, with his complaint being the third place horse hadn’t yet hit the finish line. Of course, the fact was that the nose of the third place horse was also on the finish line. It seems a bit counterintutive, but once you get a proper explanation, it makes total sense.

I asked a few other people if they understood how the photo finish system worked, and more than a few of them understood it like the guy at the photo box. Somebody was snapping pictures at the right moment.

That was 40 years ago, long before everyone had a pocket phone with a digital camera. When people saw a picture they assumed someone had snapped it with a camera.

From: Wikipedia:

Photo-finish cameras were developed during the 1940s and 1950s as a way of reducing cheating in horse racing. Typically photo-finish cameras use strip photography, in which a camera is aimed at the finish line from an elevated position in a tower. It captures only the sequence of events on that line in the vertical dimension. Every part of each racer’s body is shown as it appeared the moment it crossed the line; anything stationary is represented as a horizontal streak. The horizontal position represents time, and time markings along the bottom of the photo can be used to find the exact crossing time of any racer. The high angle allows judges to see the position of every horse in relation to the others.

In other words, when you see the photo finish “picture” the entire horse, including the nose is on the finish line. What the fellow at the shadow box saw was  a portion of the film strip in which the first four horses had crossed the wire, with each respective horse’s nose on the wire.

Technology is improving. Some tracks are going to digital systems – Arlington Park comes to mind –  but regardless of which system they use, there is agreement that the photo finish camera is accurate. Curtis Linnell, executive vice president of wagering analysis and operations for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau said,

“That is something controlled, and controlled very closely, expertly; by vendors and regulatory associations. (The TRPB) has not seen one instance—not one instance—in which there has been evidence a fraudulent photo finish has been perpetrated.”

A few days ago jockey Kent Desormeaux let the racing world know what he thought of the photo finish system.

“I don’t believe in the validity of the photo finish system, not at all as a matter of fact. I know I’ve been deprived of wins—or the other way around—but I’m pretty certain that we, and you as the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, need to find a better way to make sure that photo finish was accurate.”

He went on to say,

“I believe they can make the wire where they want. When we’re going 40 miles per hour, you can change the finish by a centimeter and show that the horse’s nose is on the line or isn’t on the line. I’ve seen some races this year, on Breeders’ Cup day, that I don’t think was the true winner. I want horse racing officials to make me believe that the photo finish was real. I don’t believe them. I’ve been in 30,000 races, I get to the wire and raise my stick then get embarrassed and pulled in and told, ‘Well, you didn’t win.’ Been there, done that.”

It was news because Desormeaux is still a well known jockey, but this incident sounds like a good reason for racing to have a Roger Goodell-like commissioner, a guy who can suspend you for using flat footballs.

What was Desormeaux thinking? Does he even understand how the photo finish system works? Racing has enough credibility issues without throwing doubt on something that has been seen as pretty close to foolproof, not just by horse racing, but by a number of other sports.

It was especially egregious for Desormeaux to suggest that even the Breeder’s Cup is not immune from finish line shenanigans. Seriously? Desormeaux wants us to believe that incompetent technology reaches as far as racing’s biggest day?

Desormeaux’s statements were at the least irresponsible, and it is a shame he’s not subject to any sanction for popping off without any proof except his speculation that there were races he was sure he won before the photo finish revealed otherwise. Having someone of Desormeaux’s stature suggest that even the technology being used to ensure horseplayers are getting a fair shake can be manipulated is one more reason racing is seen by even it’s regular players in a negative light.

I don’t know what Desormeaux was hoping to accomplish, but I know what he did accomplish. He threw his sport, the sport that has allowed him to make a very good living, under the bus. He might as well have said, the people who run racing are cheats, that they don’t care about giving horseplayers an even break.

One more distraction. One more reason horse racing is losing players. One more reason to shake your head and wonder how much longer we’ll have to put up wth this absurdity.

Rainbow Pick-6 at Gulfstream Park

Most horseplayers remember the Breeder’s Cup Pick-6 scandal from 2002 in which a programmer at Autotote, Chris Harn, along with two friends, figured out the flaw in Autotote’s system to be the sole winner of a $2.57 million Pick-6.

Once I saw the structure of the ticket – 1 X 1 X 1 X 1 X ALL X ALL – I immediately thought something was fishy. I talked to a number of other horseplayers and there was unanimity. No way this was a bet any experienced horseplayer would make.

I happened to be friends with a high ranking executive at Autotote and I talked with him on the Sunday after the BC. At that time he gave me the company line and guaranteed me that the system was 100% foolproof and secure. I told him to start looking because someone had pulled a fast one.

Now I don’t know how much I had to do with pushing the investigation that ultimately revealed the scheme, but it pointed to an important lesson. Most horseplayers might not understand exactly how the software works, but they can spot a canard eight furlongs away.

On Thursday December 8 Gulfstream’s 20 cent Rainbow 6 was hit for $71,145.66. The Rainbow 6 is only paid out when there is a  single unique ticket sold with all six winners. On days when there is no unique ticket, 70% of that day’s pool goes back to those bettors holding tickets with the most winners while 30% is carried over. The structure of the ticket that hit the bet was five singles to an all in the last leg


and was bought through TVG for $2.40. Was it deja vu all over again?

The horseplayer reaction was a little different this time. Some players noted there are syndicates that buy a large number of small tickets, and perhaps this was one of those. Other players noted that at least two of the horses in the first five legs were suspicious as singles – Bionsway went off at 11-1 and Latent Princess was almost 10-1. Only one of the horses, Policy Portfolio, was a short priced favorite.  The other two singles were 5-1and 3-1. The big separator came in the last race when 42-1 Maria and Beto won.

Given that we had seen a similar situation in the not too distant past, it was fully on TVG or Gulfstream Park to immediately investigate and report to the public. If the play was generated by computer and was part of hundreds of separate tickets, this should show up pretty quickly. Since the ticket was purchased at TVG there should be a history of how many tickets were played, as well as whether this player regularly played such tickets.

Based on anecdotal evidence, and given the changes made by Autotote after the 2002 scandal, the weight of horseplayer opinion is that there is no scandal. But still, given the unusual construction of the bet, the betting public needs an explanation. Even if TVG or investigators up the line were sure there were no shenanigans, the chatter on the ticket went on for a week afterward, far too long in my opinion. When something smells, even slightly, it is the responsibility of racing to immediately address the issue. 

Racing cannot afford to let instances where there is a wisp of smoke spiral into out of control speculation. The integrity of the sport is under attack from a variety of fronts, and the last thing racing needs is a message that says, fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice – well who cares. Many horseplayers believe they are treated with disdain by the industry, mainly because there is never serious pushback from bettors when there is a scandal. A little grumbling, and the hard core go right back to playing.

I hope there is nothing to the Gulfstream Park Rainbow 6 payout, but the longer we don’t get a definitive answer, with clear evidence, the worse it is for racing.

Nyquist Post-Preakness

Good news and bad news from the Nyquist camp.

The bad news is that Nyquist spiked a fever the day after the race and is definitely out of the Belmont. The good news is that he otherwise came out of the race well physically.

“His legs are fine,” O’Neill said. “We’ve started him on antibiotics and we’ll make an assessment in 10 days to two weeks about getting him back in training.”

O’Neill said at this point plans are up in the air about his summer schedule. “The antibiotics take a lot out of the horse, so our first priority is getting him healthy again. Once we feel he’s up to it we’ll start him jogging and get him back on a training regimen. Right now we don’t have a specific plan other than getting him peaked for the Breeder’s Cup. Once we have an idea how the horse is progressing we’ll look at potential races and make a decision about whether we’ll get him ready in California or back east.”

I asked O’Neill whose idea it was to run Nyquist hard out of the gate. “The plan was all mine,” O’Neill said. “We knew Uncle Lino would go and I told Mario to make sure we won the first turn. We didn’t think Awesome Speed would go as fast as he did and we thought we’d be able to get a clear spot where Nyquist could run his race. We weren’t worried about Uncle Lino, but Awesome Speed and Collector changed our strategy some. By the time Nyquist was clear on the backstretch he was into the bit. He’s such a competitive horse there was no turning back at that point.”

I asked if Nyquist was affected by the track. “The track was definitely safe and he wasn’t having any trouble grabbing hold. But Pimlico is one of those older dirt tracks that can be heavy and tiring when it gets that wet. Running fast early took a lot out of him, but he still showed his competitiveness in the stretch.”

But O’Neill added, “Exaggerator is a very good horse and he ran a great race to win the Preakness. The Desormeaux’s did a wonderful job getting him ready for the race and I want to congratulate them on their victory. I look forward to meeting them again down the road.

“Nyquist is the best horse I’ve ever been around,” O’Neill said. “At this point our only focus is on getting him healthy again. Once he’s back to normal we’ll develop a plan.”

I think we’re all looking forward to the next chapter for Nyquist.

2016 Kentucky Derby

I met Doug O’Neill under trying circumstances. (See the article, Three Days with Doug O’Neill, He had recently been suspended by California and would not be able to see one of his best runners, Goldencents, defend his title in the BC Mile. He had been the subject of numerous disparaging remarks in the public media and was perhaps at the lowest point in his career.

I didn’t know quite what to expect, but what I found was a man who was anything but down. I liked him immediately. A lot of trainers might have carried around anger and bitterness given the treatment by both California and New York, but O’Neill focused on the future, a future he believed would be bright.

Turns out he was far more blessed that he could have anticipated in those down days. Some people spend a lifetime trying to find that one great horse. O’Neill has found a few – Lava Man, Goldencents, and I’ll Have Another were all horses of a lifetime – including the horse that might be the best of them all, Nyquist.

There is one thing about O’Neill that convinced me he was an A+ human being. The loyalty of his clients and his friends. You don’t keep owners like Paul Reddam or Glen Sorgenstein, or first rate horsemen like Jack Sisterson and Leandro Mora, or the Santa Monica crew who have stuck by him through all the ups and downs without being a first class guy. He gave his brother Dennis deserved credit for selecting the horse out of the 2015 Florida sale, and the underrated Mario Guttierez recognition for giving the horse the perfect ride. But while he seems to give everyone else credit for his successes, make no mistake. He is the leader of Team O’Neill and he inspires his team to bring out the best in the horses under their care. He makes it all work.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, gave the world the phrase Don’t Panic, a phrase Isaac Asimov called perhaps the best advice humanity was ever given. Steve Rothblum, one  of the core members of Team O’Neill, may not have been thinking of Hitchiker’s at the time, but he recognized O’Neill’s best characteristics – “He delegates authority and he never panics.” No wonder his owners and employees alike think the world of him. Count me among the fans of Doug O’Neill, both as a trainer and as a human being.

O’Neill and his team executed their plan with Nyquist to perfection. For all the doubters who thought Nyquist wasn’t bred to get the Derby distance, or who thought O’Neill was crazy to bring the horse to the Derby off a sprint in California and one two-turn race in Florida five weeks before the big race, Team O’Neill has proved them all wrong. If anyone doubted the true ability of O’Neill as a trainer, Nyquist should have put those doubts to rest.

Much like the time Team O’Neill puts into getting their horses ready to run, many of us spend a lot of time handicapping the Derby. I spent dozens of hours reviewing race videos, checking out pedigrees, analyzing running times, looking at the workouts and reading as much pre-race news as I can.

I divided my Derby horses into three categories. “A” horses were those I believed could win the race. “B” horses were those I thought could be part of the verticals. “C” horses were those I believed had no chance to win the race or be part of the combination bets.

My “A” horses were Nyquist, Exaggerator, Gun Runner and Creator. They finished 1,2,3 and 13th. My “B” horses were Mohaymen, Destin, Brody’s Cause, Lani, Mor Spirit, and Outwork. They finished 4, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 14th.

That was the exacta and trifecta with my “A” horses, the superfecta with one of my “B” horses, and only two of 10 identified horses that didn’t finish in one of the top 10 slots.

Now, some people might say this was an easy Derby. After all, the first four choices finished in exact order. But I won’t make any apologies. The handicapping turned up what it turned up. All you can ask of a public handicapper is that he give you the horses that give you an opportunity to collect. And in reality, the prices were pretty damn good considering which runners came in. You could have aggressively bet the exacta, turning 2/1 and 5/1 shots into a $30 payoff. You could have aggressively bet a trifecta that paid $173 dollars. It wasn’t that far to catch a Superfecta that paid $542. If you bet a mere $100 into the race keying Nyquist and spreading your money intelligently, it would have been hard not to collect $2,000.

I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I gave you the information you needed to make money in the race. I didn’t guess. I made a confident decision based on sound handicapping and research. As I often say, if the exacta pays $30, the most you can collect is $30 on each ticket. Every other bet is just a losing ticket.

Bad Food at Calder

The racetrack can be a dangerous place, at least for the trainers who tend to the horses and the jockeys who ride them. On the other hand, the patrons get to view the races in relative comfort and safety. Unless they get hungry and happen to be at Calder.

On November 9 inspectors from Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation closed Calder Casino and Race Course for violations of food service regulations. The citations included:

  • raw/undercooked animal foods were offered and there was no consumer advisory posted;
  • a stop-sale was issued on potentially hazardous pork due to temperature abuse;
  • a black/green mold-like substance was inside the ice machine;
  • small flying insects were in the kitchen, food prep or storage areas;
  • more than 10 live roaches were in the premise;
  • no proof of required, state-approved training was provided for all employees.

I don’t know about you, but reading that made me queasy. And it doesn’t make me feel better to know that after10 live cockroaches the inspector gets to just use the inexact “more than” count.

Luckily for patrons Calder cleaned things up and got to open up the next day. I tried contacting Matthew Harper, spokesperson for Churchill Downs Inc. at Calder, multiple times for comment but he did not get back to me. He did, however, comment for the Sun-Sentinel, saying,

The safety of our guests and team members is our highest priority.  We immediately took action based on the finding  and rectified the issues in the issues in less than 24 hours. We have taken steps in identifying and enacting procedures to ensure that this does not happen again.”

It seems a little disingenuous to suggest safety is the highest priority with the sort of violations the inspector found, but what could you expect CDI to say other than we fixed the problem and took steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And then lay low.

I hope they meant it, but you don’t change the management and culture of a place in a day. The highest likelihood was that this wasn’t a problem where the inspector just happened to catch them on a bad day, but that it had been festering for a while. Disregard for something as important as the health and safety of your patrons says something about the operation in general. The problem shouldn’t have happened in the first place. A good business does not treat its patrons with anything less than total care. Just because we are horseplayers and gamblers doesn’t mean we are willing to put up with poor practices and sanitation when it comes to ordering a hot dog and a beer.

Hopefully the inspectors will stay on top of the situation. Meanwhile, you might want to stick with bottled drinks and eat your lunch before you leave home.