For the middle of January it was a busy week for horseracing news.
Roman Chapa allegedly got caught – again – with an electrical device. I say allegedly because at this point all we know for sure is that the track photographer snapped Chapa driving Quiet Acceleration to victory in the Richard King Stakes at Sam Houston in Texas, and it looked like he was holding something in his left hand.
The Eclipse Awards were held last Saturday. In general there was agreement with the winners, although there was some static about the winning margin for a few of them.
Finally, NYRA implemented “emergency” rules to deal with what seems to be an excessive number of deaths on the track. The trainer reactions were priceless.
Let’s start with Roman Chapa. In his first year as a jockey Chapa was suspended for 19 months for using an electrical stimulation device (often called a buzzer). In 2007 he was suspended again for the same thing and this time was given a five year vacation. New Mexico gave him a break by reinstating him in 2011, a bit before the five years was up.
I know fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me, but what is the saying for fool me three times?
You have to figure the two times he got caught weren’t the only two times he used a buzzer up to that point, so arguably the two suspensions were lenient. In fact, you have to question how he managed to only get five years for a second violation that is about as close to a capital crime as race riding has. There are no mitigating circumstances for this type of offense. There is no beneficial use associated with a buzzer. The crime is completely conscious. Unlike a positive for theraputic medication, there is no way it could be explained as ignorance of the rules or accidental. This wasn’t like carrying the wrong type of riding crop. Use of a buzzer is unequivocal cheating.
I don’t believe myself to be naive, but it is really hard to imagine jockeys with buzzers are a rampant problem in racing. There are some people who would have fans believe it is happening everywhere, and with some big names involved. I’ve been around racing long enough to know a couple of things. First, almost nothing happens on the backside that doesn’t get passed around like chicken pox before science developed a vaccine. If a jockey was using a buzzer, the other jockeys would know they are cheating and it is highly unlikely they would tolerate it. A cheating jockey takes money out of their pockets. Second, it is the rare owner or trainer who would permit that kind of animal abuse, not to mention their unwillingness to be associated with any sort of cheating. Third, horses may not be the most intelligent animals on the planet, but they are smart enough to understand the association between the shock in their neck and who is giving it. If the horse makes the association he will react to the jockey in obvious ways. If jockeys are using buzzers, it is mostly marginal jockeys at marginal tracks, and maybe the occasional marginal jockey at a larger track. But no jockey making a good living would risk his livelihood any more than any of us would risk our reputations or careers without being completely desperate.
If the Sam Houston stewards determine Chapa was using an illegal device the message needs to be clear – carrying an electrical stimulation device gets you suspended for life with no chance of reinstatement. No jobs as a hot walker. No jobs as a groom. No exercise riding at the racetrack. Any career at a state sanctioned facility is forever out of the question.
That being said, the stewards need to be damn sure that a conviction only comes after incontrovertable proof of guilt. The fact that it looks like something is in his hand should not be sufficient to give him the ultimate penalty. This needs to be investigated thoroughly and if Chapa is unwilling to confess, the stewards need to lay out a case that would hold up in any court. The current action of the stewards to suspend Chapa indefinitely is wrong. This isn’t like a regular job where you can be suspended with pay while the investigation is ongoing. Regardless of the depth of their suspicion, if Chapa doesn’t ride he doesn’t eat. The stewards need to consider what might happen if they can’t convict him and they took away his ability to make a living.
Hopefully the full story will come out soon and we’ll see how deft Texas is when it comes to handling what is a very serious situation.
I’m not going to go through the whole suite of Eclipse selections. There were some votes that Daily Racing Form analyst Mike Watchmaker called “bizarre.” I think he made a critical point – if you have a vote, you need to show the proper respect for the process. Voting for Adelaide as Horse of the Year was not simply a wasted vote, it was levels beyond the simple bizarre. It showed ignorance of everything that should be important when selecting a HOY.
I didn’t know what to do about Goldencents. He was certainly more of a sprinter than a router, but his most impressive races were at seven furlongs and a mile, the inbetween distances. He had five starts in 2014, won the Pat O’Brien and the Breeders Cup Mile, and finished second in the Met Mile (to Palace Malice), and the six furlong Bing Crosby and Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Taking nothing away from some of the outstanding performances in the Breeders Cup, Goldencents gritty win in the Mile was a the epitome of class and heart. There should have been an award for him somewhere.
If I had an issue, it was with the wide margin by which California Chrome captured HOY. He was not my choice for HOY, but even so the distance between him and the two other contenders, Main Sequence and Bayern had to have been more reflective of Chrome’s popularity with the broader crossection of ardent and casual racing fans than his actual accomplishments.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no fixed criteria for voting in the Eclipse Awards so let’s talk about the most often cited reasons for voting for a particular animal: body of work and value to the sport. If getting people to notice horseracing were most of the vote, California Chrome deserved the top spot. He was this year’s people’s horse and was primarily responsible for keeping enthusiasm high during the Triple Crown series. He was clearly this year’s version of the early Beatles, inspiring the equivalent of swooning teenage girls* within the racing community. He won the vox populi award and second place wasn’t that close.
But while we can’t stop the Eclipse from being a popularity contest, it doesn’t mean it is right. Let’s look at the body of work argument. We’ll start with the Kentucky Derby. North American racing fans see the Kentucky Derby as one of the high holy days in racing. The hype that surrounds the race is high, with NBC and the racing channels promoting coverage for months leading up to the race. The fact of the matter is that the Kentucky Derby is to the Breeders Cup what the college football championship is to the Super Bowl. On the first Saturday in May there were probably five older horses in training that could have beaten Chrome. In the Derby you are taking horses who are the equivalent of late teenagers and throwing them into a race most of them are not physically ready to run. Remember when you were in high school and there was the guy who could grow a Grizzly Adams beard? Or the girl who was already getting served alcohol in restaurants because she looked 25? In a few months all the other three year olds will have caught up, but on that Saturday there are simply horses that are the equivalent of men against boys. Half of that field will either be out of racing or in Optional Claimers by the end of the year. In 1876, the year of the first Kentucky Derby, three year old racing was considered somewhat of a novelty. Up until the mid-1950’s when horseracing was one of the big three sports (along with boxing and baseball) the folks at Churchill aggressively marketed the Derby as the fastest two minutes in sports and captured the imagination of the public in the process. In racing’s heyday, the Kentucky Derby was a big as the World Series or the heavyweight boxing championship. Today, it is a good race, and in some years a great race, and it often identifies future stars, but it is still not the championship race. That distinction is left to the Breeders Cup – you know, racing’s CHAMPIONSHIP day. The horses that win on that day, in my opinion, should be the primary contenders for Horse of the Year.
Remember when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl? The NFL didn’t get to turn around and vote the Patriots the champions because their “Body of Work” was superior to the Giants. The Giants won the Championship game, and they were the champions. Period, end of discussion.
Let’s go back and look at Chrome’s Kentucky Derby win. Commanding Curve didn’t get closer to winning the rest of the year. Danza was finished for the year after the Derby. Wicked Strong did win the Jim Dandy and may turn out to be a decent Graded horse, but in the HOY category Adelaide was a more deserving vote than Wicked Strong.. In fact the best horses Chrome beat may have been Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby, who came back to win the Clark late in the year, and Bayern who bobbled at the break and got pinched back in the Preakness, ultimately finishing ninth. Hey Bayern – it sucks to lose all chance at the break, doesn’t it.
Chrome then went on to lose the Belmont, the Pennsylvania Derby and the Breeders Cup in succession, two of those races to the aforementioned Bayern. He closed the year with a win over a Canadian filly and a couple of mid-level allowance horses in the Hollywood Derby at Los Alamitos on the turf, a performance so apparently impressive to the Chromies he got votes for Turf Horse of the Year over Main Sequence. Any comment I make about that will be mean so I’ll just let it go.
Chrome was not horse of the year based on performance or even the amorphous “body of work.”
The three Chanpionship winners that should have contended for HOY were Bayern, Main Sequence and Untapable. I couldn’t justify an Untapable vote despite her dominating performance in the distaff. The filly and mare group was simply not strong enough for Untapable to merit a vote. Main Sequence won four Grade 1 races, including the BC Turf Classic. Even though Wise Dan won HOY the last two years, turf horses are still often seen as sideshows. The other knock on Main Sequence was that other than the BC, he didn’t beat a lot. However, he beat every horse willing to race against him and did it in the best turf races in North America. Bayern destroyed fields in the Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby, and showed great courage in winning the BC Classic. He beat Chrome straight up twice, and beat older horses, something Chrome couldn’t do. The knock on Bayern was that the Haskell and Pensylvania wins came on speed biased tracks, and the BC victory was tainted by the wild start.
I said at one point any of the top three were deserving. On second look, I simply couldn’t buy Chrome as the winner. Of course, winning HOY gave Chrome the one thing he couldn’t accomplish on the track – beating a first rate field.
Finally, NYRA implemented emergency rules in a desperate attempt to head off the Joe Drapiness of criticism over what seems to be an excessive number of track deaths this year. Most of the rules were welcomed by the horsemen. Some of the more significant changes are:
- NYRA will create a poor performance list, and a horse on that list won’t race until they work a half mile in 53 seconds. In other words, if they can’t beat Arabians, they don’t get to race against thoroughbreds.
- They are cutting back on the number of weekday races, and including some long breaks in the schedule.
- They are requiring at least 14 days between starts.
That last rule got the most reaction. Gary Contessa suggested 12 or 13 days would have been a better number. Mike Hushion went a little farther, saying that whoever made the rule knew nothing about training horses. Another trainer pointed out that under this rule horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby would be ineligible to run in the Preakness, unless of course they moved the Preakness to Sunday. Salutos Amigos wouldn’t have been able to run in the BC Sprint.
I get their point. Not every horse comes out of a race with a budding injury. But as most of the veterinary world knows, rarely do catastrophic injuries come out of the blue. They are a result of cumulative stress and poor training methodology. The rule is perhaps too inflexible. There has to be a way to clear horses at the highest levels, but for most classes, the rule will defray a lot of the criticism of the trainers that seem to run their $16,000 claimers every few days.
Perhaps NYRA will lead the way, but racing is in about the same position as the NFL was a few years ago with concussions. Before the anti-racing people get their way, racing needs to start being proactive without being arbitrary. While I rarely seem to think NYRA gets it right, in this case
I really believe NYRA is on the right track, no pun intended.
*Note: this is a metaphor. It wasn’t actually all swooning teenage girls who made up the Chromies