Bill Brashears and Banamine

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

– John Kenneth Galbraith

The majority of race tracks are not populated by horses with the qualifications of Dortmund or California Chrome, or by trainers with the name recognition of Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert or Steve Asmussen. The base of the racing pyramid is built with horses named Grant or Get a Notion, animals that are kept in racing condition by trainers who toil in relative anonymity at tracks often ignored by the people who often forget racing occurs at places other than the cathedrals of the sport like Saratoga or Churchill Downs or Santa Anita. The base of the pyramid is built on the blue collar efforts of guys like Bill Brashears, conditioners keeping $3,500 claimers healthy enough to run and plying their trade in the minor leagues of racing at tracks like Turf Paradise, Arapahoe Park, Farmington, Rilito, and Albuquerque.

Brashears comes across exactly like what he is. A  guy who shoots straight and understands that you treat people with unambiguous honesty and fairness, expecting the same in return. He is guileless and smart and hard-working, a trainer’s trainer. Success in his business is based on relationships, knowing who the good guys and not so good guys are. Who can be trusted and who needs to be taken with a few grains of salt. In Bill’s world you give the good guys the benefit of the doubt until they give you a reason not to. The bad guys – better to just not deal with them.

He treats his horses with the kind of care you only see from someone with a love for the thoroughbred and a passion for watching them run. He is not the guy described by a cynical racing executive as being willing to do anything that will allow him to win. It is simply not in his nature to do anything less than treat his horses as if they were family, the core of Brashears Racing. You can see him metamorphose around his horses, the hardscrabble exterior melting away into a doting grandfather, feeding them peppermints and affectionately scratching at their muzzle. He admits that when he climbed over a fence at 13 so he could see horses run, he was hooked. He trains not simply because it is a job, but because it is so much a part of who he is. He’ll never amass a fortune running at the smaller tracks, but that was never his goal. If Bill Brashears is remembered as a trainer who worked his butt off and played by the rules and was an example to any trainer hoping to make a mark in racing  the right way, he will be satisfied.

What a lot of trainers, including Bill Brashears, are having trouble with is believing they could do everything what they thought was the right way, but have still been hit with medication positives. In Brashears case the offending drug was Banamine, a medication that has been used for years to help control inflammation.

Horses are athletes and they suffer from the same affflictions common to all athletes. It is nothing less than humane to treat horses with therapeutic medications, drugs that will provide comfort to the animals while they recuperate. What a therapeutic like Banamine doesn’t do is mask pain in a way that will allow a horse to run as if nothing is wrong. Ask any veterinarian – if you are trying to mask an injury, you would have to use a fairly strong narcotic not the equine equivalent of ibuprofen.

Again ask any veterinarian – inflammation is a natural process and it is critical for survival. It is defined as “a protective immunovascular response that involves immune cells, blood vessels, and molecular mediators. The purpose of inflammation is to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, clear out necrotic cells and tissues damaged from the original insult and the inflammatory process, and to initiate tissue repair.”

The problem is that often this process becomes excessive, creating a vicious cycle and causing more tissue damage and pain than the injury itself might. Inflammation can produce different products, including prostaglandins and other inflammatory “mediators” that help bring about these effects.

According to Thal Equine Hospital in Santa Fe, NM, “This is where anti-inflammatory drugs are helpful. Their role is to dampen inflammation by reducing the formation of these mediators, and thus reducing the signs of disease (swelling, pain and fever, for example) while still allowing healing to take place.”

In other words, anti-inflammatory drugs are precisely what are indicated for certain conditions. One might even argue it is cruel not to give a horse with inflammation a medication.

Banamine belongs to a class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (“NSAIDS”), which includes familiar human drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. They are drugs that have been used safely and effectively for decades. It is generally the veterinarian’s drug of choice for soft tissue inflammatory conditions (sore muscles) and is considered kinder to a horse’s stomach than phenylbutazone (bute) for treating joint swelling. Banamine is also a good choice for horses that have a tendency to tie-up. The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has stated, “Class 4 or 5 therapeutic medications (mostly NSAID-type medications such as Phyenylbutazone) are used to ease the aches and pains of training – akin to a person taking an Advil before or after a competition. It will not make that individual run any faster or jump any higher than his or her natural ability to do so.

For those concerned about the welfare of the horse, NSAIDs, when used as prescribed, do not put a horse at substantially elevated risk of catastrophic injury.

So if you are a racing commissioner and you believe it is necessary to set a standard for Banamine, the question you should ask is straightforward: at what level is the analgesic benefit of Banamine essentially negligible? Whether or not Banamine might have some residual benefit to inflammation should be irrelevant, since good veterinary practice has already established that reductions in inflammation often speed healing. If a horse is not receiving an analgesic effect, it would be hard to argue the drug is performance enhancing. THAT is the level at which we should set the standard. Most vets and pharmacologists agree that any post-race level below 50ng/ml and a withdrawal time of 24-hours from administration will completely ensure elimination of the analgesic effect

Racing is governed for the most part by politically appointed boards and commissions. The commissions are not normally filled with experts on pharmacology, and they are often at the mercy of long-time administrators, people like Rick Arthur in California, Joe Gorajec in Indiana, and Dan Hartman in Colorado. These are the people who populate the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), a group on the record as calling for “the racing industry and member regulators to embrace a strategy to phase out drugs and medication in horse racing.” (ARCI Press Release March 28, 2011)

The chairman of the ARCI at the time of that press release? Dan Hartman, Executive Director of the Colorado Racing Commission. He becomes an integral part of Bill Brashears story.

In that press release Hartman is quoted as saying that “a five-year phase out [of Lasix] is reasonable to bring North American racing policies in line with what is going on in other parts of the world like Europe and Hong Kong.”

Hartman’s successor, William Koester, Chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission, added, “Today over 99% of Thoroughbred racehorses and 70% of Standardbred racehorses have a needle stuck in them four hours before a race. That just does not pass the smell test with the public or anyone else except horse trainers who think it necessary to win a race. I’m sure the decision makers at the time meant well when these drugs were permitted, however this decision has forced our jurisdictions to juggle threshold levels as horseman become more desperate to win races and has given horse racing a black eye.

Koester’s statement is meant to inflame (no pun intended) by referencing needles stuck in horses, as if it was some willy-nilly attempt to torture helpless animals. When I was shadowing Doug O’Neill I watched his vet, Dr Ryan Patterson, administer a Lasix shot and if you had blinked you would have missed it. The horse had no negative reaction at all. Koester further pounds home the point that trainers are medicating their horses only to gain an advantage and win races, seemingly arguing they are not doing it to ensure the horse’s health is being managed so that it can race without distress. Not passing the smell test and black eye for racing are the justifications for trying to make all racing drug free. It reminds me of a quote from Arnold Glasow. “The fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion.” As long as administrators with the power to make the rules for racing insist the seamy underbelly of racing is legal therapeutic medication, it can become the facts.

The press release states that ARCI intends to move toward “enacting a policy of zero-tolerance.” (Note: Once Koester took over as chair, he quickly backed off that statement, stating the ARCI does not subscribe to a policy of zero-tolerance, but bear in mind it was Hartman who approved the press release.)

Hartman concludes, “We regulators are the only voice in racing for the animals and betting public. It’s time we raise the bar in service to both.

To reference the famous Pogo line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.

I have already written about why we cannot be Hong Kong ( Basically, North America  runs more races in a week in August than Hong Kong’s entire racing year. To populate those races we need ten times the number of horses in training than Hong Kong does. How does North America compare with Dubai and its 23 racing days a year? I’ll go out on a limb and say if we were racing at a couple of tracks the equivalent of three weeks a year we could have Dubai’s drug policies too. Look at the standards for Europe or Australia. Other than Lasix, there is often not a significant difference between those jurisdictions and North America for therapeutics, and some threshold levels for therapeutic medications are even higher than the ARCI standards.

The upshot of the zero-tolerance Dan Hartman favors is almost certainly the demise of small tracks and reduced field size at the tracks that survive, incredibly ironic when one considers one of the small tracks that would suffer is Colorado’s own Arapahoe Park.

ARCI has relied on studies commissioned by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) to establish post-race residual levels and recommended withdrawal times. In the case of Banamine (flunixin), a study done by Heather Kynch, Rick Sams, Rick Arthur, and Scott Stanley on how quickly flunixin was cleared in exercised horses provided the initial recommendation on which the flunixin standard was based.  They tested one model (called the sedentary model) in which four non-exercised horses were tested and it was determined a probable threshold level of 20 ng/mL with a withdrawal time of 24 hours. For those not familiar with the nanogram (ng) it is a billionth of a gram. However, subsequent testing using a racehorse model took 20 horses in training and determined exact plasma concentrations of Banamine, concluding that 99% of horses would have less than 50 ng/mL, and thus recommended a threshold value of 50 ng/mL 24 hours after administration of the recommended dose.

If 20 sounds like a small number for testing animals to set a standard, according to the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products study on the Evaluation of Medicines for Veterinary Use (2000), 19 is the minimum number of animals that need to be tested to conclude a 95% confdence level that 95% of the population will be below a respective standard.

Think about this for a minute. Like a lot of ARCI standards, the testing is not to determine at what level a medication stops being performance enhancing (or retarding) but at a level at which almost all horses would have cleared all but a residual amount of the medication by some time in the future. Remember, the ARCI objective as plainly stated by Dan Hartman in 2011 was to eventually rid thoroughbred racing of the scourge of “drugs and medication.”

It also points out something else that is critical when looking at new standards – the availability of new mass spectrometers that can measure ridiculously small amounts, even less than nanograms down to picograms – trillionths of a gram. As Dr. Steven Barker said to me once, “show me a lab measuring amounts in picograms and I’ll show you a lab with an expensive new machine they need to justify.”

Despite the RMTC study recommendation, the ARCI in April 2013 adopted the 20 ng/mL (with a recommended 24-hour withdrawal time) standard. It is critical to note that even at the time ARCI adopted the standard it was cast as a  “95/95 standard.” As noted above, this means there is a 95% level of confidence that 95% of the horses tested would fall below the standard. In plain terms, one in 20 horses would still be expected to fail a post-race test. By that measure, if a track tested the first and second place finishers of a ten race program, and they all had been given 10 cc’s of Banamine, at least one of them had a probability to come back over the standard.

Think about this. ARCI had a chance to adopt a standard (50 ng/mL) that would have all but guaranteed no undeserved positives and no performance enhancement, and instead picked a standard where non-pharmacologically merited violations would abound.

Dr. Steven Barker at LSU didn’t equivocate on the adoption of the original ARCI standard. “The Banamine standard is too high, and it is because ARCI didn’t pay any attention to pharmacologists. With the recommended dose, there is no analgesic effect 24 hours after administering Banamine.

So with Dan Hartman at the helm, Colorado adopted the ARCI therapeutic medication schedule of 20 ng/mL for Banamine and in March 2014 the Colorado Racing Commission staff and the track stewards had a meeting with the veterinarians who worked on track at Arapahoe Park. Dr. James Dysart, Bill Brashears’ veterinarian in Colorado, and a vet who has been practicing about as long as Bill Brashears has been training horses, was in attendance at that meeting and asked specifically about what treatment changes would be indicated in 2014. According to Dr. Dysart, he was clearly told, if you practice as you did last year there should be no problems. With regard to Banamine, in March Dr. Dysart was told 10 cc’s with a 24 hour withdrawal time would prevent positives.

So when it came to Banamine Dr. Dysart did exactly as he did the year before and by July Bill Brashears had three Banamine positives. There were six positives in all in Colorado and half belonged to Brashears.

I asked Dr. Dysart why there were not more positives, and based on his practice, he indicated many trainers had thrown in the towel and switched to bute. Whether the reason was the change in flunixin standard, cost or efficacy, trainers made the switch.

After Brashears was hit with the first Banamine positive, he and Dr. Dysart huddled and decided to drop the dosage by 20% to 8 cc’s and increase the withdrawal time closer to 25 hours. Amounts and times for all horses are documented on the medication sheets maintained by Dr. Dysart, and there is no disagreement that the  dose that was administered had sufficient withdrawal time based on the information Dr. Dysart was given in March. After Brashears had five horses test clean after the first positive, he figured they had found the right formula.

Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case. Brashears was informed that two horses that raced about 10 days apart in July came back positive (both under 30 ng/mL), even after receiving the 8 cc dosage. Brashears had no way of adjusting dosage or withdrawal time for the third horse since the results of the testing for the second horse had not yet been given to him. In fact, Brashears was informed of the last two violations at the same time, well after he could have made a further adjustment. Based on that Brashears expected the second and third violations to be combined into one.

Until he was given notice of the last two positives, Brashears sensibly was given a warning after the first violation, made a documented adjustment in an effort to comply, and as far as he could see had success with the new protocol, so he stuck with it, not realizing at 20 ng/mL he was still in danger of a violation.

Meanwhile something interesting happened at the RMTC. The high number of Banamine positives in different jurisdictions in 2013 caused them to reexamine the 20 ng/mL standard ARCI had adopted. Remember, the initial RMTC testing suggested 50 ng/ml would ensure 99% of the horses treated appropriately would test negative, and at best with the 20 ng/mL standard ARCI adopted we would still expect 5% positives. It turned out the reality was alarmingly beyond 5% positives.

RMTC then did another study that included 16 horses (less than the 19 required for statistical validity) that were exercised under laboratory conditions, and four (25%) of the 16 showed residual levels over 20 ng/mL after 24 hours. But, given the umbilical tie between ARCI and the RMTC, rather than suggest the standard was wrong, it was determined the withdrawal time was too short. In fact, the subsequent RMTC study concluded at least 32 hours was required to maintain 95/95 compliance with a 20 ng/mL.

In April 2014 ARCI revised the recommended withdrawal time for flunixin a mere year after originally adopting it, but left the 20 ng/mL in place.

This was a critical conclusion because changing the withdrawal time instead of the residual standard ultimately would have the effect of eliminating the therapeutic value of Banamine. At 24 hours the analgesic effect is essentially gone, and approaching 32 hours really limits the anti-inflammatory effect. In other words, this could be seen as an indirect way to ban Banamine consistent with the ARCI stated goal. This was also critical because the ARCI standard was not actually either 20 ng/mL or 32 hours, it was simply 20 ng/mL. Regardless of when Banamine is administered, 24 hours or 32 hours, if the level is over 20 ng/mL the horse is in violation.

According to Dr. Dysart, veterinarians in Colorado were not told the recommended withdrawal time had changed to 32 hours until July. Since the 32 hours was nothing more than a recommendation, there was no need to provide notification of rulemaking. That would only be necessary if the standard was proposed for revision.

The new recommendation came too late for Brashears though. He had to hope the Colorado Racing Commission saw that he and his vet had done everything the Commission assured them would maintain compliance and be lenient with their punishment.

Brashears asked for split samples to be tested for the second and third violations, and both confirmed he was over the 20 ng/mL standard (but well below 50 ng/mL). Brashears appealed, resting his case on the fact that his veterinarian did exactly what he had done hundreds of times and was assured he could continue doing it before the season without risking a violation. In front of a hearing officer he lost and on he went to his final appeal to the Colorado Racing Commission.

Brashears’ attorney made the relevant arguments, and once the testimony and final arguments were completed the Commission voted on a motion to saddle Brashears with both the second and third violations as separate events. One of the five commissioners was absent from the hearing, and the vote on the motion was 2-2, which normally would have been a win for Brashears. In a rare occurrence, the Commission moved to go into executive session where they got the missing commissioner on the phone, and re-voted on the motion. When they came back Brashears had lost his appeal 5-0.

I asked Dan Hartman if this was a regular practice. He said no, but the Assistant Attorney General was consulted and opined it was a perfectly legal procedure. It was never clear exactly what happened to go from 2-2 to 5-0, but Brashears was ultimately assessed a $1,500 fine and 15 days.

One of the people privy to the discussions in the executive session suggested that the Commissioners were advised that letting Brashears off the hook could leave them vulnerable to a subsequent action by Brashears. The concern was that it would essentially be an admission that Colorado had committed an error by leading the veterinarians to believe either historical protocols were sufficient for compliance or that a 24-hour withdrawal time indicated compliance.

Brashears is not new to the game, and he understood a violation, even if it is for a bad standard, is a violation. Despite believing he had done nothing wrong, he was willing to bargain with the Commission, offering to pay a fine (less than the $1,500) if the days were waived. It appeared the Commission wanted nothing less than what Brashears was ultimately given.

Bill Brashears has paid an even higher price than the fine, the loss of purse money and the cost of an attorney. He’s lost clients. After all, owners don’t want to be associated with someone with a medication positive, regardless of the circumstances. He’s lost the ability to even make a living during his suspension. Most of all he’s lost some of his belief that if you do right by racing, racing will do right by you.

For Brashears part, he has sworn off racing again in Colorado. He is firm in his belief he didn’t cheat, and that he was the pawn in a bigger battle over medication in racing. In the end, Colorado not only will lose a long term trainer, but a guy who cares about his horses and about training them the right way. It’s hard to imagine this was a success for anyone.

I asked Bill Brashears what bothered him the most. He said, “What makes me the most upset is [Arapahoe Park General Manager] Bruce Seymore telling me at the first Commission meeting that he knew I was innocent but that they were going to hang me anyway. I believe Hartman knows I’m innocent but their grand plan of Colorado being medication free would go down the tank if their first experiment went so wrong. Spending thousands of dollars in attorney fees for their screw-up and I’m still doing 15 days and being fined $1,500 and the division [the Colorado Division of Racing] calling it trainer responsibility. Where’s their responsibility?”

Aqueduct March 14

I was a little irritated to see the 9th race a lower priced maiden claimer. NYRA should do better than a $16K NW2L claimer, a state-bred NW1X ALW, a $30K MCL, and a $10K claimer for the late Pick-4.

Race 1      7-5-8

Grand Strand came close at this same level a month ago. A little bothersome he hasn’t seen the training track since then. Still, he has two races on the inner dirt that are faster than anything else in this race. He’s placed at the right level. Ausable River has been effective at the distance and is moderately competent on the inner. Rene Araya has not had a good winter meet and jockey Fernando Jara is limping along at around 8% but the horse does seem to be rounding decently into form. At 12-1 he’s worth a look. Born in Brooklyn finished behind Grand Strand and Can’t Catch Me Now after a long, sustained drive. Off his best he’s competitive here.

Race 2      4-3-2

Yes for Success ran well first time out in December on the inner against the next out winner Perchance. His sire, Yes It’s True, was a top grade sprinter and Yes for Success looks to be in the same mold. He may get outrun by one of the first timers, but of the starters he looks best. Speightsfire is very well bred for the sprint distance and has a good workout pattern. Jose Ortiz takes the mount and that is a positive. Repartee has a workout pattern I like – short, quick works early and stamina works later.  McLaughlin is better than average with firsters and he gets the services of top rider Irad Ortiz.

Race 3      1-3-6

Ohgma was the interesting horse in this race. He’s normally a front running type and this race isn’t loaded with speed. He had been racing a bit over his head but the drop down to $12500 made him a lot more courageous in the stretch. He’s placed right here and should be competitive today. Van Fraassen has an interesting pattern lately – good race, dull race, good race. He’s strung them together before, and he does have the top number here, so it would be unwise not to consider him, but this is the off race in the pattern. Shot to Win has done well on the inner and is the other speed in this race. He another competitive off his best.

Race 4      5-4-2

Aireofdistinction puts the blinkers on today and is well-placed in this stakes. She has a nice tracking style and competitive figures. She already beat a couple in this field his last out in the Interborough. Isabelle is riding a three race win streak, the last two on the inner. She has the high figure in this race, and has some back figures that would dominate this field. Mamdooha is only making her sixth start, but all but the first have been winning ones. McLaughlin should have her ready to fire off the year vacation.

Race 5      4-8-10

Our Posse puts the blinkers on for Gustavo Rodriguez for his second start. In his first start he broke from the outside, stayed wide and held steady in the stretch. With a better trip he looks tops in this field. Afleet’s Edge drops slightly for this race. He was another one wide around the track and should do better today with the experience. Wild Ham is looking for a win in his fourth start. Blinkers seemed to help him last out and he figures competitively in this group.

Race 6      6-2-3

Global Positioning has shown good speed in his last three starts, but has had some trouble sticking in the stretch. He looks more apt at the sprint distance and won the last time he was on the inner. Jose Ortiz was aboard him for that win and is back aboard today. Lots of things to like. Drama King ran evenly in his first start on the inner against state-bred stakes runners. His numbers are the same as a few in here, but improvement may be more likely in his case. All Is Number broke his maiden impressively on the inner in December and faded a bit when he was stretched out. He’s back at the sprint distance today and should have something to say at the end.

Race 7      2-1-5

Mineral Water closed from well off the pace last out, a change since he has normally shown a pressing style. That was first off the claim for Barbara, a good sign. He’s had decent success on the inner. Eight Cents has finished second three times in a row, the last one only a nose behind Hampden Fiveone. He’s been running consistent figures and they are good enough to get him a win here. Ice Wagon was claimed last out by Jeff Englehart, who had a decent 2014. At 12-1 ML he’s the interesting horse.

Race 8      9-7-6

Huge Asset ran well first time on the inner turf. He started awkwardly, rushed to the front and gradually gave it up in the stretch. He hasn’t had a bad race since last July and looks to turn the tables on Sea Raven today. That horse came from off the pace, actually took the lead at one point but was outfinished for the win. Been in the money both of his inner dirt starts. Repent Twice has never run out of the money. This test is an upgrade over the FL races so we’ll see just how good he is.

Race 9      2-3-6

Moonlight Party has been knocking at the door a while and drops to his lowest level ever in search of a win. His last was also his first on the inner and a little bit of improvement gets him first to the wire. Hollywood Angel actually breaks from the rail. Blinkers on should help him avoid any distractions from the horses outside him. He’s got enough speed to get a good attacking spot and has a figure competitive with these. Onthecurve just missed his first on the inner at this level. He had trouble at the start in his last and never really got into the race. He switches to the Nick Esler barn for this one, and Esler is fair with first off the claim .

Race 10      10-4-6

Duke of the City is five for 15 lifetime and one of two on the inner. He’s got plenty of tactical speed and fits well at this level. His last would dominate this group. Solly’s Mischief hasn’t been out of the money since last May and has been running consistent figures. He’s run well no matter who has been the trainer, hasn’t been out of the money on the inner, and hasn’t been out of the money at the distance. Could be the value at 8-1 ML. Love to Run should be the horse to catch. He’s done well on the inner and likes the distance.

Aqueduct March 12

Not a great card today. A couple of races where it din’t look like any horse could win.

Race 1      4-5-3

Very bad field. Raelyn Jane has only seven starts and only one since July. Eligible to improve. Bella Fachi is not a horse that likes to win but has hit the board in half her races. Stage Name was claimed by Contessa last out and that may be enough to catch the winners circle.

Race 2      3-8-6

Run a Dubb Dubb ran well last two times she was dropped to $20K. Brigetta was claimed by Levine last out off a winning performance and returns at the same level. Keep Bustin drops price in half and is better than 50% in the money.

Race 3      5-3-2

Star of the Forest has been no worse than third since being claimed by Grusmark and should keep running today. Taylor Jagger has had success on the inner and is another that looks to be on top of her game. C C’s Pride makes his first start for Levine after two months off and has been with much better in the recent past.

Race 4      8-2-5

Ghost Ship drops out of a MSW into this $40K claimer. He made his debut at today’s level, and that race has a better number by far than any other horse. Louie’s Luck showed a big closing kick last time in a sprint and should be running in the stretch against this cheap field. El Grillo just missed last out and is one of the RuRod runners in the care of his brother Gustavo.

Race 5      2-9-3

Party On has two second place finishes and looks primed to break through today. Repentful had a delayed start last out and improvement is expected today. Fidelius is making his first start for the hot Weaver barn since being gelded. May be a prep for something longer, but he has good sprint breeding.

Race 6      4-12-8

Darn That Trip ships in from Parx. Has good front running ability and Irad to take the mount. My One Love hasn’t run a bad one in a while and should get the good tracking trip. Jazzminegem is another with a series of good races. Puts the blinkers on for Linda Rice.

Race 7      8-6-12

Glickman is a horse with physical issues, but if he goes he is faster by far than any other horse. Don Tito makes a huge drop for Linda Rice. He’s over 30% win in his career. Cay to Pomeroy should be the speed and has had success at this level. Mop Head gets a nod in case of a scratch.

Race 8      7-2-5

Atlantic’s Smile has good speed and just missed in the Broadway last out. Switches to Franco for this trip. Make the Moment was moving well late in the Broadway and has competitive figures. Misszippityslewda is a lightly race five year old for Jacobson and fits well in this group.

Race 9      2-12-1

Delightful Erin faded badly in her last but goes for new trainer Abby Adsit today. She’s been good with first off the claim. Alice and Trixie drops for Contessa and has figures good enough to be a winner here. Single Malt Female followed Is She Hot last out, finishing second a city block behind, but she has been competitive at this level.

Derby Observations

Sometimes I feel like the Grinch watching all the Who’s down in Whoville incessantly happy and dancing when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. Oh, the Derby is a good thing on balance for horseracing. People who could care less about horseracing the other 364 days of the year will faithfully spend time watching, and maybe even betting, the so-called “most exciting two minutes in sports.” But it also the most overrated two minutes in racing. It’s a race for three year olds, and not necessarily even the best of the three year old crop. Trust me – if you think that is heresy, it is only because you have been programmed from birth by endless newspaper articles and over the top TV ads to see the Derby as America’s premier racing experience. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think about the 2014 Derby. The only horse of the top ten Derby finishers that was in the BC Classic at the end of the season was California Chrome. Bayern, Toast of New York and Shared Belief were non factors in May, but they have all finished ahead of Chrome since the Derby. What does that tell you?

I’ve often used the analogy of high school. Three year old race horses in May are the equivalent of high school juniors and seniors. Remember how there was one guy who was already having to shave every day? A girl that could have passed for twentysomething? Same with thoroughbreds. Some of them are physically ahead of the others, but just like with high school eventually everybody catches up. That’s why they run the Breeders Cup in November.

So what is the relevance of all this? The hype associated with the Derby causes it to be weighted too heavily when assessing which horse should be the champion. But as I said above, on balance the Derby is a good thing for racing.

This week the Derby picture started to come into better focus. Here is my take at this point in no particular order.

El Kabeir ran a strong race in the Gotham. In that race he switched styles, changing from a front runner to a closer. There are two negatives with El Kabeir – the Gotham field was not particularly strong and there is still the spectre of Far From Over‘s convincing victory in the Withers. El Kabeir comes close to the breeding I like to see in the Derby, with dosage points in the first four categories, well distributed, but perhaps a little too biased toward speed. He remains of interest, but I’ll withhold a final opinion until his last prep.

Dortmund received fawning praise for his San Felipe victory. I have a feeling he is this year’s California Chrome – the horse people become emotionally involved with. He tops most of the current Derby lists and may be the most impressive physical specimen of the contenders. He is the horse with the look of the man among boys.  His breeding is good – he’s by a Derby winner – and his overall profile is close to what we would look for in Derby winners. But I’m not totally sold on the horse yet. I thought the San Felipe was a good race, but the field was not powerful. I’m not sold on the front running types in the Derby – notice how El Kabeir decided to change styles in the Gotham – mainly because some no chance trainers look forward to having their horse leading the Derby at some point and could compromise other speed horses. I’d like to see Dortmund win his next prep from off the pace. I also thought Dortmund drifted a bit, which may have been due to the lack of competition as much as anything. He’s another that I’ll have a better handle on after the SA Derby.

Carpe Diem ran well in the Tampa Derby, especially considering it was his first race of the year. This year’s edition of the Tampa race probably had the best field it has seen. If I was forced to pick the leading contender, this would be the horse. He has plenty of stamina on both sides of his pedigree, and on dosage has most of his points in the classic category. I like the two prep road – he should come to the Derby loaded. I have high expectations for this horse, but of course, like the others, I’m waiting to see the final prep before getting any more excited.

Upstart won the Fountain of Youth but was disqualified, losing the Oscar for “best performance by a jockey who wasn’t going to win anyway” to Itsaknockout. His pedigree is shaded toward shorter distance, although he wouldn’t be a total surprise in the Derby. Trainer Violette seems to not have a definitive plan for Upstart and that’s a bit bothersome. At this point, he’s not on my list of serious contenders, but that could change after the final preps.

The aforementioned Itsaknockout did not look all that impressive finishing second in the Fountain of Youth. Based on his pedigree, I like him a lot more as a Belmont contender than a Derby contender. He’s another that could move up based on his final prep.

Texas Red has been sidelined with a foot abcess. As a rule of thumb, horses that miss training at this time of the year are usually crossouts in the Derby. I’m passing on the horse at this point.

Far From Over won against style in the Withers. He stumbled at the break, losing six lengths or so, fell well back of front runners El Kabeir and Classy Class, and closed furiously to win going away. According to Mike Watchmaker of the DRF, he was miles the best in that race. I’m not quite as sold. He rode the golden rail while El Kabeir was wide on both turns, and I thought El Kabeir was not all out in the stretch. Regardless of the Withers, the horse is beautifully bred for a triple crown run. He’s already shown both front running and closing ability and should have no problem with the mile and a quarter distance. At this point he’s the dark horse to watch.

American Pharoah is making his debut in the Rebel this weekend after missing the BC Juvenile due to injury. I have two issues. I’m not thrilled about the late debut, although it’s not wise to spend a lot of time second guessing Baffert. Mostly, he doesn’t have the kind of breeding I’m looking for in the Derby. He seems more speed oriented, and while he’s marginal for me at a mile and a quarter, we’ll see how he runs in his preps.

Far Right has gotten mention on Derby lists off his closing victory in the Southwest Stakes and his impressive run in the Smarty Jones. He’s another one I’d prefer in the Belmont – he seems bred more for the distance – but with a perfect trip a Derby win is not out of the question. . His Southwest victory was not dominating – he got a perfect ride from Mike Smith – although his other victory against winners in the Smarty Jones showed a stout ability to close. He’s another one I’m holding off on evaluating until after the Arkansas Derby.

The Merger of TVG and HRTV

In 1999 Colorado’s Ocean Journey opened amid big fanfare. After all, to be a first class city it is necessary to have every sort of museum, including an aquarium. The facility opened in June 1999 and by 2002 the aquarium declared bankruptcy.

People raised an uproar. You’d have thought the Broncos said they were exploring moving to North Dakota. Of course, when the same people were asked how often they visited the aquarium, they’d give answers like, once a year or three times total. Perhaps it didn’t occur to them that there was a direct connection between actually going to the aquarium and its economic survival.

The problem was solved in 2002 when the aquarium was sold to a restaurant chain and reopened as the Denver Aquarium, complete with a restaurant, bar and large ballroom. If you can’t make a living as a cultural attraction, go for the entertainment value.

I thought about that when the announcement was made that TVG was operationally merging with HRTV. In reality, TVG was going to be in charge and would make the decisions on personalities and programming.

TVG was in nearly twice as many homes as HRTV, and had the deep pockets of Betfair Group to rely on. HRTV was destined to struggle and it was a good business move for the Stronach Group to cast the network off. HRTV had the advantage of exclusive rights to some tracks – most notably this winter Gulfstream Park – but without the viewership TVG had, HRTV was always running harder just to keep TVG in sight.

Based on the social media response, HRTV was beloved and TVG seen as some sort of huckster operation. I’ll admit I rarely watched either of them, preferring the direct track feeds, but I’ve viewed both often enough to see the points on both sides. HRTV had more of a workingman’s feel, while TVG had a slicker operation. Remember Ken Rudoloph? Mr. Giacomo himself? As a handicapper he looked good in a suit. Since Bob Baedeker was given the boot in 2011, I’m not sure TVG has the murderers row of handicapping talent.

It appears that the TVG is designed to appeal more to beginners and perhaps the coveted younger generation that is just as concerned with having hosts entertain them as with expert selection advice. I’ve mentioned this before – the only people with the time to watch TVG all day and the money to bet are in a generation or two older than Gino Buccola and Britney Eurton. I have a feeling that if TVG looks to appeal to the older generation, it is through Super Beta Prostate commercials.

Let’s be realistic. TVG is owned by a betting company with the express purpose of getting people to part with their money through their betting site. Much of their content focuses on making selections. Just before a race is going off they will do what I often do when someone asks me about a horse thay are going to bet – I’ll agree with the other person, although with varying degrees of conviction. It’s a lot easier and you keep more friends than you would by laughing at their pick. TVG will also make a case for five or six horses, including some hopeless nags. TVG is  especially promotional when it comes to complex vertical picks, the real betting moneymakers. Did you ever notice the only time you ever hear how TVG did with their Pick-4 advice is when they hit a ticket? And that is not a daily occurrence. I’ve written at length how the multi-race wagers are often poor choices for handicappers looking to make longer term profit, but many horseplayers find it hard to stay away from the lottery style bets. The first time you exhibit discipline and avoid playing a Pick-4 ticket, it’s going to come in and pay four figures.

Last week TVG ecstatically tweeted out that Simon Bray had nailed two Pick-4 tickets on the same day. In the first one he invested $37.50 to catch a $77 payoff. In the second he invested $32 to collect $50. I responded to their tweet that in the first case, Bray would have collected $104 by betting $37 on his single to win and that in the first case he was collecting 6/5 on his investment, in the second case 3/5. To Bray’s credit he favorited my response, although I’m not sure if he was just tickled someone noticed or he appreciated me pointing out the folly of those bets.

HRTV seemed a lot more about the horses than the on air talent. You get the sense HRTV was more interested in the older, experienced handicappers, while TVG was looking for more of a novice crowd. Let’s face it – Jeff Seigel from HRTV was never going to compete for the “cute in a suit” award, but he was a better handicapper than TVG has used on air for a while. Both networks had their place, and that is really the downside of the merger. They weren’t the same and the loss of choice is not good for horseracing.

Horseracing has always been schizophrenic. It’s gambling…no, it’s a sport. It is caught up currently in a great fight for long term survival and the one thing it cannot do is alienate a segment of its betting population, even if that segment is less of a daily target. If TVG wants to capture the imaginations of the young and the old, the novices and the experts, then they need to provide programming that doesn’t too often deteriorate into banter.  They need to help the novices to move toward expert and convince the experts they have insight and information that will supplement their own. They need to be less California oriented and give equal enthusiasm to big and small tracks across the country.

There are still two channels. They have to find a way to use them to build the sport as much as build the revenues of Betfair. It won’t be easy, but anything worth doing rarely is.

Saturday March 7

I’m going to do something a little different today. In addition to the full card at Aqueduct, I’m going to do the Coast to Coast Pick 4, including the Gotham, Tampa Bay Deby, Santa Anita Derby and the Palm Beach.

Palm Beach PT 4:30

Night Prowler looks to stay unbeaten in his three year old season after winning the Dania Stakes at 7 1/2 on this turf two months ago. He’s shown marked improvement from his two year old campaign, and a forward move today should prep him nicely for the better three year old stakes to come. Croninthebarbarian won the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last September and has been trying to find the winners circle again ever since. He was solidly beaten by Night Prowler in the Dania, and came back to finish third to Dubai Sky in the Kitten’s Joy three weeks later. In that race he was the only one of the top horses to show any close, and that gives him a bit more interest. He’s shown decent talent and consistency – just not a real pattern of improvement. Eh Cumpari only lost the Kitten’s Joy by a length and a half. That was his first race on the turf. He settled mid-pack, swung wide and looked to close in the stretch, making up a length. The pace was not killing in that race, and really no horse other than Croninthebarbarian closed any better. Given he still has space to improve, I’ll give him a reasonable chance at taking the whole thing down today. The fourth place finisher in the Kitten’s Joy was Felifran. He was another that pretty much stayed in his spot in that almost merry-go-round race.

Picks: Night Prowler, Eh Cumpari, Croninthebarbarian

Gotham PT 4:50

There is a lot of potential in the Gotham, and this race should start to clear out some of the pretenders to the Triple Crown. The ML favorite is El Kabeir. He looked awesome in the Jerome, winning powerfully by almost five. He came back odds-on in the Withers and despite taking the lead in the stretch he was passed by Far From Over in deep stretch. Far From Over stumbled badly at the break, was about 11 lengths behind going down  the backstretch and made an eye-popping close to win the race. Still, El Kabeir was impressive. He went widest of all around the clubhouse turn, engaged with Classy Class down the backstretch, and eventually put that one away under what looked like a vigorous hand ride in the stretch. I had the feeling watching it that C C Lopez was not going to punish the horse to try to make the wire first, and his effort overall was impressive. Classy Class really had an ideal trip and was unable to keep El Kabeir at bay. He can perhaps be excused since it was his first trip in 10 weeks, and his first on the inner. Still, he showed courage in the duel with El Kabeir, and perhaps with improvement he turns the tables. Todd Pletcher has three horses entered, two of them coming out of maiden races and one a second place finish in an OC $75K at GP. Dontbetwithbruno broke his maiden on his third try with a trip where he dueled with Jack O Liam and barely hung on to beat the early trailer, Money Multiplier. Jack O Liam faded badly in that one, flattering Dontbetwithbruno. Uninfluenced is still eligible for maiden races, and perhaps Pletcher is being a bit ambitious here. Still, he’s pretty much at the same number as his two stablemates and taken together they form and interesting triad. Blame Jim hasn’t gone two turns yet, but should have the breeding to make the trip. We certainly haven’t seen the best from any of them, and that gives them the potential to make a big improvement here. All three of the Pletcher runners look to have the same style, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or two scratch.

Picks: El Kabeir, Classy Class, Pletcher Entry

Tampa Bay Derby PT 5:23

Four horses are coming out of the S F Davis. Ocean Knight won the race and was probably most impressive of the four. He broke from the 11 post, was wide all the way, and closed with heart to win by a neck. He’s had five weeks to recover from the race and has three works in between, so a bounce shouldn’t be an issue. What I’m not sure about is whether McLaughlin has confidence in him as a potential Derby starter. Offhandedly, I’d guess that he is a cut below the best in his age group, but I think that would mean he’s going to gun for this purse, get the important points and make a subsequent decision on the Deby. He’s listed at 2-1 on the morning line, and that would be a lot lower if not for the presence of Carpe Diem. The Pletcher trainee has been on break since finishing a distant second as the favorite to Texas Red in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. In that race he broke well back and had to swing wide coming out of the turn. I like that Carpe Diem’s figures from his two year old races are nearly as high as the Davis runners were from five weeks ago, and improvement is likely today. He is clearly best horse in the race, and the only thing that keeps him from winning is Pletcher’s interest in not overtaxing or peaking the horse too quickly before the Derby. It would be no surprise to see him run mostly on his own courage and that may be enough to beat this group. Divining Rod had the lead for most of the Davis, and held stubbornly in the stretch to finish second. He was challenged in that race by third place finisher My Johnny Be Good. The two of them had to have comprised each other to some degree, and  there is no reason to expect a different scenario today. That may have been different with the presence of Super Colossal, but he scratched after spiking a fever earlier in the week. Ami’s Flatter finished second in the Mucho Macho Man at a mile at Gulfstream, then finished fourth in the Davis. He gets first Lasix today AND puts the blinkers on, and perhaps that will make a difference in his performance. He’s really the only one that has some sort of X factor and for that reason I’ll put him in as the longshot that makes the vertical bets.

Picks: Carpe Diem, Ocean Knight, Ami’s Flatter

Santa Anita Derby PT 8:17

This race is is dominated on paper by Shared Belief. Other than the Breeders Cup where he was compromised at the start, he has done nothing wrong. He beat the 2014 Horse of the Year in California Chrome in the San Antonio last out, and he did it impressively. There isn’t much you can say negative about the horse. People looking for something to knock point to the horse’s diminutive stature and the fact that he hasn’t had a long break since picking up his career last May. Small horse, regular race schedule – maybe it has taken a lot out of him. There was another diminutive horse that people looked to knock on physical grounds as well – Northern Dancer – and there were very few better horses in history. Shared Belief has something not many thoroughbreds, even some good ones, have – an undeniable drive to not be beaten. He showed that in the Malibu and again in the San Antonio. But let’s say Shared Belief’s last ten months of racing have taken something out of him, and a mile and a quarter under high weight is too big a hill to climb. Who wins the race? Moreno, the second choice, is coming off an ankle injury and surgery to repair it. His game is going to the front and staying there, but his game has not been going a mile and a quarter. When he won the Whitney he had a clear lead on a pace that wasn’t killing, but that was at a mile and an eighth. He’s been caught in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward, and even the Pimilco Special, a sixteenth shorter than today’s distance. Everyone knows about his Breeders Cup Classic debacle. Moreno seems like more of a stab than a solid play. Bronzo may be the more interesting horse. He’s won at a mile and a quarter and only has three races in America. His last in the San Antonio showed improvement, and while he doesn’t beat Shared Belief if that one is at his best, he’s got a legitimate shot to make the top three. Hard Aces was bought and trained specifically for this race, and perhaps that makes him more of a danger than he looks just examining the PPs. He was a winner last out in the Louisiana Handicap, and had one useful work since he’s been at SA. Just because the owners are serious doesn’t mean the horse is going to win, but it is an interesting angle. The other horse that interests me is Dynamic Sky. He really seemed to find himself on the turf last year, and he was in against some good ones. He didn’t take to the Santa Anita turf, and the move to the dirt may not be that desperate. He’s won on the dirt and he won’t have any trouble going a mile and a quarter. He’ll be my longshot consideration.

Picks: Shared Belief, Bronzo, Dynamic Sky

Aqueduct March 7

Race 1      7-4-1

This is a competitive bottom level claimer. Springcourt is a veteran of the claiming wars, and like a lot of these he has trouble cracking the winners circle. He was claimed last out by Mike Miceli for $20K, and his last race he ran well after having some trouble at the start. He won for $25K as recently as October and has stayed competitive through three different trainers. He’s 0 for 7 on the inner – that’s a strike against him – but given he’s raced with better recently, I’ll see what odds he goes off. Summit County was claimed last out by Gustavo Rodriguez, the brother of the suspended Rudy Rodriguez. He immediately engaged the services of Jose Ortiz, a big upgrade over Dylan Davis. Should be interesting to see whether Gustavo can continue his brother’s run. Maximus Mike has a two race win streak on the line and is 2 of 3 on the inner. He’s only had eight starts, three of them win. He’s moved through his conditions with the low level claimers, and while he’s likely not the soundest horse on the grounds, if he holds together he’s got plenty of outs.

Race 2      2-4-5

Face the Race has been hanging around at the NW2L level for a while now, although that puts him in company with a number of the others here. He has no races at the distance, but has shown speed in route events, perhaps making him dangerous as a closing sprinter. Most of his races have been on the turf, but he has shown some ability on the dirt. It’s not a great race, and he is 10-1. Worth a look in my opinion. Sunlover puts the blinkers on today. He’s another that has had most of his success (so to speak) on the lawn, but he’s dropping in half in claiming price and has some of the better numbers in the field. Kodiak Kody has a second and a third on the inner and is best suited for the sprint distance. He’s another with the numbers to finish on top.

Race 3      6-4-5

Storied Lady has shown a great affinity for the inner, winning a state bred stakes in December. She’s likely to press early, and has had good success at the distance. She’s easily the fastest runner in the field, and with Ortiz staying for the ride has some hard to ignore positives. Holiday’s Jewel won an OC $62 in late December, but seemed a little over her head in the Ladies Handicap. Still, this isn’t a high quality field and she has a chance to be one of those battling to the wire. Evening Show has done well in optional claimers and should be part of the scrum up front. She’s got the numbers and the talent to be a factor.

Race 4      5-6-3

Salutos Amigos is the powerhouse in this field. Since the Bold Ruler last October he has been at the top of his game, losing the BC Sprint by only three lengths, but winning the Fall Highweight, Gravesend, and Toboggan stakes since then. He’s two for two on the inner and should win on inherent talent alone. Maleeh has been knocking around in OC $62K. However, he has shown a great liking for the inner and has some great numbers. Dads Caps gave Saludos Amigos a run in the Toboggan and the Gravesend and was second in the Vosburgh last September to the talented Private Zone. He’ll have to be at his very best to down Salutos Amigos.

Race 5      2-11-(14)-4

This low level state-bred maiden presents a tough handicapping puzzle. Song Brook is a first time starter for Robert Barbara. She sold for almost ten times the stud fee, so it a little concerning that she debuts at almost a third of her selling price. She has some great gate works and although you’d expect a horse with good potential to start at a higher level, this field has more than a few horses that haven’t shown much at all. Dulce de Leche has a lot of speed but hasn’t been able to finish. Of the prior starters she may be the one with the most talent, but until she gets over the faintheartedness, I’m hesitant to use her on top. Miss Bellamy has been looking for a spot and if she draws in, she may be the one to beat. Kool Charli is another of the multi-start maidens with good numbers and in the money finishes, but lacking that final drive.

Race 6      5-2-6

La Bella Valeria has been competitive at this level and seems to enjoy the inner dirt. She should be winging on the lead, and wins off her best race. Verismilitude is another well suited for the distance, the track, and the level. She seems to be the main competition on the front end for La Bella Valeria. Charlton Baker has had a good winter at AQU. Champagne Ruby was competitive in state-bred stakes in 2014 and seems to be rounding back into form for Linda Rice.

Race 7      6-9-2

This tough maiden event should be an interesting race. Fallfire came close to breaking his maiden at FL in August, and then went in two tough state-bred stakes. He’s shown good speed and and against a slightly softer bunch he could wire the field. Elusive Talmo is going first time for Schosberg, who hasn’t done exceptionally with debut horses, but can certainly step up. I like the workout pattern and I like the breeding for the dirt sprint. Shore to Party debuted on the turf and didn’t show much. She came back against a monster in Lehigh Five, although that race could be excused somewhat given the trouble at the gate and being wide. He gets a long look today.

Race 8      1-9-2

Lady Luciano won a $50K open starter last out, so stays eligible for this condition. She’s shown an affinity for the inner and is well suited for the mile distance. She should be pushing up front and looks strong off her best race. Understanding broke her maiden and came right back to just miss at this level. She was in a conditioned allowance at Laurel last out and ran respectably. The move to this level at AQU makes sense and she may give the top choice everything she can handle today. Unrepented has been running competitive races on the inner, but has had some trouble clearing the whole field. Perhaps the switch to Gullo after the claim gets the horse over the top.

Race 10    8-4-2

Rock N Cozy is an interesting horse. She has been suffering from a tendency to finish in the money but not win. Obviously the horse has talent, but has a proclivity to let another horse take the top spot. She was claimed two back by Abby Adsit, and I’m hoping this creates a turnaround. In her last race she got the comment, not ready for break. The jockey was making an adjustment when the gates opened, but the horse got out pretty well. In the snowstorm she showed modest interest early but shut things down and galloped home. She’s dropping to the lowest claiming price she’s seen in a while, and perhaps the combination of the drop and the switch to Adsit does the trick. Reckless Move won her NW2L after being grabbed by Sciacca and moves up to the next condition. She fits the race and has the figure to compete. Elmra has shown plenty of front running ability but has not been courageous in the stretch. The drop to $25K may be what she needs to succeed.

Hanging Together

Horsesplayers have only one power – to bet or not to bet. If we refuse to exercise the power not to bet, then we have no power at all. 

I don’t know if anyone else said that first, but it’s critical for all horseplayers to remember. Our power lies in our willingness to support or not support the industry.

Racetrack management sees themselves as the most important piece of the pie. Without their willingness to run a racetrack we’d have no sport.

Owners and breeders see themselves as the most important piece of the pie. Without their willingness to breed and race horses we’d have no sport.

The are both wrong. Horseplayers are the most important piece of the pie. Without them there would be no need for racetracks. Breeders would have little reason to produce 20,000 thoroughbreds each year. Owners would have little reason to pay the upkeep on a race horse that doesn’t race. We create the demand for racing facilities. We create the demand for horses to run at them. We are the basic economic unit for the sport.

Horseplayers are great at recognizing the problems and offering solutions. We’re spectacular when it comes to complaining. What we’ve not been effective at is creating change.

Simply pointing out the problems hasn’t worked. If we are to make change for the better we have to send a clear and unequivocal message: we will not support management that ignores horseplayers or does not operate in a way that promotes our interests. We are not asking for ridiculously low takeout, but we are tired of 30% rake on a trifecta bet.

There is only one way we have the power to be treated as the base of the racing structure. We have to vote with out pocketbooks.

Boycotts have been tried. They haven’t worked because if they had, there would have been real change. Oh, I know the CDI boycott apparently resulted in lower handle, and a boycott in California had the same result. But did they change their take-out as a result of the boycott? Did they suffer in some obvious way? CDI showed an increase in profit last year. It seems like that boycott isn’t discouraging them.

Boycotts haven’t worked because horseplayers will not unify in sufficient numbers to make them work. There is some horse in the 7th race they simply have to bet. They want to go to the track, and by golly nobody is going to tell them to stay home. We are the ultimate in independent contractors, emphasis on independent.

For a boycott to work we all have to agree to act in our real self-interest. We have to give up one day of racing and betting to make long term gains. It has to be well publicized. It has to be printed in the major racing publications. Everyone, even the big money whales has to agree to go in on it. The rolling cascade effect simply hasn’t worked. It will take a fully unified action to change the unchageable.

It is the one thing that would cause racetracks to take us seriously. They would know that at any time, players can unite to protest a just cause. It would reinforce the notion that our issues can’t be easily dismissed. It would make them recognize that they are, in fact, vulnerable, and they do need to not only listen to our issues, but effectively act on them.

It doesn’t have to be on Kentucky Derby day or the Breeder’s Cup. Some Saturday in February would be good enough.

Horseplayers still have a choice. They can exercise their power or continue to complain and hope for change. As Ben Franklin said,

We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.

Inbreeding, Line Breeding, and Outcrossing

I think it is a matter of time before the geneticists control the universe. I was watching a show on HBO where doctors were injecting some modified form of the HIV virus into brain tumors and curing people of cancer. Not simply upping their survival time. Flat out giving them a new start on life. And to think Europe is holding fast against the proliferation of genetically modified crops and the anti-vaxxers are still paranoid about measles protection.

It seems like a  matter of time before someone constructs a genetically perfect thoroughbred, capable of winning anything from five furlongs on the turf to a mile and a half on the dirt, and reproduces that runner ad infinitum, doesn’t it?

Of course until scientists figure out how to breed a crop of Secretariats, we’re stuck with the old fashioned way, breed the best to the best and hope for the best.

There was a time I thought lack of diversity in the breed was responsible for the lack of improvement in racing times over the years. There are two things I’ve come to see: the breed is more diverse than we might think, and if you really want a better horse, the answer may actually be less diversity.

Because in most western civilizations incest is criminal, most of us have developed a revulsion to the idea. The main argument against inbreeding is that it is easy to pass on bad recessive traits, but there is a solution to that – only breed genetically clean lines. Of course the most compelling argument for a genetically diverse breed is that it protects the breed from extinction in the case of a catastrophic disease. Sameness makes all vulnerable, while diversity may protect some of the species.

It is an interesting conundrum for modern breeders. Find the strongest genetic line and reproduce it over and over, or create broad diversity in the hope of finding a new, better genetic combination?

It is a myth that inbreeding (even with humans) is destined to produce seriously defective progeny. It is equally a myth that outcrossing produces animals with no genetic defects or stronger animals. The fact is that IT IS JUST AS LIKELY TO SEE A GENETIC ISSUE WITH DISTANTLY RELATED ANIMALS AS WITH CLOSELY RELATED ONES. If you are wondering if that is true, humans have been outcrossing since a few begats past Genesis and we still haven’t eradicated heart disease, cancer, Alzheimers, and an endless list of genetic fallacies.

But be careful what you wish for. A genetically perfect human (or horse) may ultimately expose an unanticipated weakness.

Let’s first clarify what the different terms mean. INBREEDING refers to a close cross between a given pair of animals. This might mean mother to son, father to daughter or brother to sister. This is a bit of a scary proposition for most breeders, especially since there are so many factors to consider beyond raw ability. I’ll point out that if you have a purebred dog, it got to look like it did through careful inbreeding. I’ll also point out how many sons and daughters of past champions win their breed at Westminster. The mistake dog  inbreeders make is breeding for only a small number of characteristics generally related to outward appearance. In doing so they have created animals with serious flaws, for example, the bulldog with his pushed in face making breathing a great chore. Having a horse that can run all day isn’t as much an advantage if the horse is psychotic and won’t go into a starting gate.

LINEBREEDING refers to mating two animals that are closely related to the same ancestor(s). For example, two horses with the same grandsire.

OUTCROSSING is the breeding of two animals that are not related within the first four or five generations. For years, outcrossing has been the preferred way of selecting breeding pairs, mainly because of the thinking that diversity was the right way to strengthen the breed.

Inbreeding and Linebreeding can bring rapid improvement to a breed, although it can also bring out genetic problems that were previously hidden for generations. Inbreeding, and to a certain extent linebreeding, provides some certainty of outcome. The mating of two horses from the same close ancestors has a strong probability of producing superior offspring. It is certainly an attractive bargain for breeders to consider.

On the other hand, a 4X5 outcross may produce anything from a champion to a horse that never makes it to the track. At the least it is difficult to predict what kind of runner you’ll wind up with.

To a degree breeders have embraced the idea of limiting the number of stallions that constitute the breeding stock. Whereas not that long ago stallions were limited to covering 35-40 mares, now the best stallions cover upwards of 200 in a season. In reality there may be only 600-800 stallions that define a crop in any respective year. Of course, it would still require 20,000 different mares to produce 20,000 foals, and that may limit the amount of inbreeding or linebreeding that can take place.

Thoroughbreds have always been required to “live cover,” meaning the stallion and mare must physically couple to produce a foal. Quarter horses (and other show breeds) have been allowed to use artificial insemination techniques for many years, and if you look at a quarter horse futurity field, it isn’t unusual to find multiple runners from the same sire.

Will thoroughbred breeding head in the same direction? It is certainly a possibility. Animal rights people often protest that breeding a stallion 300 times over three months (up to three times a day) is abusive to the animal. From that perspective, does it make sense to collect sperm all year and use artificial insemination? And if that becomes the practice, will it make sense to use even fewer stallions to produce the annual foal crop?

One of the arguments that has gained traction is to breed to produce horses that are not seriously afflicted with exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), essentially obviating the need for raceday Lasix. In reality, only about 3-5% of all horses have EIPH so intensely that they would be unable to race without Lasix. It may be easy to say serious bleeders simply will not race (or subsequently breed) but if those horses are not allowed to race, their fate may often lie in a slaughterhouse. Which is the right thing to do?

As for other drugs (analgesics and anti-inflammatories) horses are athletes and injury is an inevitable part of the sport. Sure, some horses may be genetically predisposed to certain types of problems, but we will never create an animal impervious to injury. If breeding is the answer, it must only be to the question of how certain genetic conditions can be eliminated without some unintended consequence as we’ve seen with dog breeds.

In a world where breeding was tightly controlled from a central location and where the reproductive stock was tightly controlled, perhaps we could breed faster runners. Or perhaps 300 years of breeding horses from only three foundation sires (the Darley Arabian, Godolphin Barb, and Beyerley Turk) has caused the breed to reach its maximum physiological potential. Perhaps we can’t engineer a horse that can run any faster than Secretariat did in the Kentucky Derby.

Even if the advances in genetic testing and the concomitant ability to create more and more predictable runners may dominate future breeding efforts, I think perhaps we currently have found the best compromise between genetic sameness and genetic diversity, at least inasmuch as it can apply to a pure breed of blood horses. A small, but not miniscule, number of stallions being bred to a large population of mares.

I’ll leave you with this from a 2005 article in Popular Science.

Cavendish bananas consumed annually worldwide are perfect from a genetic standpoint, every single one a duplicate of every other. It doesn’t matter if it comes from Honduras or Thailand, Jamaica or the Canary Islands-each Cavendish is an identical twin to one first found in Southeast Asia, brought to a Caribbean botanic garden in the early part of the 20th century, and put into commercial production about 50 years ago. That sameness is the banana’s paradox. After 15,000 years of human cultivation, the banana is too perfect, lacking the genetic diversity that is key to species health. What can ail one banana can ail all. A fungus or bacterial disease that infects one plantation could march around the globe and destroy millions of bunches, leaving supermarket shelves empty.

Something to think about as we contemplate the future of the thoroughbred.

Betting the Races

“In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”  Opening to the TV series Law and Order

I’m going to paraphrase that a bit. In horseracing there are two separate but equally important skills. Discovering winners through handicapping, and betting them correctly.

Handicapping is mostly science, but there are elements of psychology and art thrown in. You want to find the horse likely to run the fastest, but sometimes it is not as simple as a calculation. Sometimes you are looking for patterns, especially those associated with specific trainers. Good handicappers often “see” things that lesser handicappers miss. It is about taking masses of data, filtering out the irrelevant pieces, and weighting what’s left correctly. It’s about understanding the “style” of a horse, and whether that style fits in a respective race.


There are a great number of better than average handicappers playing the races, but the percentage making money is much smaller.

Betting is pretty much all science. Calculations of risk and reward. I would suggest the first thing you have to do is categorize yourself as a bettor. Do you like to grind out profit? Do you live for the big hit? Are you playing for fun or are you serious? Are you willing to make the right bet at the right time, whatever it is?

I’d point people at Andy Beyer’s My $50,000 Year at the Races. He made all his money betting win and exacta. When he was sure and he had an edge, he fired and won enough to make big profit.

I remember talking to a non-horseplayer about spending my vacation at the track. He figured if he was going to spend a thousand dollars on a vacation he rather go scuba diving. i pointed out that once he spent the thousand it was gone, but I actually had a chance to come home with more money than I left with. And even if it cost me a thousand dollars to spend a week at the track, I’ll bet I had as good a time as he did scuba diving.

Lots of people see spending money at the track as entertainment. If at the end of the year they are down a few bucks, it was just the price of entertainment. They win some, they lose some; have a few big thrills, a few big disappointments. If that’s the case, bet in whatever way makes you happy, as long as you are, as the ads say, betting with your head not over it. But if you are playing to make a profit, you have to show some discipline and get into the pools that fit your bankroll.

Most betting handbooks tell you that a critical element is to keep records. See which bets are profitable, which are not. That’s a fine idea, as long as you are willing to change your betting pattern once you decide certain bets are losers for you.

I think you can become good at any type of bet, depending on your bankroll, but I would maintain that for the average player some bets are better than others. I’ve often advised smaller players to divide their bankroll into three parts: 50% win, 25% exacta, and 25% other bets. If you are a better than average handicapper, this is a good way to either make profit or keep your bankroll alive longer, and still allow you to get into some of the exotic combination pools.

Here is my opinion of the various betting pools.

Must pools

Win – read my article The Magic Number to  learn how to bet win. If you think about it, vertical and horizontal bets all have a win component to them. If your choice wins the race, the worst thing is to be caught not cashing tickets.

Exacta – read my article Risk Intelligence to learn how to bet exactas. With the exacta you can turn 8-5 shots into 5-1 shots. Again, it’s very disappointing to have a winner and not bet it because the odds are too low.

Occasional Pools

Place – read my article Betting Two Horses to learn why you should rarely bet place. I understand why people bet to place – it is a psychological salve against watching your horse just miss. But arithmetically, you are almost always better off taking the money you would have bet to place and playing it to win, either on the horse you prefer or your second choice. Even if you make fewer collections, in the long run you’re likely to make better profit. The one exception to the no place rule would be horses going off at odds, since often the place price will be as good as the win price on other horses. If your horse is 37-1 and finishes second, you better have an exacta or place tickets, preferably both. Let me make one emphatic point – I’m not telling people to bet two horses to win every race. I’m telling people that if they were GOING TO BET TO PLACE, put the money in the win pool instead.

Trifecta – my favorite way to bet the trifecta  is to play a solid choice on top, the two most likely place horses in second, and longer priced  contenders in third. If you reference the Magic Number, you’ll see a series of graphs that show the percentage of longshots finishing third is actually higher than you’d expect. A horse with a 10% chance of winning may actually have as high as a 25% chance of finishing third. I’m sure you’ve figured out that betting this way is essentially making a win bet, so what you are really banking on is getting a price in third. If you’re going to bet the first three choices, save your money. Bet a trifecta to make a nice hit if your top choice wins and a longer priced horse finishes third. But don’t forget – you still need to make the win bet if your top choice is value. And some exactas.

Daily Double – This is simply a win parlay, and is a good bet if you have a shorter price horse that you can play with a longer price horse. A couple of tips. NEVER wheel a horse in the double. A smarter way to play would be to bet doubles just with some of the longer priced horses with a reasonable chance to win, and make a bigger win bet on the horse you thought about wheeling. The smartest way to play is to just take all the money you were going to invest in the double and place it to win on your single. Finally you should rarely play more than a 2 X 2 double. If you are that unsure, wait for a better betting opportunity.

Pick 3 and Pick 4 – It’s hard to resist lottery bets, and frankly most people don’t have the bankroll to play them properly. There was a time when all I played was the Pick-4, investing $100 to $200 a race (with $1 tickets). I hit some big ones, but when I looked at my records overall, I was barely making a positive ROI. I also realized that whenever I had a single, I was essentially making a win bet on that horse. If I invested $120 in a Pick-4, and my single hit but I didn’t cash on the Pick-4, the irritation I experienced stuck with me a while. I’ll give you one alternative way to bet the Pick-3/4. List all your potential contenders for each race and pick the likeliest winner for each event. Play the Pick 3/4 as a series of a single in one race with the contenders in the others. I still don’t think it’s superior to a series of win bets, but if you’re determined to play the Pick-3/4 it gives you a chance to cash multiples without a cost much higher than betting one ticket with all the combinations. You can also reference my article, The New Way to Bet Pick-4s

Never Bet

Show – I’ll just say this. You’re a better horseplayer than that.

Pick 6 – Unless you are highly capitalized, it’s a sucker bet.  I guarantee that for every story of a bettor hitting a big Pick 6 with a $15 ticket, there are a thousand stories of a syndicate snagging the pool by betting $10,000. I’ll concede that if there is a big carryover the temptation to bet might be overwhelming. In that case, go ahead. Better yet, form your own syndicate and compete with the bigger boys.

Pick 5 – See Pick-6 above. Most bettors are not capitalized to bet it properly. There may be a time when you can get into it cheaply, but this is definitely case of caveat emptor.

Quinella – bet the exacta instead. It’s usually a bigger pool and a better payoff, especially if the longer price of the two horses is on top.

Superfecta – It’s tempting to get into it for a dime, but it is most often a waste of money. You have to cover a lot of combinations, and unless you have a a few longshots in the four positions, it’s hardly going to pay enough to do more than grind out profit. The one exception might be on Breeder’s Cup Day. More than a few of those superfectas   pay boxcars.

A.C. Avila and Masochistic

By now most racing fans have heard the short version of the A.C. Avila and Masochistic story. If there was any doubt about Avila’s guilt, it wasn’t coming through on social media.

But I was curious. I wanted all the details associated with his violation and suspension. I suspect most people don’t care about that as much as I do, so if you want the short version, Avila looks about as guilty as it gets. But if you want the whole story, keep reading.

Most of my irritation was with the reporting that was technically accurate but not really complete. I believe that if we’re going to nail a trainer’s hide to the wall we should have something incontrovertible.

In Avila’s case it appears that we do.

Let me take you through the details as described in the California Horse Racing Board decision.

Avila purchased the horse Masochistic in August (or September) 2013 for himself and Los Pollos Hermanos Racing Stable as equal partners. For those of you who think Los Pollos Hermanos sounds familiar, it was the name of a fictional restaurant on the TV series Breaking Bad, a series about the manufacture and distribution of “meth.”

After Avila started working the horse, he found that the horse was, in his opinion, moody. He’d work too fast or too slow. In his five and six furlong works, according to Avila he’d go fast early and then flatten out late. Avila recognized the horse had plenty of talent, and in his testimony to the CHRB he mentioned consulting with a veterinarian in Lexington (no name mentioned) who told him that based on something called the “LambertTest” Masochistic was going to be best as a late running sprinter.

I googled Lambert test and came back with nothing. However, there is a veterinarian named David Lambert who manages Equine Analysis Systems, Inc. in Lexington, a company that does genetic testing to identify likely classic distance winners. In the article I saw, he doesn’t identify any of his clients so we won’t know for sure if he tested Masochistic, but this is probably the Lambert test to which Avila was referring.

This reference to Masochistic being a late running sprinter becomes mildly important as we’ll see later in relation to Avila’s credibility.

Avila’s testimony was that he told his groom that he intended to enter Masochistic “for Saturday” and Avila suggested the groom misunderstood him and thought that he was going to enter the horse ON Saturday for a race the following Thursday. This explanation was supposed to give credence to the Avila’s explantation for the presence of acepromazine in the horse’s system – he was accidentally double dosed based on a miscommunication.

However, the confusion was apparently cleared up quickly because the groom  decided he needed to trim the horse’s mane on Wednesday so that he would look good on Saturday. Whatever Avila said, it became clear to the groom that the horse was racing on Saturday and that he knew that on Wednesday. So any confusion about the date becomes irrelevant with respect to the administration of acepromazine. Another place where Avila doesn’t really have an explanation that holds water.

Because Masochistic was, well sadistic, the groom decided it would be necessary to tranquilize him. This is a common practice (a lot more horses have behavioral issues than the public might realize) and in later testimony the veterinarians agreed that treating the horse with acepromazine was the right protocol. Avila testified that the groom gave the horse two separate doses of acepromazine, but it did not calm the horse down. Avila’s veterinarian, Dr. John Araujo was called, and according to Avila administered another dose of acepromazine.

Unfortunately, when Dr. Aruajo testified, he decided that since the acepromazine wasn’t doing the trick, he would administer a combination of Demosadan, a powerful sedative, and Torbugesic, a strong painkiller, not acepromazine. Another important point if we are looking at Avila’s credibility.

That definitely sounded like a lot of drugs just to snip the horse’s mane, but it is important to note this is not uncommon, nor is it a strange protocol. Many horses are notoriously skittish about being handled near their heads, and tranquilizing is the accepted way of dealing with it. So on Wednesday, nobody has done anything wrong or “nefarious.”

Acepromazine is a fairly mild tranquilizer, but it does have the effect of lowering blood pressure and expanding the horse’s lungs. It is one of the 26 medications allowed by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, and is used frequently not just for horses but other animals as well. Many trainers and veterinarians favor the drug because a small dose generally will calm the horse without negatively affecting his ability to train. Acepromazine is fast acting – usually the horse settles within 15 minutes of being dosed – and long lasting – up to six hours per dose. However, it is flushed out of the horse’s system within 48 hours of administration. For those reasons it is a good choice for race horses. On the other hand, a large dose close to race time would almost certainly affect the horse’s ability to run.

Masochistic did run on Saturday March 15, 2014 and finished 5th. The Santa Anita Stewards normally wouldn’t test other than the first two finishers, but they thought that jockey Omar Berrio held the horse back. When they interviewed Berrio, he stated that Avila had given him instructions to not push the horse early and let him roll at the end of the race.

I watched the race several times. As best as I could tell, the horse broke well and Berrio strangled him back quickly, giving an interesting interpretation to the idea of not pushing the horse early. It looked to me like the horse was fighting for his head but Berrio was doing his best to keep him behind the main pack, about mid-track down the backstretch. Around the turn Berrio moved him to the rail and as best I could tell was not riding him aggressively. He showed him the whip a few times, gave him one or two light taps on the rump and let him run on his own courage to the wire. He did not appear to be scrubbing the horse at any point in the race. I would never have noticed it during the race unless I had bet the horse or I was specifically following him, but once I did look at it closely, I would have thought Berrio did not ride aggressively, especially in the stretch. Considering where the horse was at the eighth pole, I’m not sure even an aggressive ride would have put Masochistic in the top three, but considering the horse was, at best, running on his own courage, he did well to finish fifth.

I wouldn’t have said the horse was lethargic at all. It wasn’t as if Berrio had to urge the horse to get into the race. Quite the opposite from my perspective – Berrio kept the horse toward the back early and never rode him hard at any point during the race.

Berrio’s explanation that he was following instructions with regard to the ride Avila wanted the horse to get was still a bit suspect. If Berrio really wanted to make a furious close with the horse, why did he stick him on the rail and why did he not ride the horse like a jockey would a closer?

Honestly I don’t think Berrio is at fault here. I think he followed Avila’s likely  instructions to the letter – pull the horse back early, let him run on his own courage in the stretch, and don’t worry about winning the race.. Do we know that for sure? No, but given he had been working the horse in the mornings, Berrio had to know how much horse he had. Not following Avila’s instructions would have certainly cost him the ride on the horse later, and it seemed like the horse was pointed at bigger and better things.

This is also the point to remember back to Avila’s testimony. The horse would go fast early and flatten out late. It looks like Avila was providing an explanation for Masochistic’s bad run on March 15. And Avila may have sold the notion of a moody, late running sprinter had it not been for the horse’s next race.

After the Santa Anita race, Avila and Los Pollos Hermanos decided to ship the horse to Churchill to run on Kentucky Derby Day. Avila contended that the Churchill maiden fields were weak, but it I wondered if it was more likely the owners wanted to have a horse running that day so they had badges that gave them access to the nicer, or less crowded parts of the track. Of course, I don’t even know if they were there. There was speculation that Avila took the horse to Churchill because the betting pools would be larger and the Masochistic connections could more easily pull off a betting coup. After all, there was a Cal bred maiden he could have run in with a purse only $3,000 less than the Churchill purse on the same day. Why go through the cost of shipping all the way east and back when you could make the same money at home?

If the owners and  Avila were in Kentucky, you could have convinced me everyone just wanted a trip to the Kentucky Derby and figured regardless of the cost the horse could earn enough money to pay for it. All that was needed was for someone to ask a few questions. That apparently didn’t happen, and so we’re left wondering if a betting coup occurred.

The proof of a betting coup is limited. Clearly, rating the horse off his last race could hardly have made him a 2-1 choice, but according to Avila, a known bettor, he only had $1,000 to win on the horse. The fact that the horse was only 2-1 was doubly suspicious because of the pool size on Derby Day. Masochistic was listed at 4-1 in the program, so it would have taken a fair amount of money to cut his odds in half.

What gave more credence to suspicions Masochistic was being darkened in his first race was that at Churchill Victor Espinoza shot the horse to the front on the rail and never looked back. There was a spill in the race, but the horses involved were all running at the back of the pack and had pretty much lost contact with the leading group. Anyone who tells you the accident helped Masochistic was looking at a different race than I was. If you’ve watched as many races as a lot of us have, there is at least an odor of something being fishy.

Remember, Avila said the “Lambert test” pointed his horse as being a closing sprinter, but after running a 44:3 half and drawing off by 14 lengths, Avila’s explanation that he gave Berrio instructions to give the horse the best chance of winning seemed a little leaky. Circumstantially, it seemed like Avila did not want the horse to win his first race, and Berrio was just doing what he was told.

California apparently didn’t question the Chicken Brothers, but you wouldn’t have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to wonder if they and some of their friends pumped some serious cash through the windows at Churchill. Still, CD investigated and found no evidence of unusual betting patterns. Nobody produced the smoking gun of betting coup evidence, although it doesn’t appear that anyone was digging particularly hard for it. As far as California was concerned Avila did something he regularly did – bet on his horse – and not in an amount that justified going cross country for a betting coup. All actually very legal. So take all that for whatever it is worth. If it figured in Avila’s penalty, it was indirect.

Despite the fact that race fixing is a serious offense, especially with the betting crowd, California was far more interested in the drug situation. They ordered testing on Masochistic after the March 15 race. Two weeks later a CHRB investigator made an unannounced inspection at Avila’s barn and found Avila kept his medications in an unlocked plastic container on a rolling cart. The investigator found Acepromazine, “Dantroline” (sic) – the drug is actually Dantrolene, a muscle relaxant – and what they referred to as “Bute” which is normally Butazoladin but is sometimes erroneously used to refer to phenylbutazone. The plastic bin also contained unlabelled medications – these were not identified in the CHRB report – and two months later a subsequent inspection revealed the bin was still unsecured and medications unlabelled. The report did make it sound as if it was chemistry run amok at the Avila barn, and apparently this gave weight to the final penalty. It was evidence that acepromazine was available in the Avila barn (which everyone agreed was available and used) and that Avila was sloppy when it came to the storage of drugs. It gave the CHRB ample reason to conclude Avila’s employees were applying medication without consultation with the trainer.

The California standard for residual acepromazine in a horse’s urine is 25 nanograms/milliliter, actually a little higher than the RMTC standard of 10 ng/ml. If a horse had been given a dose of acepromazine on Wednesday, by Saturday afternoon there should be almost nothing left in its urine. The sample taken from Masochistic showed 973 ng/ml an amount that frankly was impossible if the horse was last treated over 72 hours earlier. That amount would indicate the horse was dosed somewhere between four and ten hours prior to the race. Avila was dead in the water at that point.

Whether Masochistic was given acepromazine because Avila was simply hedging his bets (no pun intended) that Berrio could ensure the horse underperformed without it looking more obvious than it did, 973 ng/ml is damning evidence. There is no plausible reason the horse should have had a level that high, not based on Avila’s testimony or the testimony of his vet.

The one thing about the CHRB write up I would take issue with was the statement that Avila has “a long history of violations for prohibited drugs.” In the interest of accuracy, Avila’s long history of violations for prohibited drugs were mainly phenylbutazone and flunixin (Banamine) both of which are commonly used, legal drugs for race horses, but for which there are standards for  post race urine testing. More accurately, he has a history of medication positives related to legal, therapeutic medications.

The report also references 29 violations since 1990, although as best as I could research, some of the violations were not drug related. I found 14 violations since 2005, 10 of which were for the aforementioned phenylbutazone and flunixin. If there were prior acepromazine violations, as noted by the conclusions in the CHRB report, they occurred more than ten years ago.The other four since 2005 were administrative in nature. I’m not suggesting 10 is an ok number – at best it’s sloppy administration of therapeutics and at worst it’s looking to gain a chemical edge, but I mean, you already have the guy dead to rights, no need to hyperbolize. Just cite the medication violations and leave the parking tickets out of the penalty phase.

The report concluded that there “does not appear to be a clear intent by Mr. Avila to gain an unfair advantage over his competitors. In fact, it is really questionable whether or not Mr. Avila had actual knowledge that the horse was led over to run with vast quantities of acepromazine in its system.

I’d respond a couple of things. No, he didn’t get an advantage in the maiden race because if anything the acepromazine would have dulled Masochistic’s performance. The point was apparently to lose in anticipation of a betting opportunity at some future date. Second, the sloppy storage of the drugs – really, a plastic bin? – the fact that some drugs were not labelled, and the fact that we never heard testimony that the acepromazine found in the plastic bin was specifically prescribed for Masochistic bothers me a lot. You have grooms throwing tranquilizers without medical guidance at horses so they can trim their manes? That sounds like a pretty serious problem. I’ll say flat out that prescription medications should be administered by a veterinarian AFTER he has examined a horse.

Perhaps CHRB has looked into that, but the seriousness of their efforts is belied by the fact that Avila was still storing drugs in unmarked bottles and in an unlocked plastic bin two months after getting nabbed. This sounds as much like a CHRB problem as an Avila problem.

Two final things. What should happen to the groom? You’d be hard pressed to convince me the groom was acting on his own. Even if he was acting totally on Avila’s orders, what he did was illegal. He needs to be given days too. If the CHRB wants to stop the administration of medications by barn personnel, make them culpable. I get it – you say no to the boss and you’re on the street – but the system needs to let everyone know if they are complicit, there are consequences. Second, it would be also hard to convince me Los Pollos Hermanos didn’t know what was going on. The fact the other owners weren’t questioned also seems to me to be sloppy investigating by CHRB. They could have done what all cops do – put the culprits in separate rooms and say the first one to talk gets the deal. The whole story would have come out and we could have had a punishment that satisfied the betting crowd too. The way it came out, it looks like Avila and the Chicken Brothers got us and the punishment after the fact is hardly satisfying. Masochistic is running next week and it looks like Avila will still be listed as the trainer.

Ok, I surrender. Avila by all the available evidence seems to be a bad guy in this case. Avila seems to have fudged the truth about a number of things, and there is no contention by anyone that the level of acepromazine found in Masochistic’s urine could have been something other than a race day administration of the drug.

I’ve defended trainers I thought were screwed by the system in the past and I will continue to fight for them, but I’ll be as clear as I can be. If you are using drugs to fix outcomes, you’ll get no quarter from me.