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Welfare and Safety Summit

The fifth Race Horse Welfare and Safety Summit wrapped up this week. I was really hoping we’d hear that they found the smoking gun when it comes to why animals appear to be more fragile than just a few decades ago. They didn’t. But after looking at the summaries, the main criticism is the one I’ve already noted – anybody who even insinuates drugs are the cause gets drummed out of the club.

For the most part they provided useful and interesting perspectives.

As I believe Mark Twain said, “They are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics.” On the other hand, how are you supposed to make your point other than with statistics? So as Twain might have added, it is how you use statistics that creates the rub.

Take these statistics.

  • Only 31 trainers started more than 150 horses in 2013. This was used to illustrate that mega-trainers aren’t really at the core of race horse fragility. I’m not sure how they got blamed in the first place since for the most part it isn’t the mega-trainers who are dictating which sire gets bred to which broodmare, but good to know.
  • However, it turns out breeding isn’t the culprit either since 16 of the top 20 sires by earnings had strong form at a mile and an eighth or longer. Similarly the 15 of the top 20 two year-old sires also had strong form at a mile and an eighth or more. Call me dense, but the fact that the top racers can go the classic distances proves the breed is as strong as it ever was? You sure it isn’t just that out of 20,000 foals born, a few hundred of them actually turn out to be solid because statistically that is exactly what we would expect? 2% of the crop doesn’t prove or disprove anything, other than the Bell curve still seems to have pertinence.
  • Finally, some people posit that two year-olds are racing too early and that leads to more injuries. However, statistics tell us that more than 50% of the foal crop started as two year-olds in 1948, but today it is only 29%, so that can’t be the answer. I’m sort of thinking, doesn’t that actually tell us that two year-olds in 1948 were sturdier?

The highly respected Dr. Larry Bramlage made a fascinating point about bone issues. He said that bone remodels and strengthens in response to stress, so some injuries require some rest, others just need a reduction in hard training. This I found most fascinating. The cannon bone reacts to stress differently. At a gallop or below, stress travels up and down the bone, but at racing speed stress is rotated around the bone. So horses need the correct exposure to both sorts of stress in order to properly strengthen the bone. He didn’t say this, but doesn’t that sound like trainers need some training in how horses remodel and strengthen bones? Or maybe to put it another way, the good trainers have this figured out and the not so good trainers didn’t get the memo.

Remember Joba Chamberlain, a pitcher for the Yankees now with Detroit? Or Washington Nationals pitcher Steven Strasburg? Remember how caught up management was about limiting their innings pitched? In Strasburg’s case, it may have cost them a world championship. Ironically, they both wound up having Tommy John surgery, but maybe management was onto something. It turns out that apparently racehorses can only accumulate so much racing and fast workout stress before they are in dire danger of injury. Again, it sounds like the culprit is the trainer. Not the Pletchers or the Assmussens or the Bafferts who have first-class horse flesh and can immediately throw expensive diagnostics at the problem and put their injured runners in recuperation mode. Without saying so, it seems to be the trainers who aren’t always in a position of delicately managing a runner who are the problem. And how do these trainers deal with these injuries? Yup. Medication. Because too many of these trainers simply can’t afford to lay up their blue-collar runners.

When the expert panel consists of trainers like Todd Pletcher, you simply aren’t going to have the problems of the marginal stable conditioners represented. I have no doubt Pletcher doesn’t overuse medication, mostly because he can afford not to and still make payroll. But as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, if racing keeps insisting it’s not the medication and they trot out the A+ trainers to prove it, the conclusion that it isn’t the drugs remains suspicious.

If there is an extremely sad bit of anecdotal evidence, it is that jockeys and exercise riders are afraid to notify trainers if a horse is not warming up properly or working out well. In fact jockey Chris McCarron told a story about getting off a horse that wasn’t warming up well. They took the horse back to the paddock, put another rider on, and the horse won the race. But it turns out the horse never ran again. McCarron was roundly criticized by the connections.

If jockeys take an apathetic attitude because they fear losing mounts more than they fear losing their livelihood due to catastrophic breakdowns, I think what they are really saying is that once again the maze leads back to the trainers. Any trainer worth his salt will thank the jockey profusely, assuming the jockey doesn’t pull a horse out of the race too often. But the fact that too many trainers will run the horse anyway really gives one pause.

In a bright note, mandatory continuing education seems to be on the horizon. The Association of Racing Commissioners International has passed regulations to mandate four hours of continuing education for trainers. It’s a start, but seriously, how much can you accomplish in four hours? I referee high school basketball and I have to score a certain level on an annual certification exam and do two or three training camps a year if I expect to get a good schedule. I’m pretty sure something more like 20-40 hours a year for horse trainers makes a lot more sense.

I’ll say this again. Bravo to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation for holding the summit. Sooner or later we really need someone to say enough is enough, we’ll have a national horseracing commission that can set the rules (including training) and stop just talking about the problem.

Of Course It Can’t Be the Drugs

At the Welfare and Safety of Racehorse Summit a panel of experts couldn’t come to a consensus on why average starts per horse and average field size are down.

They did a lot of speculating – trainers work their horses up to a race rather than racing them into condition, trainers only want to run their horse in a race they think they can win because they need to be high-percentage trainers in order to keep owners happy, more time between races is better for horses.

Todd Pletcher, a trainer who is not exactly your average workingman trainer, agreed that horses can take more time between races and get ready through workouts. Everyone knows Pletcher is an extraordinary trainer, but he also gets extraordinary horses and owners who can afford to pay the bills without a second thought.

Someone else offered that once a horse wins a Graded stakes, owners want to retire that horse so they can cash in before their horse turns into Mine That Bird. Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby, raced eight more times and won exactly none of those races, although to be fair he did finish second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont.

So that’s great for the owners who have potential breeding stock, but that isn’t most of the owners or most of the male horses racing.

The one thing they couldn’t agree on was the role drug use plays in the health of the thoroughbred.

They panel was made up of highly credentialed people, but there is always a nagging suspicion that if they said, “oh yeah, it’s the drugs,” they might lose their racetrack jobs. Even if it was the drugs, it’s supposed to be the great unspoken. You see, if the people in the know admit drug use is a much wider spread problem, they run the risk of further damaging the industry they want to save. If it is everything but the drugs, then we can work on breeding more horses or something like that.

They other thing they didn’t appear to get into was the difference between the legions of trainers who are scraping by for owners who are scraping by at the dozens of racetracks featuring $5,000 NW2 in the weekday feature race.

I’ll tell you the other thing I didn’t read about. The fact that ownership is down 25% in the last two decades. The fact that the number of foals being born is down 57% since 1986. You think that just might have something to do with the fact that there are fewer racehorses out there to fill a race?

Did you happen to read about the misery the Texas tracks are facing? Handle at Lone Star is down something like 67% from it’s historical high. We had a Breeder’s Cup at Lone Star for goodness sake. The number of race days is  almost half of what it was a few years ago at the Texas tracks. And the problem? They don’t have “instant racing” machines at the tracks. Seriously. It has nothing to do with all the other stuff that is causing racing to slide into the toilet. It’s that they don’t have racing’s version of slot machines.

I was out at my local track the other day and they had a lower level claiming event where the YOUNGEST horse in the field was five and there were two nine year-olds. And it’s just not at my track where they are depending on owners and trainers keeping geldings in training well past their prime.

Sports Illustrated did a long piece this week about Alex Rodriguez and his use of PEDs. One of the things that seems to be the case is that when you use those drugs your body breaks down. It stands to reason that if it happens to humans, it can happen to horses.

I think it is wonderful that horseracing folks get together to talk about this stuff. But if the conclusion is going to be, it’s the trainers and the owners for sure, but we can’t say it’s the drugs, I have a feeling the problem of short fields and low-start horses is only going to get worse.


Arapahoe Institutes Drug-Free Bonus

Who’da thunk it?

The first track to offer bonuses to trainers for racing their horses free of medication on race day is…Arapahoe Park right here in colorful Colorado. Essentially the only medication covered is Lasix, the ubiquitous diuretic designed to control nasal bleeding that results from extreme effort during a race, since in Colorado it is the only drug allowable on race day, but, hey, it’s a start.

There are a few conditions that must be met before a horse can receive the $1,000 bonus for winning a race. Only trainers keeping their stable at the track for the entire meet are eligible, and the money doesn’t get distributed until the meet is over, which I suppose is extra incentive to actually stay until August 17, the last racing day.

In the press release from Arapahoe, Mile High Racing and Entertainment (Arapahoe’s parent company) Executive Director Bruce Seymore said,“The future of racing is going to be race-day medication-free, and we at Arapahoe Park want to be ahead of the curve.”

Take note of that statement because it might be the first time the words “Arapahoe Park” and “ahead of the curve” have been used in the same sentence. Now if they will only replace the ancient betting terminals with something a bit more modern….

You’re right. That was sort of a cheap shot. Give them credit. They have a hard enough time filling fields and attracting horses, so it was a fairly brave move on their part. Now, let’s see how many trainers take advantage of the opportunity.

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of medication-free race days. Remember that New York held out on Lasix until 1995, but buckled under the weight of horsemen who refused to race their stables there. Nothing has changed, and when Sen. Adriano Espaillat tried to introduce a bill in 2013 banning performance enhancing drugs, including Lasix, at New York tracks the horsemen were close to unanimous in their opposition.

The drug discussion is really a surrogate for the real issues. Tracks cannot fill fields with horses that are totally healthy. Trainers cannot afford to fill limited stable space with runners who can’t earn on the track. The problem is simply that the balkanized racetrack model creates a demand for horses and there are not nearly enough healthy runners out there. So trainers hold their horses together with liniment, bandages, bute, Lasix and drugs with names you need to be a pharmacist to pronounce, and help make a race go.

The discussion is centered on absurd things, like bringing in the U.S. anti-doping agency to monitor race horse drug testing. It is centered around statements made by pretty much every state racing commission that maybe there is cheating going on somewhere, but not in my state. It centers around getting Congress to intervene. I’ve said this before, but when you are so exasperated you think a Congress that can hardly agree on what day of the week it is is the answer, you bet you have a major problem.

The discussion needs to center on the real problems. How do we improve the racing product? How do we make racing rules and drug policies universal given there are 38 states with 38 sets of rules to herd? And my favorite question, how do we stop treating the racing fan like a cash cow that is suppose to take anything tracks want to shove down our throats?

Feel free to contribute your answers. In my next blog I’ll talk more about how racing can be saved. And here’s a hint. It doesn’t involve Congress.

Players Boycott at Churchill Seems to be Working

Churchill Downs recently announced they are increasing the takeout on both the win/place/show pools and the exotic wagering pools. In an amazing show of irritation, Jeff Platt, Lenny Moon and others formed www.playersboycott.orgasking players to not only stop betting Churchill Downs, but the CDHN owned tracks (Arlington, Fairgrounds, and Calder) and to not use the TwinSpires betting site.

All I can say is wow! It only took 150 years to finally get pissed off enough to exercise the power of betting public. But better late than never.

There is no doubt that in the hierarchy of racing, players are on the lowest rung of the ladder, well behind the state, horse breeders, owners and trainers, and track management. I’m not including jockeys and backstretch workers because they might actually be treated worse than horseplayers. The greatest impetus to the players’ boycott seems to be a startling 340% increase in executive compensation from 2012 to 2013. Churchill essentially concluded that they had to pay executives $19.7 million more even knowing they needed $8 million more in revenues for purse increases. I’m not saying the executives don’t work hard, but if your boss came to you and said, I’m cutting your pay so I can get a raise, I’m pretty sure some sort of revolt would be discussed. And in essence, that is what they are doing. Asking the bettors to fund increases in salaries and purses.

I don’t know what they might have asked the owners and the trainers to kick in, but if I were a betting man (wait, I am a betting man), I’d wager the last thing on their list of options was additional entry or stall fees. Think about it for a minute. Who exactly is the customer at the race track? For every disgruntled punter who screws up enough energy to let management know how he feels, there are scores of owners and trainers who are griping daily. True story. I once witnessed a group of trainers confront a track general manager, and when they didn’t seem to be making headway, decided that a punch in the head could more clearly make the point. Amazingly, they got what they wanted. I don’t recommend trying the punch in the head approach unless you have a hankering to eat baloney and white bread sandwiches three times a day at the local hoosegow. Trainers and owners are like the Empire compared to the average Luke Skywalker horseplayer when it comes to management’s ear. When the tracks try to cater to horseplayers, it is usually by giving away bobbleheads or a foil lined thermo-lunch bag. Don’t take this as ungratefulness, but the only people who show up for the bobblehead are people who think they’ll be able to sell it on ebay or people who can’t resist a freebie. Saratoga is famous for its Sunday giveaways, and plenty of people show up, buy six admissions, grab six t-shirts or mugs or whatever, and leave without ever betting a nickel. If you want to make a regular happy, how about a comped comfy seat on Breeder’s Cup day as a reward for showing up every day and being 1% of your total handle.

One of these blogs I’ll talk about the history of Churchill Downs, a track that somehow stumbled and bumbled through its first half century by regularly flirting with bankruptcy, and its irascible founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr . But that is for another day.

Which brings me to the state. Is there a business other than gambling that pays its “taxes” before calculating its profit, and with no chance of a “refund” if it loses money? As Vito Corleone noted, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” Think what a whole statehouse full of them might do.

Bettors are also expected to pay for state breeding programs. Every state with horseracing designates a percentage of the takeout for the breeders’ fund for horses bred in that state, ostensibly to promote breeding and racing. The concept is to create an economic stimulus to breeding horses in that particular state. I’ll rant a bit more on this topic in a later blog, but I have real questions about the forced relationship between bettors and breeders.

It feels like there is a hierarchy of middle men taking their cut from the same, no the only, piece of pie out there. The pari-mutuel bettor. The only analogy I can think of is the old protection racket. Pay us and we’ll let you keep betting horses, and if it gets to be too much…well, too bad.

When I first started writing for Horseplayer Magazine I did a rant where I told this story. I was at the driving range hitting some balls and who should decide he also needed to work on his swing but the track general manager. In an occurrence that at least made you wonder about the reality of divine intervention, it started to rain and the two of us found ourselves waiting out the weather in the nearby shelter. We got to talking and I said something like, “and how about that 25% take on the exotics?” He said, “I know. That’s the maximum amount the state lets us take.” Truly a case of one person zigging while the other person is zagging.

Back to the players’ boycott. It seems to be working. As of June 22, 2014 average  field size is down 0.62 starters per race. (-8.13%). If you exclude Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks days, total handle is down $45.6 Million (-26.90%),  handle per race is down $111,316 (-21.68%), and average handle per day is down $1,424,385 (-26.90%).

I’m going to weigh in on the side of the players boycott, mainly because it’s about time horseplayers got noticed. But I’m also going to say, even if Churchill rescinds the increase, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The current model hasn’t worked for decades and the problems of live racing have only been exacerbated by universal off track wagering, rebates and state laws crafted either by owners or track management in their own best interest.

So what do you think? If you were the czar of racing, what would you do to bring the sport all the way into the 21st century?