Sunday, January 20, 2013

Frozen brains?

NYRA has a problem. Oh not the kind that you usually associate with the racing organization that has been described in the media as (pick one); beleaguered, corrupt, rudderless, clueless, incompetent, or any other choice adjective that is meant to be unflattering. This specific problem is one that continually plagues the thoroughbred industry at virtually all levels and has infected most every segment of the sport. It is a favorite of a certain feckless group of  media members that seem to believe they know all the answers even before the questions have been asked. One could call it being a knee jerk reactionary or perhaps a better explanation would be a treatment of symptoms without identifying they root cause of the illness.

If you are willing to accept the premise that NYRA is sick (a sketchy idea considering bullish business numbers reported last week) then the first order of business is to review the symptoms. Obviously number one on the list would be the issue of breakdowns on the Aqueduct inner track considering the agenda of the new NYRA board's upcoming meeting. There is no evidence that the inner track surface has any issues considering that the numbers we are talking about are taken from a frighteningly small pool and just aren't statistically relevant. Breakdowns are generally isolated issues that don't have any common causes despite the nonsense you read in the press and on the internet. Of the "solutions" to this issue that are being suggested are a synthetic track or even more drastic, ending winter racing in New York. The synthetic track cure is most likely folly and a waste of a considerable amount of resources with the potential for unintended consequences.  The cost would be a major hit and considering the trouble that the surfaces (Turfway, Santa Anita) have had in other jurisdictions the number could rise. Adding a third surface to the equation is surely going to turn off many of your customers as there is a large segment of  bettors that simply wont bet or will drastically reduce their play on synthetics. Another issue with synthetic tracks especially in the winter months is that the fake tracks need plenty of moisture to be at their best and as Turfway learned that even though the polytrack in particular wont freeze, water does. Another item that is likely to come into play is that the really great surface known as the Aqueduct main track would almost certainly be scuttled. Why would you maintain 2 separate surfaces requiring different styles of maintenance especially when the newer supposedly safer surface cost $20 million to put in? Not to mention what if there were an unfortunate spat of breakdowns or one in a high profile race like the Wood or Cigar Mile contested on the main track? We would hear what idiots NYRA was for still utilizing the main track when they had that super safe polytrack that cost all that money to install.

The real head scratcher is the idea that New York racing simply shut down during the Winter. This is not only an idea with virtually no merit it is strikingly naive especially in light of the highly publicized "takeover" of NYRA by the state. Can you imagine the political fallout when the thousands of people whose jobs are connected to NYRA, its horsemen and all the other ancillary businesses are laid off or relocated to other states? The backsides are expensive to maintain and would we expect NYRA to continue to keep Belmont and Aqueduct open during these non-racing months? If not where exactly are the trainers a supposed to go for those few months?  How many of the trainers and their owners and employees would be willing to stay and ship outside the state to run or pay stall rents or some other scheme to minimize the maintenance expense?  How many might decide that without the year round circuit, New York racing loses its luster and they decide to base somewhere else where the cost of living is cheaper, just shipping to NYRA tracks when the occasion requires it?  The damage to the NY breeding program will be felt upstate as a large number of breeders count on the income of both purses and breeders awards earned during those winter months as the number of racing opportunities for New York breds would be drastically reduced by closing down NYRA for three or more months.

The fact is the states that would be receiving New York's horses, horsemen, jockeys and owners during this shutdown are essentially NYRA's competition.  By handing them better horses for the Winter you are strengthening their programs, more or less making their product more desirable and also giving your customers a reason to pay attention to the tracks that you are fighting for the betting dollar for. The idea that not running in Winter would lead to bigger field sizes when racing resumed in the spring makes no sense. Trainers arent going to alter how they train or race horses because of the schedule. Just because you close down for the Winter, come spring guys arent going to look to run their horses every 10 days to make up the difference. The truth is that some of the horses will find class relief to their benefit when racing at the lesser venues may not return to the NYRA circuit. Does anyone really believe that the betting public will just stop betting for those months and how do you make up the lost revenue of your out of state patrons who will be betting somewhere else for 1/4 of the year? Can racing realistically expect to continue to receive the same amount of slots revenue during those months that there is no racing?

 One question that I would love to pose to the new NYRA board is where is the grand plan for New York racing?   Before making drastic changes come up with a comprehensive plan of action for the entire racing program, identify all the weaknesses and strengths under the entire NYRA umbrella. Be realistic but take a look at WHY things are like they are and remember that many of the members of the media giving you free advice didn't major in business or economics in college, didn't sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night and never have to accountable for any of the nonsensical ideas that they come up with or support.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What horseracing can learn (or not) from the 2012 election

The recently concluded Presidential election has produced a plethora of after the fact analysis ranging from how Obama won to why Romney lost. Many of the authors seem to be focusing more on the implications of the changing political landscape on the GOP than on the winning strategy employed by the Democrats who used that change to their advantage. What does this have to do with thoroughbred racing and why am I writing about it? Racing is more or less in the same position as the GOP is and unfortunately has been for many years. I am not going to wade too deep into the cesspool of actual political commentary except to use examples of how racing can learn from it.

The country has changed demographically over the last 40 years to currently reflect a far more diverse society than what many of the GOP shot callers grew up in. The percentage of non-white voters has grown dramatically and changing views on many social issues especially among young voters has tilted the electorate towards the Democratic version of who should run the country. The GOP has failed to recognize that several social issues that they believe energizes their base (gay/lesbian issues and abortion chief among them) are costing them votes especially with the under 30 crowd which has lived their entire lives under Roe v. Wade and is a far more tolerant group than ever before. A hard line immigration approach has made the fastest growing demographic (the Hispanic community) wary of the GOP's intentions since the Democrats have steered that conversation towards a lack of compassion at best and racism at worst. While some may not agree with this assessment (For the record I consider myself a moderate conservative) it is hard to ignore that these trends and a changing electorate are very much a reality regardless of ones personal beliefs.

Where racing comes into this is that like the GOP we have failed for years to clarify our message and modify our sport to appeal to that same changing electorate and their differing views on social issues. One would think that a far more open view on gambling which has occurred over the last 20 years would benefit a gambling venture but because we were so slow to react, much of the gambling world has passed us by. The clamoring by the elitists of the sport about lasix ignores the fact that our society is far more understanding of the use of medications (hello legalized marijuana!!) and far less tolerant of animal abuse (allowing horses to bleed internally when a safe medication is available). The idea that our society is eager to take a hard line stance on performance enhancing drugs is belied by the fact that the NFL has never taken a hit despite likely wide spread abuse, Major league baseball continues to have record growth despite a seemingly endless litany of abusers (which makes MLB's Rob Manfred's words at last years medication summit ring hollow)  and the other major sports like the NBA and NHL have had virtually no issues at all. The message that the leaders of thoroughbred racing continue to send is not the one that American appears to want to hear.

Like the GOP many of racing's leaders can be classified as rich, angry, out of touch, old white guys. Also like the GOP they tend to fixate on issues that appeal to themselves and use an often complicit media to promote their vision of what racing "should" look like. Many want to go back in time to a place where racing was king despite the world being a vastly different place than it was 10 years ago let alone 50 years ago. Turning back the clock works for selling throwback uniforms and celebrating old timers day but the problem with racing is that it doesn't seem to understand its history or the mistakes made that have led to its pressing problems. Racing's leaders believe in the "silver bullet" approach wherein a single issue can be "solved" which magically leads to an uptick in the fortunes for all in racing. (political sidebar-actually this sounds like Democratic economic policy which is woeful which makes the GOP's failure to capitalize on that more egregious).

What the GOP seemed to not understand was that even if they were 100% correct in characterising President Obama's economic record as poor the key was getting the electorate to understand how it affected them personally. Amazing as it seems the average person on the street has very little understanding that the national deficit will have a profoundly negative effect on their lives. Racing has had a similar disconnect with its customers in terms of slot revenues and their usage. Many players feel that the slots revenue that racing has cashed in on has not been much of a gain for them personally. They feel that much of the money has been squandered on high purses for weak horses and that they are being taken for granted because takeout rates are more or less the same and in some locales are actually higher. It is hard to argue that those sentiments are misguided or mistaken. What racing failed to do (or perhaps realize they needed to do) is educate the betting public that many owners are struggling with increasing expenses and since the economic downturn smaller bankrolls in which to invest into the sport in almost assuredly a money losing proposition. That doesn't mean that racing has done an effective job utilizing those new revenues because we absolutely have not but racing has never tied together how the increase in purses benefits our customers.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that political ad's are over the top and by election day we are all sick of them. In racing the constant barrage against lasix has grown tiresome and most are weary of the topic. While I am loathe to continue to focus on this issue it is the perfect embodiment of the lack of vision on the part of racings leadership and how seemingly out of touch they are which is too similar to the leadership of the GOP to ignore.

When certain GOP senator candidates made inflammatory statements about abortion and rape I couldn't help but thinking that the GOP leadership did a poor job educating these men on being drawn into conversations that they can not win but certainly can lose. Racings lasix argument while not in the same emotional category as abortion or rape has brought out a stunning array of attacks on the industry from those within the business. The negative public relations hit that racing has taken from this self created problem is almost impossible to backtrack from. Just as those candidates made statements that will be used against them for the remainder of their political (and potentially professional) careers, the negativity that has been used against  horse racing will be impossible for some to forget. We have made a terrible mistake in debating this topic in the public eye in a political manner (attacks on the opposing sides, hyperbole, exaggeration, rumor mongering, etc.) because we have not only divided the sport with no positive ending in sight but have swayed many neutral observers against racing for no good reason based on false pretenses (that the public cared about lasix or that lasix was to blame for some nebulous issues that modern day horses supposedly have).

"Mistakes are the portals to discovery"
That quotation from Irish author James Joyce could be of use to both the GOP and the horse racing business if they are cognizant enough to understand that mistakes are being made. The Breeders Cup should not be in the business of swaying regulatory issues which it clumsily has tried to do despite its own relevance being brought into question. The number of races, unwieldy two day format, weak fields, increased international event competition, the vast majority of races being broadcast on a minor channel, stagnant handle and attendance are issues that the Breeders Cup should be addressing. However by banning lasix next year from all races it risks further alienating owners, trainers and the fans that bet on the races, also known as the people they should be looking to serve not irritate. The Kentucky Derby is one of the few events in racing to show almost unending growth yet CDI felt that an imperfect but functional system of selecting runners needed to be overhauled despite the potential detriment to the industry as a whole. The new points system marginalizes 2 year old stakes racing so much that the Breeders Cup Juvenile is now worth the same value to the winner towards getting into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby as the 4th place finisher of the UAE Derby. Can someone explain why this makes sense?

A lot was made of the "likability" factor in the presidential race and how much people felt that the candidates "cared" about them. For whatever reason a majority of people liked Obama more than they did Romney and felt that he cared more about them. Racing fans probably understand this concept as many of the news items of the last few years have not shown that the racing establishment cared much about them. This isn't meant to support or criticize but the NYRA takeout scandal, the TOC raising takeout, the claims made that performance enhancing drugs are rampant or that lasix should be classified as such, the ticket policies of the Churchill Downs pertaining to the Derby, inconsistent stewards rulings in regards to incidents on the racetrack, etc. are not giving our customers a warm and fuzzy feeling. Insulting, confusing and ignoring your customers are rarely the path to growth in any industry.

The GOP has to modernize its social platform, do a better job of educating the population about its economic policies and become a more open minded and accepting group of people. They must learn to bend on some issues, tone down the radicals on the far right and become a party that is moderate and willing to compromise. Thoroughbred racing has to start to put its best foot forward by eliminating the negativity that too many wish to promote in order to further their personal agendas. Racing needs to treat its customers better, try to get those industry groups on divergent paths back on the same page and work to promote what we do well and stop trying to turn back the clock to the "golden age" of 1960.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Poker has had a well publicized renaissance over the last decade. A combination of the vast reach of the Internet and a popular ESPN television series took the game out of smoke filled backrooms and placed it squarely in front of a wagering public hungry for action. Horse racing failed to capitalize on its own Internet monopoly on legalized gambling but that is a story for another day. What is interesting about the game of poker is how closely it resembles a particular segment of the thoroughbred industry, ownership of horses.

While there are obvious differences as a poker player can simply walk away and choose when he wants to play while the owner is beholden to daily expenses as long as horses continue to eat and has to play by the racing secretary's schedule. However some parts of each game are eerily similar and thoroughbred racing can learn from poker if we stop making excuses and start paying attention.

Like poker, playing the claiming game has many twists and turns with bluffs, upping antes and folding hands part of both games. Like poker you need to hold your cards/horses close to the vest, trying to find the easiest spots to run in just as a poker player looks for good hands to play. Sometimes you draw a great hand and sometimes you claim a bad horse. An owner must "keep the competition honest" by sometimes dropping a horse in class to win simply to do that. Sometimes you push your chips into the middle of the table and raise the horse in class. Developing patterns is taboo as your opponents will quickly use those trends against you.

Where am I going with this? Well in some racing locales there is a guy who is playing the game so well that he is seemingly winning every pot. Phil Ivey has nothing on him. Horses are winning on the drop, on the rise, off the layoff, on the cutback, just about all other factors except human connections are thrown out the window. If this happened at a poker table the seats would empty out after a few hands. As self proclaimed world's greatest gambler Amarillo Slim once proclaimed, "Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're it". As genius trainers continue to win every hand more and more players are leaving the table, owners are realizing that they are the sucker. Some may try a different location, most just walk away.

Casino's may not be the friend of the racing industry but there are lessons to be gleaned in how they do business. A player that wins too much hurts business which hurts the bottom line. When the bottom line is affected, the winning player is asked to move on regardless of any proclamations of innocence. Now because most of these obscene winning streaks are being accomplished at predominately C level tracks, with claiming and low level allowance horses the NY Times doesn't focus its spotlight on this story (or perhaps because its internal sources in racing are not concerned with the riff raff of places like Delaware Park and Hawthorne when lasix is such a politically correct target). But don't be fooled, these kinds of "miracles" seem to seep into the big leagues then all of a sudden the evil eye is cast upon the "newcomer" with the magic wand. That the sport is content to simply let these things play out with no plan to stem the tide of owners (and gamblers) folding their hands and pushing themselves away from the table for good is really all you need to know about why casino's and the game of poker thrives and why racing doesn't.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Post Breeders Cup thoughts

Why are people so concerned about European participation in the Breeders Cup? So much hand wringing is done over the BC's use of "World Championships" in its title and for the life of me I can't figure out why anyone cares? Does the World Series title mean less because we don't invite teams from France to participate?

I'm having a hard time understanding the support for Animal Kingdom or Shackleford as the Eclipse winner in the 3 year old division. Caleb's Posse won 5 stakes this year including the Kings Bishop, Ohio Derby and Breeders Cup Mile over older horses. It isn't "3 year old over a classic distance", it is 3 year old and clearly Caleb's Posse was the most accomplished 3 year old not to mention beat both Uncle Mo and Shackleford fair and square. Make the results on the track matter. Winning the Derby is every one's goal but lets be fair, Super Saver and Giacomo and other pretty ordinary horses have accomplished that. It is a shame that Animal Kingdom was injured but he simply didn't do enough. Shackleford's connections may be looking to gain the participation votes but he didn't win enough.

College basketball and horse racing have some things in common. Both have year end events that now overshadow the regular season and both feature far too many participants that only hard core fans would know. Do we really need five Breeders Cup races for 2 year olds? Especially now that most of the best horses don't even debut until Saratoga/Del Mar?

Zenyatta (who I believe was vastly overrated historically) would have won the Classic this year by 5. I don't think it is going to get better either. Is anyone really excited by the prospects of Rattlesnake Bridge and Stay Thirsty staying in training? Havre de Grace is scheduled to come back and hopefully she will compete against colts most of the year and not 'do a Zenyatta' and use a cup cake schedule to prep for the Breeders Cup. Seemingly the returning horses are better at 1 1/8th as she most likely is as well.

Everyone talks about the European dominance in the Turf events like that hasn't always been the case most years. I youtubed (is that a real word?) the BC turf race from the 1st Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984 and the winner was Lashkari over All Along and Raami. All were European breds and as a matter of fact the 1st five finishers were foreign bred and only the third place finisher was trained by an American trainer. What is really telling about the difference between training/racing in 1984 and 2011 is everyone of the 11 runners in the inaugral Breeders Cup Turf was coming off of a race within 3 weeks. Foreign breds ran 1,2,3,4 in 1985 as well. I guess Lasix was screwing up the breed then too.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What if I'm right?

I have started at least a half dozen blog posts over the last few weeks that I either didn't finish or post for various reasons. Most centered on the Lasix issue in some manner, usually triggered by some inane take by a member of the No Lasix cartel. Obviously I have made my view on the subject pretty clear and honestly it is getting tiresome countering the same inaccuracies and misguided assumptions again and again. While I maintain it is up to each and everyone of us who understand the issue to try to educate those who don't on the reality of a Lasix ban and the truth in what will happen if this situation isn't resolved sensibly, I admit I am getting worn down. No, no I'm not changing my view of the issue, just feel a deepening depression that the people who have the power in this business are so hopelessly out of touch that we are pretty much doomed to a continued slide into something more along the lines of pro Lacrosse than a major sport. Of course the cynic in me keeps putting thoughts in my mind that these people can't possibly be this crazy and there must be an underlying, hidden agenda at work. Most likely my cynical side is giving them far too much credit as there has seemingly never been a comprehensive, formulated plan concerning anything in this business which is precisely why we are where we are now.

I'm not going to rehash the entire Lasix issue here as I'm sure everyone is sick of debating on whether it works (it does), its theoretical side effects (wildly exaggerated), if it should be considered a performance enhancer (a no win situation either way), or supposedly what the "public" thinks (they don't seem care) or Europeans think (who cares?). What I want to do is express my exasperation with how the industry as a whole conducts its business, ask why so many people in the horse racing business feel we as a sport should have a self esteem issue, and warn how this issue may be the straw that breaks the camels back and sinks us as a big league sport forever. I apologize in advance if I am depressing you during what should be a joyous season (Saratoga/Del Mar) but the thing is that no one seems to be listening to common sense.

What other business would call Congress and ask to be called to the carpet? What other business would repeatedly air its dirty laundry in front of the world, even if most of that world didn't really care? What other industry would treat so many of its customers on both the front side and backside so poorly and expect them to keep coming back? What other sport would have respected owners ask for a bill that would cripple the sports ability to treat its athletes? What other business has so many different entities in which none of them are willing to sacrifice for the common good? What other industry has no national marketing plan, no regional cohesiveness, no business plan, no stated goals, no idea of who its customers are or what they want? How in the world have we made it this far?

I want to ask if anyone from the No Lasix Cartel has done any financial analysis on what the effect of banning Lasix will have on the industry, particularly on individual owners? Anybody run any numbers to see what kind of damage that this move will cause? Are you really convinced that the upturn in business resulting from this campaign will make the bottom line stronger? Has anyone thought of the fallout from the continued negative characterization of racetrack vets as charlatans who only care about making money and American trainers as drug pushing rubes? Sadly we all know the answer to these questions. I have yet to see any financial documentation that that this is a positive business move. Sure we have the same old tired crap about horses making less starts. Of course everyone fails to mention that this trend began in 1960 (long before Lasix) or that our horses in their current "weakened breed" state still make a whole lot more starts every year than their supposedly "hardy" brethren in Ireland or France (6.2 versus 3.1 in Ireland or 4.2 in France). Interestingly field size has shown to be about the same in 1965 as it was in 2009 (8.59 versus 8.24) but hey why let facts get in the way?
Business owners would you make a drastic change in your business without first checking to see if it was going to negatively effect your bottom line and/or put your business partners in a tougher economic position?

Exaggeration you say? Let's play the assumption game that seems so popular in racing circles. Let's assume Lasix is banned starting January 1, 2012. How many horses that were viable racehorses on December 31st, become completely worthless the next day without lasix? 5%? 10%? 20%? I suppose it is impossible to know exactly but lets say that 10% (a fairly reasonable guess based on conversations with many trainers and vets) become pretty much worthless, unable to race competitively or worse. Being that there were 68,235 starters last year we are forcing roughly 6800 horses into some sort of retirement (edit-I completely forgot about horses in training who didn't start which makes the 68235 number low by at least 10,000 to 15000). Without getting into the ancillary issue of what to do with unwanted horses, does anyone stop to think that the owners of 6800 horses are suddenly looking for homes for the vast majority of those which can not be converted into breeding stock (what you thought that people weren't going to breed well bred mares because they bleed? Ha!) So all the money that has been poured into these horses is now a sunk cost, never to be recovered. Is that a good thing? How many people are going to try to push the envelope and ask their trainers/vets to find alternative (illegal perhaps?) ways to control bleeding. Since we are playing the assumption game we will assume that most of those efforts are failures. So not only have we completely devalued thousands of our customers assets but many of those owners will chase good money with bad trying to salvage that asset.

How many horses will not become completely worthless but because they are prone to bleeding to a lesser degree race less hence fewer opportunities to earn, less efficient use of available stall space and the negative affect on field size? You think trainers are conservative now? Wait till you see how Derby horses are campaigned without Lasix. No one will be taking chances and running much when you can just work your horse on medication and be confident that your horse wont have a bad bleeding episode. This isn't 1980 anymore. Horses with 3 and 4 lifetime starts running in the Derby will be the norm, not the exception.

Do people realize that by calling Lasix a performance enhancer they are more or less degrading the entire sports' last 25 years? I always considered a performance enhancer an illicit substance that gave the user an unfair advantage over their competition. Legal use of Lasix doesn't give anyone an unfair advantage, to the contrary it levels the playing field especially since the RMTC came up with model rules which were adopted by most states. Who do people think that they are earning brownie points with by constantly demonizing trainers and vets? Does banning Lasix somehow turn us back into caring horseman? Isn't it a backhanded compliment to say "hey those guys aren't abusing their horses anymore since we took away their drugs"? If you tell your betting customers that they have been betting on races that weren't exactly on the up and up for years, why would they believe things are changed especially when the cheaters will be winning at an even greater percentage? Is this the way to credibility? To bash ourselves back to prominence? What other sport/business operates in this manner?

I currently train 26 horses of varying ability (well mostly modestly talented). I know of 2 that will become pretty worthless without Lasix and a few others that probably wont be nearly as good without it. Things are rough right now in the business. Owners have disappeared, many of those who have stayed are cutting back. People are dragging their feet getting those checks out. Vendors are understandably getting fidgety about payment and are reining in credit. Expenses continue to rise. The economy appears stagnant. This is the view from slots heaven where weak horses are running for upwards of $330k a day in purses. If things are tough here how bad do you think it is at Ellis Park or Colonial or other places with fewer opportunities and soft purse structures? To think that there are bettors that are going to increase their handle because there isn't Lasix is insane. People who think that this isn't going to cost us more owners, so many who have grown weary of 47% winning trainers and increasing expenses are kidding themselves. Just tell them their nice allowance horse who they thought might develop into a good horse will need "time off" because he bled and see what kind of reaction you get. Are all those foreign jurisdictions going to supply us with owners? Don't forget when you watch the races at Saratoga or Del Mar that the choices we make effect everyone in the business, that the game doesn't need to be made tougher for those who pay to put on the show and that rash decisions made based upon opinions without significant statistical/financial analysis are usually incorrect ones. Just think of how we came to be in this downward spiral in the first place...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Those who do not learn from history...

One of the largest commercial supporters of sports in America, horseracing included, is the brewery giant, Anheuser-Busch. It is almost unthinkable now that at one point in American history roughly 90 years ago, the products that Anheuser-Busch produces were considered illegal. The Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress in late 1919, effectively defined any intoxicating liquor of any manner to be deemed illegal to produce, sale or consume in any of the 48 states. Looking back now Prohibition was poorly conceived, ineffectively enforced, and ultimately repealed as it became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression. The side effects of the Volstead Act were "the proliferation of rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity". Think Elliot Ness fighting gangsters in the Untouchables or Capone waging a gang war in the St. Valentines Day Massacre. While the period provided material for some great cinematic triumphs the fact is that at one point in American history the majority of citizens and ultimately Congress actually thought that having the Federal government ban all alcohol was a good idea.

How does this tie in to the current debate on medication you might be asking? Well the answer is that the lessons of Prohibition should be remembered as we consider the IHIA. Undoubtedly the Anti-Saloon League's agenda driven policy of eliminating alcohol and it's adjoining "evils" sounded like a good idea to many, including Congress in 1919. If you didn't drink it was most likely an easy decision to support the 18th amendment as surely there was at least one negative, alcohol-fueled incident in most people's experience. The thought might have been "this doesn't directly affect me because I don't drink or rarely imbibe so perhaps eliminating alcohol will eliminate a lot of problems associated with alcohol". Of course banning something isn't necessarily going to keep people from still doing it and no one thought perhaps we are going to create a whole new set of problems by trying to eliminate instead of better regulate. 

We all know how Prohibition created immense wealth for the criminal gangs which took over production, importation and distribution from legitimate businesses. It is also easily recalled that the Federal government did a poor job of enforcing prohibition as by 1925 an estimated 30000 speakeasy clubs existed in New York City alone. When caught the criminals often wound up going free as the booming bootlegging business gave them cash to hire powerful lawyers and bribe often low paid officials and potential witnesses. Doesn't this sound vaguely familiar?

Fast forward to 2011 and substitute equine drugs for alcohol. "Let's get rid of all these drugs" is the new battle cry. Many people spend 3 seconds pondering the issue and decide that "yeah that sounds like a great idea". I mean how can these crazy trainers actually be FOR drugs, especially these "performance enhancers"? Don't they know that drugs are bad and hay, oats and water is good? Compared to alcohol use in humans, drugs in regards to racehorses can certainly be abused but the vast majority of people use them responsibly despite the propaganda being leveled against trainers and vets by supporters of IHIA. 

Like the Volstead Act, the IHIA looks to supersede states authority and create a Federal law that deals with performance enhancing substances. Similarly it seems that the vast majority of people who this bill does not directly effect are in support of it.  Despite the protests of the people who actually understand the side effects that this bill will create, it seems like those pleas are not even being considered. Naturally those in support  were misguided in 1920 and they are likewise in 2011.

Al Capone already exists in this game. His name isn't Capone anymore but you can substitute whatever local training savant suits you. He is already reaping ill-gained profits and in many cases has virtually no rap sheet because the authorities are woefully underfunded, disinterested, incompetent or most likely some combination of all of these. He isn't fazed by IHIA because what he is doing is already illegal and nothing is happening now. The dirty little secret behind the IHIA is that there seems to be no change in who conducts the testing and there is no mention of something that would be more effective than post race testing, actual investigation. The legitimate trainer will be handcuffed by the woefully inadequate definition of "performance enhancing drug" while for the 2011 training Al Capone's, business will continue to boom, lawyers will continue to be hired if somebody screws up and life will simply go on. 

 The following the definition given by the IHIA:

Performance Enhancing Drugs
The term “performance enhancing drug” means any substance capable of affecting the 
performance of a horse at any time by acting on the nervous system, cardiovascular system, 
respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system, reproductive system, musculoskeletal 
system, blood system, immune system (other than licensed vaccines against infectious 
agents), or endocrine system of the horse

Note the bolded words. 
What does "any substance" mean to you? It could mean EPO or elephant juice. It could mean Clembuterol. It could be any one of the thousands of FDA approved (though not necessarily for equines- a topic for another day) drugs. OR it could mean oats, hay, or water. They all are certainly capable of acting on a horses digestive system among other systems. Or Vitamin C. Or any number of minerals. Or sugar. Or just about anything found anywhere. 

Let me ask you another question. What does any substance any time... mean to you? Does this mean that I can't treat my sick horses with antibiotics? What about a horse that has a foot abscess? We cant give him something to relieve his pain? I'm not being paranoid because this IS what it says AND they do go and make a distinction for vaccines so why just them and not other "substances"? What do you do for a horse showing signs of colic? Hope? Think I'm overreacting? Show of hands of those who feel comfortable operating within gray area's of Federal law? Anyone?

Oh they are very specific in the penalty section though. There is a three strikes and you are out policy that makes no distinction between an innocuous, 6 parts per trillion positive of a commonly used ulcer medication or morphine. That should please the lunatic fringe that believes trainers all have horsey meth labs set up in their garages. Had this policy been in effect over the last 20 years virtually every trainer of a large stable would be banned for life. Considering the new nebulous definition of a performance enhancing drug, the theoretical good guys are in danger as well. Of course we all know that not all are treated equally in life or horseracing and surely some of the fair haired boys transgressions would be withheld for "the good of the sport". I'm bald so you know where I am classified.

The biggest injustice in the entire drug testing system currently in place is that the detection of a drug is considered an infraction despite very little research into supporting the theory that the substance in question at that level had ANY affect on the horse's performance. The supposed improvement act not only does not address this injustice but accelerates the issue by calling virtually everything a drug now. 

Next time you have a drink remember that in the not that distant past you'd be breaking the law. Now you know how we feel.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The blind appealing to the stupid...

Horse racing in America is a wonderfully complex cross between an athletic sport, a gambling venture and an agribusiness. The levels of competition varies wildly from bush tracks running in Louisiana to million dollar babies competing at historic Saratoga. The sport has a rich tradition seen in events like the Kentucky Derby which has been run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky for 137 years. The exotic wagers now played at tracks across the country have pools that sometimes reach into the millions of dollars with six figure payoffs. The economic impact of horse racing is estimated by the American Horse Council in terms of GDP to be $10 billion dollars in direct impact and $26 billion in total. In 2005 there were over 380,000 jobs supported by horse racing. 

Too bad a few people are willing to throw it all away. 

I once trained for a partnership in which Arthur Hancock was the lead member. The horse was pretty slow and when his higher profile trainer needed to race him below where his usual circuit ran, he sent me the horse. We won a few races with him at the lower end of the scale and the horse was eventually claimed. I spoke to Mr Hancock a few times and he was a pleasure to deal with. Personally I like him and respect the niche he has created in the business by doing his own thing. 

But he is about to destroy the business of horse racing.

Understanding that the way medication or drugs have been dealt with in the United States in terms of the horse racing business has been a complete mess is a point that we all agree on. Because horse racing has been run on a state by state or track by track manner we have many different regulations though most aren't really that different since the work done by the RMTC that anyone but vets or trainers or racing lab chemists would even notice. Steroid use was not even regulated before it was ultimately banned a few years ago in a public relations move prompted by the high profile breakdown of a horse who wasn't even found to be on steroids. It is safe to say that on the national level we have failed to bring forth a coherent medication policy that would not only address differences between the jurisdictions but would be based upon scientific valid information and would bring painful penalties for those found to be breaking the rules. The status quo is not acceptable to most of the horseman and veterinarians that are currently working on the front lines of the sport. There are some trainers that are seemingly "too good" and we all know that human nature and greed can sometimes overwhelm common sense and moral judgement especially when there is a lot of money on the line. Trainers and vets who "push the limits" or in plainer terms, "cheat", are not only taking dirty money out of the pool but they are unfairly propping themselves up professionally, often seeing a spike in their business from the owner element that simply wants to win at any cost regardless of the method.  The vast majority of owners and trainers and gamblers want to see these guys rooted out and tossed from the game. However it isn't exactly going to happen that way with the carpet bombing of the business of American horseracing known as the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act.

If you have ever seen the movie "Trading Places" you will recall the theme of the movies revolves around a bet between two wealthy businessmen brothers on a social engineering theory that one of the brothers has. Mortimer Duke has a theory that he believes in and makes a token bet with his brother Randolph of one dollar. The ultimate tale that is told is that the two rich brothers disrupt the lives of many with no regard to the damage caused just to see if their own theory was right or wrong. Where am I going with this? Well welcome to horse racing's version starring Mr. Hancock, George Strawbridge, Roy and Gretchen Jackson and all the others who have thrown support behind this bill. They are betting the future of horse racing on the Federal Government's ability to stop trainers from using Lasix. They have a theory that people aren't betting our races anymore because the horses are over medicated or in their terms, drugged. Of course there is no actual evidence this is true. They also have a theory that the breeding stock has been genetically altered due to use of medication and drugs over the last few decades. Naturally there is really no evidence for this either. But hey it's our theory and we are sticking to it!!! 

Without rehashing the same pros or cons of Lasix in particular (despite there being a preponderance of scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness) the new tactic of calling it a performance enhancer is ridiculous. It is like trying to make Nike's illegal because LeBron James hits a few game winning shots. "He wears those so they must be giving him an advantage". Of course since virtually every horse can run on Lasix and every player can wear Nikes there is no advantage gained. So onto the breeding theory! What amazes me is that if these well-heeled people actually believed that this medicated/breeding nonsense was true why didn't any of them try to create a better product by selectively breeding using supposedly drug-free  European, Asian, South American and Australian breeding stock? If you had the money and were so passionate that you'd invite the feds to your house, why not just prove the theory yourself without dragging the rest of the racing industry down with you?

Why so pessimistic you may ask? 

Well unlike most of the people who signed the letter of support, I deal with real life racing issues on a daily basis. I have no billionaire owners. I have no graded stakes quality horses. I didn't inherit millions and I haven't made a ton of money in another business. My livelihood is dependent on my racing stable and I have neither the time nor funds to play out grand experiments. The horses I train are the ones that people that signed the letter didn't want. They are either not bred well enough or physically flawed or in some cases both. My horses aren't usually going to wind up in a breeding shed, there is little residual value so they have to earn. If they aren't able to pay their way we move them along to new careers and are careful with who we deal with in that regard. We can't just "give them time" every time a bump or bruise arises. We can't adhere to the preposterous theory that horses with physical issues such as allergies or poor feet shouldn't be allowed to race because those in ivory towers don't want them to have access to modern medicines that deal with their inherited issues. We can't just kick a filly out for 3 months every time they might tie up or bump their shin. We can't afford to send our horses who might bleed to get hypobaric treatments every time they run. We aren't playing this game as a hobby, this is a business.

So maybe my horses and owners aren't impactful on the national scene. We probably won't have any Derby horses next year and we surely won't be getting any horses from the people we are more or less calling out. But I have trained for hundreds of people during my years training, earned millions of dollars for them and have had tens of millions wagered on my horses. The thing is there are way more guys like me out there in this business than there are people on that list. WE are the backbone of this sport, not those which wish to invoke a Federal bureaucratic nightmare on us over some theory. We need to save the sport from this monstrosity which not only will lead to more horses bleeding (negative), compromise horses form when they do bleed or don't bleed which will now be much more random (negative), will ultimately lead to higher vet bills (negative-it cost WAY more to treat a horse that had bled than it does to give a $20 shot of Lasix), will cause many owners to leave the game because of the higher costs associated with owning horses especially if they are unfortunate enough to buy a horse that bleeds from someone off of that list or are constantly having to send horses to the farm to supposedly heal ailments (negative), won't address the questionable practice of putting screws and wires in baby horses legs to straighten them out and sell them as new (negative), won't address the real drug problem of the mystery guys who are able to win 42% and yet never get a bad test (negative), and will leave the ivory tower people lacking anything else to blame once all its bogeymen are gone.

American horse racing has many issues to deal with in 2011. The economy is still in the tank, there is a serious lack of owners and soon to be a serious lack of horses. The takeout is still too high most places, the product on the track is still weak overall. It is still very expensive to breed, raise and train a thoroughbred racehorses and that won't change. We need creative minds and we need real change. We need to develop new players who see the advantages that racing gives them that other forms of gambling dont like the ability to make a lot from a little. Exchange markets operated by the industry with the profits going to the participants who put the show on is where the Federal Govt can get involved. Keep the third party foreign companies from siphoning off the huge profits that exchange wagering in the US will produce. Spend time and money investigating the 42% trainers, these guys are ripe to get caught, they aren't master criminals and the stuff has to get into the horses somehow. REAL CHANGE NOT CHANGE IN THEORY!

If you have gotten to this point I ask just one thing of you. Read the bill that is proposed. It is a piece of garbage that should cost Whitfield and Udall their seats for sponsoring such a joke of a bill. The severe lack of clarity or specifics is appalling for Communist China let alone America.

 "The use of performance enhancing drugs is widespread in the United States, where no uniform regulations exist with the respect of the use of and testing for performance enhancing drugs in interstate horseracing" is on the 1st page of the bill. The premise I suppose is that Lasix is a performance enhancing drug because since 99.8% of samples tested are negative it is hard to say with any truth that use of drugs is widespread. In regard to regulations and Lasix virtually every state has close to identical regulations on Lasix. 1st page, basically inflammatory and inaccurate statement. US Congressman everyone!

Read the definition of "drug". Basically everything under the sun can be construed as a drug including food and water, carrots and sugar! 

This is going to cause false positives for innocuous things, make caring for horses technically illegal in many cases and lets not forget that there are no timetables known or given for any specific medications since virtually everything is banned for no actual specified time. So you could in theory buy a horse at the Fasig-Tipton May 2 year old in training sale, give him a few weeks off, get him ready for Saratoga, run him in the middle of August, never give him a drop of anything other than hay, oats and water and still come up with a positive test for something given to him prior to you owning the horse. Yeah this is the answer....

With respect given to the recent false alarm rapture I leave you with this...

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)