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 ...at 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)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is REALLY wrong with horse racing.

Economic Indicators: Purses Up, Wagering Down

This was the headline in recently in the Bloodhorse. Naturally the chicken littles were out in force declaring racing "dead" and calling for all kind of changes and reforms to "save" the game. Racinos are bad, a commissioner is needed, too many drugs, too many races, etc. Interestingly hardly anyone ever addressed the real issue that plagues horse racing which is readily apparent if one has a decent overall grasp of the game. 

The product that we are producing stinks.

The day to day racing that is offered for people to gamble on just isn't very compelling. I am not talking about Thistledowns or Will Rogers Downs either. The cards at Aqueduct and Hawthorne were disgraceful on Friday and not much better most other days.  Santa Anita's races have been less than ideal. The weekday product at Gulfstream is pretty weak.

Why is this happening now? Why has this finally tipped the scales against people betting on our races? These are questions with a multitude of answers. The economy has surely played a role in the decline of handle but that is certainly beyond our control. If this singular issue were completely to blame we could simply "batten down the hatches" and ride it out. However there is a ton of evidence that the economic malaise simply exposed the cracks in our hull and we are now taking water at a frightening pace. Drugs are blamed by some but that issue has been batted around long before the current downturn. To think that suddenly a large number players grew a conscience and quit betting on horses seems unlikely. Of course the entire drug issue is skewed when the "Lasix is evil" agenda crew unveils their secret bomb that they have been working on behind the scenes for years. Lasix is an established handicapping factor and has been part of the game for 25 plus years. I really dont think that serious money is staying way from the game because horses use Lasix. In fact that is probably the smoothest part of a level playing field since virtually every horse runs on it. The argument that horses who dont bleed get it too rings hollow to me as I take an aspirin each day and I have never had a heart attack. For years the naysayers said we need scientific evidence. Low and behold when the South African study proved what we had been saying for years, that Lasix works, they ignored it. Anyway the drug issue in this sport really has nothing to do with Lasix or Bute despite what Joe Drape and Bill Finley tell you. The real problem is when guys are winning at unreal percentages and doing unbelievable things with horses and yet they never get any significant positives. Of course the esteemed racing press has no idea why this is happening hence the crusade against the things like Lasix.

Then there are the serial offenders. The guys who are always in trouble, who are always getting bad tests and seemingly always picking up new owners and horses. You know the names, I don't have to say them. Why racing hasn't instituted a system whereby a violation of any sort "earns" you points like a driving violation, I don't know. Lesser incidences earn you fewer points. More serious infractions earn you lots of points. As soon as you get to set level you are suspended for a period of time. Maybe 30 or 45 days. You don't lose your ability to come and train your horses as transferring horses for a short period of time harms the help and horses more than the trainer who just takes a vacation. You just don't get to run. Next level? Take 3 months off. Owners don't like this? Too bad, you know when you hire a guy how many points he has. Tracks don't like this? Too bad, you knew how many points the trainer had when he applied for stalls. Trainers don't like it? Tighten up your ship and stop taking shots. As with everything in life, there is a risk associated with every reward.

As Andy Beyer pointed out in a recent piece, field size is vital in turning the tide of handle decline. He pointed to several factors as to why field size has dropped and how the tracks with large fields have done well. I agree but there are other factors as to why field size has become an issue.
One is obvious but rarely mentioned outside of a racing secretary's office. That is that a trainers winning percentage is often the only tool that an owner will reference when they hire a new trainer. Trainers understand this and the smart ones manipulate the system to their advantage by waiting for a "perfect" spot to come up and then scratch if that spot looks a bit salty. Or they will run the horse below what it is worth in order to keep his percentage high even if that is to the detriment of the owner who may lose a good horse to  claim or win  minor race instead of trying top competition. This is actually good business strategy for the trainer but a real drain on the sport as those are the trainer who wind up with all the talented horses.

When I was growing up in Saratoga following racing as a kid I didn't need a number to tell me who the best trainers were. We like to blame lots of things on the demise of the modern thoroughbred. Drugs, breeding practices, leg surgery to straighten crooked foals, bad horseman, 2 year old sales, etc. All of these things may have played a small part but I believe as much as anything that trainers pointing horses to peak race after peak race with plenty of time in between never allows the horses to develop properly. A lot of this is attributed to the "sheets" philosophy but a trainer who needs his win percentage to stay high doesn't want to mess with too many "prep" races or potential losses.

The sad thing for me is that so many people really dont want to try to understand the deeper issues that the game faces. The takeout IS too high especially at racinos where the ability to lower the take and not too harshly effect the short term bottom line is available. The ability of trainers to cheat without recourse must stop. The drug issue is completely misguided and political. The fact that virtually all the most promising young horses are in the barns of a handful of trainers kills the competition at the top end of the sport and this is seen at places like NYRA where allowance races past entry level are sparse. The presentation of our product on TV is sub-par for the most part. The Federal withholding tax is still an example of the gov't basically stealing money from our pockets.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg here. Maybe a better writer could convey my thoughts a little more concisely. Perhaps I will go into more detail in the future but honestly it seems very few people care enough for me to bother.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Commissioner Simon? LOL! I dont think so.

The Internet has brought a whole new dynamic to the way we discuss topics in horse racing. Before the usual places where the game was discussed was at the rail in the morning, in the clubhouse in the afternoon or in some sort of formal meeting situation between groups representing some segment of the industry. The racing fan or perhaps a better term, patron was rarely included in the discussion and surely the game has suffered for it. However the Internet now provides pretty much anyone with an opinion about the sport or some issue relating to the sport a forum with a wide reaching audience. Between  chat rooms, posting boards and Facebook there are any number of racing topics being kicked around almost around the clock. In its best form, this creates an opportunity to educate interested parties on the game, which is pretty complicated compared to many other sports, especially the wide multitude of gambling options along with different surfaces, distances,  pedigrees, etc. The flip side is that rumors, half-truths and agendas can and do rear their ugly heads which counteracts the educational process by introducing a confusion to what things are and what they should be.

Out of this mess comes the idea that horse racing needs a central governing body, ie. a commissioner. The thought goes that a commissioner granted broad authority by the federal govt is needed to solve the seemingly endless issues that the sport faces ranging from takeout reduction, to medication guidelines and regulatory policy especially considering trainer suspensions, to marketing. If everyone was on the same page they say, the industry would function much better, the problems that we face would be eliminated or at least be under control and the sport would flourish. We could get rid of cheating trainers and the people who support them, axe the race day medications that supposedly make us the laughingstock of the world, increase handle via mandated takeout reductions with tracks not following the script being excluded from simulcast menus across the country. We could get better TV deals and not have to beg ESPN to cover our big races or preempt them with cricket matches or N. Dakota State Tech versus Eastern Montana soccer games. We could stop breeders from over breeding their stallions and make tracks come up with a sensible stakes schedule so we don't have 3 three year old turf stakes at three separate tracks 90 miles apart on the same weekend.

Sounds like a great idea right?

So does ending hunger and world peace.

That is not to say that these aren't all noble goals but the cold, hard reality that we face as an industry makes talk of some all powerful, federally appointed commissioner a complete waste of time.

First of all you have to understand the role a commissioner plays in other sports. The structure of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are completely different than horse racing. Those are privately owned leagues, owned by a consortium of  owners which employ the players AND commissioner.  The players, coaches, umpires, referees, and officials are all employees directly or indirectly of the owners. In horse racing you have completely independent parties, tracks, owners, trainers, jockeys, regulators, gamblers and breeders. None of these parties actually directly work for the other. Sure trainers work for owners and jockeys work for trainers/owners but on a large scale every group works as an independent business.

Before you could even start to set up a central office you have serious questions that don't seem to have logical answers.

Who would this commissioner work for? The racetracks? The horseman? The federal gov't?
Where would his/her powers come from? A federal law or series of laws?
What would the scope of the authority of office of commissioner be? Does anyone really believe a new federal mandate that strips businesses of their right to operate as it see fit (or forces them to operate in a less profitable manner directly benefiting their competitors) has any prayer of surviving especially in the current political climate?
Does anyone really think that there won't be a huge push back from the states that currently regulate (and greatly profit from) racing?
Does anyone really believe that the federal gov't is going to simply appoint a commissioner, grant him wide reaching authority and then exit the scene? Who would this commissioner report to? How much is this going to cost the industry to operate since it is a million to one long shot that the Feds have the stomach to set up a taxpayer funded horse racing commission.
Since the individual state regulators are seemingly not very effective in great part due to the political nature and make up of its boards, why would a federal regulator be any different or for that matter even worse?
Who would possibly be qualified to take this position that isn't already involved with the industry in some way?
Who would hire the commissioner?
How much would a qualified person need to make to take such a position?
Who would they report to? In other words, who would be their boss?
How would the commissioner be evaluated?

These are just things off the top of my head. This entire push for a commissioner is simply a complete waste of time. A much better approach to the problems facing the sport is to tackle issues individually, many times locally. Identify a problem, find a reasonable solution, publicize what steps you have taken and move on to the next. Focus energies towards a single issue at a time. This method has had some successes recently. The elimination of anabolic steroids, advances in horse rescue, etc. If we cant solve a smaller, localized issue then how does anyone expect to solve the larger ones?

As Rick Pitino famously stated during his brief run as the coach/GM of the Boston Celtics, "Larry Bird ain't walking through that door". We need to stop waiting for some prince in shining armor armed with a magic wand. He ain't walking through that door.

Day 16

Well....I'm posting about as often as some trainers run!

A lot has happened since my last posts back on September 16th, 6 months ago. We finalized our decision to switch our focus to the Northeastern/Mid-Atlantic, leaving the Kentucky circuit after 11 years. My house is Louisville has been sold and I don't have a single racehorse, yearling or mare left there. I have split the horses between winter quarters at the Classic Mile in Ocala and Parx, formerly known as Philadelphia Park.