As the saying goes, it would be a shame to let such a good crisis go to waste. Bill Finley wrote a great column today, calling for the end of winter racing in New York. The editorial board of the Times has already provided their political cover on the issue. If ever there was a chance to get out from under the ill-advised, tax-starved decisions from forty years ago that brought us this bush-league racing product in the first place, this is it.
Here’s how it could go down. You can’t expect Christopher Kay to play a leading public role, as he’s a businessman with a politician who just got re-elected to another 4-year term for a boss. What he needs to do is drop the “enhanced guest experience” crap for a minute and whisper into the appropriate ear that what NYRA has is a “branding problem” (I hate this business-speak, but, when in Rome). Winter racing, and all the calamities that come with it, are dragging down the NYRA brand. Eliminate state-mandated winter racing dates and ordinary levels of caution will soon become sufficient, leaving NYRA to lavish its abundances upon their guests, with goodness and tribute destined to ensue …
Safety is tops among the several good reasons it may be time to curtail winter racing in New York, but one I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is that it would also eliminate cold weather as a reason for not consolidating the NYRA circuit by moving all non-Saratoga racing to Belmont Park — a track that’s built for June, not February. It would open up the state-owned land Aqueduct sits on for development, which has to be a tempting secondary effect.
… think like an outsider. You really want to try to explain claiming to an animal-rights activist, a state legislator or a 60 Minutes host? “So, let me get this straight Horse Racing Person … a trainer can run a horse he or she no longer wants because it’s slow or has an ailment that really doesn’t look like one, and hope some other trainer claims it? No questions asked?”
This has nothing to do with Hendrickson or Navarro or Trombetta or the Morrises, or people who play the claiming game. It has everything to do with the racing model the industry provides for its participants. We can do better.
The outcry over Grade 1 winner Monzante’s death following a claiming race in 2013, or the spike in inner-track fatalities at Aqueduct in 2012 (and again, this winter), is but a preview of the crisis to come if one of these stories about claimers not only crosses over into mainstream media, but sticks.
When Kentucky mandated last year that state veterinarians give pre-race Lasix shots, in place of private vets, the results were eye-opening, reports Ryan Goldberg in the final installment of TDN’s drugs in racing series (PDF):
Besides the volume of Lasix [which declined], murkier drugs largely disappeared from post-race tests. Scollay said she had seen evidence that a drug called GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, was commonplace in Kentucky. The amino acid, which is present in the supplement “Carolina Gold,” is endogenous to horses as well as humans — it’s the predominant receptor blocker in the central nervous system. It has a pain-mitigating and calming effect that can conserve a horse’s energy prior to a race. However, because it’s naturally occurring and leaves a horse’s system within three to four hours, finding suspicious levels in post-race tests is difficult.
Its use in Kentucky was apparently curtailed once regulatory vets came in. The “noise” in post-race samples all but departed. Lasix is administered within four hours of a race; private vets were apparently giving GABA at the same time. There was no trace.
Wow. I wonder if the same thing happened in New York after the NYRA detention barn — in which horses were monitored for six hours before a race and only state vets could administer Lasix — opened in 2005, and if the concentration of Lasix in the blood, as well as the presence of other drugs or supplements in test samples, rebounded after it closed in 2010?
This game … it’s the best when you’re winning. It’s the worst when you’re losing. And today, racing is losing one of its most gracious, popular, and successful jockeys of recent years. Ramon Dominguez — at the peak of his career, winner of 4,985 races, earnings of almost $192 million, and the Eclipse award for riding 2010-2012 — announced that he is retiring due to a brain injury suffered in an accident at Aqueduct last January.
David Grening has reactions from the New York racing community in his report on this morning’s news: “It’s just devastating to lose someone like that in our industry,” said Steve Rushing, the rider’s agent. Many share the sentiment.
Good luck to Dominguez as he continues his recovery. He’ll be missed.
2:30 PM Addendum: Here’s a spreadsheet of Dominguez’s record in graded stakes 1999-2012 and lifetime stats by year, compiled by Equibase.
… there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients — poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them — no more or less than means to an end.
What’s the future for claiming races?
That’s one of the questions I took away from reading the New York Task Force report, which determined that sharply increased purses “commoditized” lower level claiming horses earlier this year, and suggested reforming claiming rules so that claims may be voided if a horse is vanned off. “The voiding of a claim should not require the death of the horse,” the report’s authors write on page 60. Practical, humane — exactly the sort of rule change that’s necessary if claiming races are going to continue to be a significant part of the game. But while the imbalance in purses and claiming prices at Aqueduct may have led to the resulting claiming frenzy last winter, it didn’t actually commodify the horses, because they were already commodities. Most in racing don’t question the system — the claiming game has been a pretty elegant solution to keeping races competitive over the years — but it’s becoming harder to defend.
The Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita in 1986, 1993, 2003, 2008 and 2009. In those five years, 31 Breeders’ Cup races were decided on Santa Anita’s main track. Horses coming off a race in New York have won just one of those 31 races for a miniscule 3.2% strike rate. That one winner was Lady’s Secret, who captured the 1986 Distaff after having won the Beldame in her most recent start. Lady’s Secret was voted 1986 Horse of the Year and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.
Yikes. I knew the record was poor, but that’s a stark stat.
New York prepped horses do a bit better finishing in the money in main track Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita, with 17 running either second or third in the five years the BC has been held at the SoCal track. The main track race in which New York prepped horses have done the best at Santa Anita is the Juvenile Fillies — five New York fillies have finished in the money. New Yorkers also did their best on the Santa Anita main track in 2008 and 2009 — the synthetic surface years — when five and four, respectively, finished in the money, particularly in the Filly and Mare Sprint (2nd and 3rd, 2008), Distaff (2nd and 3rd, 2008), and Dirt Mile (2nd and 3rd, 2009).