Horse racing needs an image champion, a high-level ambassador.
Two major developments, one on Monday in New York and the other on Tuesday in California, revealed the need for leadership in a sport without a central authority.
Both revelations were substantial. Both impact the racing industry and yet both developed outside the racing hierarchy.
The sport of kings looked reactive rather than proactive, when searing indictments regarding alleged doping of horses by top trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, in conjunction with veterinarians, surfaced on Monday.
New York’s horse racing indictments details
On Monday, a federal indictment in Manhattan claim participants manufactured, shipped, delivered, received and administered thousands of performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, used on horses in several states.
Named in the indictment are:
- Eleven trainers
- Seven veterinarians
- Nine drug suppliers and distributors
Want an educated bet? More names are coming.
New Jersey horse racing referenced
Officials said participants misled authorities in:
- New Jersey
- United Arab Emirates
The New Jersey horse racing angle regarding Servis involves the Haskell Invitational. It was won by his horse Maximum Security last July.
Servis is alleged to have given performance-enhancing drugs to “virtually all the racehorses under his control.” He entered horses in races approximately 1,082 times from 2018 through February 2020, according to authorities.
One of the hidden dangers is that the drugs may be undetectable.
The horse racing industry’s response is deafening
While New York and California organizations made their findings and accusations, racing’s response has been less strident.
There were no vehement denials by the accused. That’s an unusual occurrence in the instantaneous age of social media access.
There was only lip service from racing officials distancing themselves from the problem, but no acknowledgment about what the industry needs to do.
Gulfstream Park reportedly will scratch entries scheduled to run for Servis and Navarro on March 11-13, and perhaps indefinitely.
Finger-pointing has begun among trainers. Individuals in the horse racing industry know it needs to be in front of safety and illegal drug issues; however, there is no unified voice.
The Santa Anita study
The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), which investigated 23 horse racing fatalities at Santa Anita Park in the first quarter of 2019, released its findings on Tuesday, following the indictments in New York.
Participants in the study include:
- Three scientists
- Race stewards
- Several board officials
Key findings among the first 23 fatalities:
- No illegal drugs were used on the horses.
- Nineteen of the deaths involved bone fractures linked to the intensity of training.
Additionally, 39% of the deaths had something to do with surfaces affected by wet weather. California sustained massive rains in early 2019, which made racing surfaces uneven.
Twenty-one of the 22 catastrophic musculoskeletal injury (CMI) cases had evidence of preexisting pathology that is presumed to be associated with high-intensity exercise. Such training predisposed CMI horses to tragic injury.
Recommendations of CHRB’s report
The following recommendations to improve the safety of the horses came from the study:
- Explore utilizing weather-based algorithm(s) for track maintenance and closures.
- Establish strict criteria for canceling racing based on weather and surface conditions.
- Require additional veterinary examinations and/or diagnostics for horses racing or working on “off” tracks (wet).
- Establish video surveillance systems at all CHRB facilities.
The report also concludes that the regulatory veterinarians should have the capability of conducting expanded lameness evaluations that incorporate current technology.
Toward that end, Santa Anita is the first track to use a PET scanner, designed to find issues inside a horse’s legs, specifically the ankles, which likely cause imminent problems. The hope is this scanner could detect a vulnerability and cause a horse to stop racing before an injury occurs.
And finally, Santa Anita has banned race-day medication.
Horse racing has an image problem
The New York and California developments add to what’s been a difficult year, image-wise, for the sport.
Specifically, a 2019 Kentucky Derby disqualification was a high-profile mistake.
Maximum Security suffered the first disqualification in the 145-year race for alleged interference that happens every day, often unchallenged, at racetracks.
The public relations error involved taking 22 minutes to make an arbitrary decision. And, after all of that, regardless of what pious media commentators said, they got the call wrong.
The jockey for Maximum Security allegedly fouled War of Will. The jockey did not file an objection. Maximum Security was shuffled back and rallied from about two lengths back to catch Country House in the stretch.
Essentially, he made up four lengths on Country House after the alleged foul. Disqualifications occur only when stewards believe a foul changed the outcome of a race. Interesting that the racetrack announcer did not even mention the jostling around the turn.
Suspending Maximum Security jockey Luis Saez for a harsh 15 days was also unjust.
Decisions made with financial implications in mind
Ironically, the sport dodged a bigger bullet that day.
Heavy rain just before the Derby created pockets of deep water and made the track look unsafe. Because of television obligations, the race wasn’t delayed for a couple of hours, but it should have been.
The track needed to be dried out.
It’s not far-fetched to believe that the ultimate disqualification of Maximum Security could be tied to the guilt of creating adverse racing conditions in the first place.
Contact around the turn on a wet track? Imagine the outcry from multiple horses falling, amid preventable conditions.
Monmouth Park in New Jersey faced another weather-related dilemma in July.
Record temperatures threatened cancellation of the race for horse-safety reasons. The race was moved to the evening.
But in switching the time after the afternoon card had begun, Monmouth suffered substantial financial losses on the one race it needs each year to sustain its meet.
A win on the “what was right” issue, but a loss is not making that decision sooner.
Potential solutions resulting from recent developments
It seems reasonable to seek agreement nationally on all illegal substances pertaining to a horse.
Another solution lies in the reduction of the Kentucky Derby to 14 participants. Churchill Downs bristles at the suggestion, but the size of this field is part of the problem. There are always traffic issues that often decide races, and even give some good horses no chance because of congestion in the first turn.
It is facetious to say, as Churchill Downs officials have, that these situations can be handled in Europe.
The track put pressure on jockeys to ride in an uncomfortable setting, disqualified the winning horse and suspended the jockey, Saez, for aggressive riding. That’s clearly placing the problem on the people who carried out their assignment.
Additionally, you can’t have bigger fields and handle, which, in turn, elevate safety issues and then penalize the participants.
Yes, a smaller field would reduce handle. However, there’s nothing wrong with $135 million and no incidents in a 14-horse field, especially if it eliminates controversy and unsafe conditions.
Finally, postpone race times when necessary.
For example, World Series games have been rained out, and the MLB has significant television connections, as does horse racing. If a World Series game can be rained out, a Kentucky Derby can be rescheduled or even postponed, if rain suddenly makes the track unsuitable.
Industry people won’t like it, but safety should be paramount.
The impact on horse betting in NJ and elsewhere
New Jersey sports betting customers beware.
Address the takeout percentage issue. Exactas and trifectas range from 25% takeout to more than 30%; no wonder average bettors don’t succeed. A bettor is already losing 30 cents on a dollar before an event is contested.
Sports betting has a typical vig of 10%, a lower one on special occasions.
One aspect of horse racing, the win-place-show percentages, hover in the 17% range. That might be barely acceptable.
But the bigger takeouts give horse betting fans the same profit remote probability as someone playing the Big Wheel in a casino. This is simply greed.
The final nail in the Atlantic City Race Course coffin in 2015 was tied to a rise in projected signal distribution payouts of 50%.
The establishment did not emphasize that fact when it bowed out, but a protracted negotiations squabble had drastically reduced the number of tracks it could offer, dropping participation by 50%.
The tracks, and their simulcast distributors, don’t have a harmonious history.
It is the horse racing industry’s move
It’s horse racing’s turn in the hot seat. What’s happening to the sport is not unlike others, in which either performance-enhancing drugs or cheating extend careers in the age of irresistible money.
Just like baseball and the cheating scandal with the Houston Astros. Or baseball and the steroids era. Football with spying and cheating allegations and domestic violence nightmares.
Yet, in those sports, a commissioner’s office can dole out a stiff sentence, deliver a verdict in conjunction with the players’ associations and ride out the negative publicity.
Horse racing doesn’t have that figure, the person who can assure the public that administrative moves are occurring before there are problems.
Regardless, this is good medicine. What’s happening in these developments will be painful in the short term, but helpful in the long term.
Eventually, it will lead to improved safety.