A Strange Year in the Sport of Kings Reflected

December 29, 2020

As 2020 comes to an end, I find myself looking back at what has been a strange year in horse racing, the Sport of Kings. It was a strange year all around. Between the pandemic, the obvious malfunction of our democracy on so any levels, and the transformation of “the news” to opinions and agendas and blatant spins and falsehoods, you can’t help but see the world is changing. Personally I don’t believe it is for the better, or the bettor, at least not in the immediate future.

Sam machines, ADW’s and even the new small Gulfstream Park all showed glimpses into what the future of racing is likely to become. I think the pandemic accelerated it. We are far from the number 1 spectator sport we once were not so long ago. We hang by a thread, our own worst enemy while all the Neros fiddle. Handle is not going up. That’s a spin I won’t bother explaining here. You either get it or you don’t. The decrease in operating costs by not having bettors on the grounds is welcomed by most racetrack managers. Earlier in the year I wrote about the days we may no longer see cash betting at the track. It is not as far fetched today as it sounded when I originally touched on the possibility. It is what it is. Certain things happen that change things for the long term.

2020 started normally enough. Bob Baffert sent Mucho Gusto to win the Pegasus World Cup, and the Gulfstream Park post time drag was in full play. Maximum Security ventured into the desert to win the world’s richest race, The Saudi Cup. It wasn’t long after that the volcano started erupting. Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were both long suspected of cheating or juicing horses by bettors openly on social media. Often they were outright accused. Racing media for the most part ignored these rumblings. Once Servis and Navarro et al were indicted in Federal Court for charges including using misbranded drugs and PED’s, the accusers felt validated and the media in racing had to pay attention. Rumors and innuendos of additional pending investigations and additional indictments were abound. To date there have been none to speak of, and the cases against Servis and Navarro are still pending. The wheels of justice can turn very slow in normal times, during a pandemic, even slower.

The Saudi Cup saved a few million by holding back the purse in their world’s richest race pending the outcome of the case against Jason Servis. To date they have not released those funds. They have also not announced any pertinent results of their own independent investigation.

What will come of the Servis and Navarro indictments remains to be seen. The prospect for a long term positive impact on our game are iffy at best. Some of the owners transferred the horses to some trainers with similar reputations. To be fair, reputations are not always factual, nor are rumors or innuendos. Further, the pressure is to win and win now and in today’s world of social media cops, anyone who wins at a high percentage clip is labeled a cheater. The game is different today, and percentages are paid more attention to, and are generally higher than they used to be. Social media cops ignore those facts, they don’t fit the narrative. None of this means the game has not become a cesspool of drugs, legal and illegal, off label and on. It has and it needs to be cleaned up far beyond what is going on, and not by social media.

We let the Federal Government make the first move with the indictments. The industry did nothing. Don’t tell me they need proof. It is just not a fact. Anyone of us for any reason can be denied access to the grounds at the track or denied stalls or have entries refused. They can label you an undesirable, or find you are not in the best interests of racing. It has happened. It can happen. I have to question the true commitment by the industry as a whole to the welfare of the horse, and to cleaning up the sport. There are plenty of good people in this game who love the horses and put them first. We are only as strong as our weakest link however, and there are many who just don’t operate in the best interest of the horse or the integrity of the sport.

We failed as an industry to self police. That ship has sailed. Now the Horse Racing Integrity Act has been signed into law. There will be government regulation and oversight. That is scary. Our game is based on past performances, and the pp’s of government intervention and high level oversight is not good. As bad as it may be, I at this point don’t see it being worse that what we have. I may stand corrected but we blew it ourselves and now someone else gets a shot. We can’t survive with higher takeout. How it is funded will be interesting to watch.

If things weren’t in enough of a tailspin, we got hit along with the rest of the world with COVID-19, a corona virus which sure seems politicized. That said, even with a 1% fatality rate it can kill you, and if you are in that unfortunate 1%, the low rate doesn’t really matter does it?

Churchill Downs jumped on it and moved the Kentucky Derby to September without any coordination with the other two tracks, Belmont Park and Pimlico that run the Belmont and Preakness, the other Jewels of the Triple Crown. This was no surprise. Churchill Downs did what they felt was best for them and their shareholders. They answer to shareholders not other tracks, bettors, or fans. We are an industry that has trouble staggering post times, we can’t be expected to re-organize the biggest series in our sport. Obviously Churchill Downs hoped by September fans would be back in the grandstands. They ran for the Roses in September, but we are still waiting the return of fans New Year’s week.

Before the Derby, Bob Baffert looked loaded with Nadal and Charlatan. They both got hurt. Charlatan came up positive for lidocaine after trouncing the field in the Arkansas Derby before he was sidelined. His three year old star filly, Gamine, who won on that undercard did as well. Bob attributed the positives to contamination by a patch worn around the barn. Bob wins a lot and wears a bull’s eye on his back. By his own admission he has to and is committed to being more careful about contamination in his barn, and for the record he supports all the medication reform being discussed.

Now most trainers who lose two Kentucky Derby prospects, top prospects at that, would be knocked out. Not Bob. He won the Roses the first Saturday in September with yet another talented three-year old in Authentic. Authentic took partial ownership to a whole new level in racehorse partnerships. My Racehorse offered shares in the prospect and sold about 5000 of them. They took public criticism from a lot of people on social media about the structure of their operation. Interestingly enough, nobody who bought in complained and they all have a Kentucky Derby win picture of Authentic with their name listed as an owner. Priceless. Don’t think so? ask Godolphin. This was a big positive for the game in a year we needed what we could get. Contrary to what we all have come to believe, it is not always about the money.

One of the best races of the year was the Preakness. We saw the filly Swiss Skydiver receive a masterful ride by Robbie Albarado who many had already counted out, and beat Authentic on the square. The Belmont was won by Tiz the Law, who got beat by Authentic in the Derby. A new order for the races, and three different winners. Charlatan made his way back in the last Grade 1 of the year, The Malibu, opening day at Santa Anita right after Christmas. He blitzed the field which included the latest fastest horse ever, Nashville and one can only wonder what would have happened had he run in the Derby. Imagine if the pandemic had not altered the schedule. Dare we say Bob Baffert may have won another, a third Triple Crown. So much can happen in racing, but that possibility exists to this trained eye.

Authentic proved his mettle with a dominating front running win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The marquee event was run with select fans allowed which was the worst kept secret of the year. They did what they had to do. They wanted some fans at a safe level and they pulled it off for the most part.

The Eclipse Award for the top jockey typically goes to whoever wins the most money. Not much thought goes into that voting process. How about Umberto Rispoli coming to the US and making a major impact on California racing and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the saddle. All this despite a pandemic and agent Ron Anderson who was instrumental in bringing Umberto here abandoning him in favor of an opportunity to represent John Velazquez. Velazquez fired his long time agent and mentor Angel Cordero Jr. somewhat suddenly. The racetrack rumor mill said it was in part because Johnny wanted to ride Tiz the Law leading into the Derby before COVID-19 knocked everything out of whack. Angel, they said, wanted to keep his other rider Manny Franco on the top prospect. Is it true?, who knows, but Johnny not only beat Tiz the Law with Authentic in both the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, but now has the call on Tiz the Law for the Pegasus. That left another Johnny mount, Code of Honor open. Tyler Gaffalione picked him up for the Pegasus. Can we see more irony if Code of Honor beats Tiz the Law in the Pegasus? Horses will humble everyone eventually.

As great as Umberto Rispoli is, he had a rough introduction to the Breeders’ Cup. Rough trips robbed his chances as did a lost stirrup and hard bump. His was great compared to Christophe Soumillon. He flew in from France for the event but tested positive for COVID-19 when he got here. He lost all his Breeders’ Cup rides and most of them won. I lost track of how many, maybe three, two, who knows but he spent his time quarantined while other jockeys rode his winners. Tough game this horse racing.

Gamine, the other horse with the Oaklawn lidocaine positive showed everyone she doesn’t need anything but dirt and one turn to run a hole in the wind in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Once again we saw how even at the so called expert level, so many people in this game get it wrong. There was no speed bias at Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup. It was a lightning super fast track, but you didn’t have to be on the front to win.

Saratoga ran without fans. Calder ran their last race.

I was alive in the Kentucky Derby to Honor A. P. for about half a million dollars. I was alive to Sole Volante for a cool million. All this off about an $1100 wager. I couldn’t close the deal in 2020. Here’s to closing it in 2021. I’ve done it before and will do it again. And yes, Honor A. P. ran the farthest and came home the fastest. Ouch!

The NTWAB told me I couldn’t have an Eclipse vote this year because I don’t write about horse racing enough. Oh well, I’d never want to belong to a group that would have someone like me as a member anyway as it was once said. I guess they overlooked that some of their members write far less, even nothing whatsoever about horse racing. Thank you to the half dozen members who sent letters of recommendation and acknowledged my writing. I do appreciate that.

A lot of us suspected, some knew, but now it is official. We cannot trust the official timing of the races. They are often not accurate and nobody who has any pull seems to care enough to do something about it.

Everyone in racing hated PETA before the pandemic. They still hate PETA. PETA pressed for whip rule changes in California and they got them. It was a dog and pony show, excuse the pun. The new crops are like nerf balls and don’t hurt or break skin. Stewards have always had the authority to call in and fine any rider for improperly or excessively using the whip. It doesn’t happen often. Stewards, do your job, don’t implement rules and fine riders for doing theirs. Riders claim they need to use the crops, not only to encourage, school, and train horses but for safety. I believe them.

Racing thinks it is cleaning up the sport by phasing out Lasix. They are so out of touch. I am anti all race day medications, Lasix included. Lasix .however, is not the problem. You want to phase it out, go ahead, I am all for it. I grew up on New York Racing and we had no Lasix. Things went fine. Better than they are now. If you are going to phase out Lasix without seriously addressing the other problems with drugs in racing, then I think it is just an appeasement for people who have no real interest in our sport. Let me know how that works out.

Besides me, and my brother John John, yes we have the same name, Tommy Hammer Massis is the deadliest bettor I know.

Our Gate to Wire podcast shed some real accurate light on the betting syndicates and how they actually operate. We were the only ones who got it right.

We as an industry are an easy target and take a lot of heat. It goes with the territory. We never got any real recognition for keeping things going pretty darn good throughout a year of unprecedented challenges. The show went on.

Life is funny. When you think things can’t possibly get worse they do. Plans, what plans? Nobody knows what is around the corner. Here’s to hoping 2021 is a lot better than 2020 in every way possible. Happy New Year to all of you and yours. God Bless and be with you all.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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