Racing Plays Russian Roulette

March 26, 2019

A morning line by Mike Valiante.

Be forewarned. This piece is not advocating any particular solution to racings current problems because to be frank I do not claim to be that wise.  I am a gambler and fan with some expertise in business marketing so I admit there are racing insiders who know more about many facets of the game than I.  In an effort to broaden my knowledge I have tried to digest as much information as I possibly could since the recent problems at Santa Anita surfaced. Many solutions have been offered and I do not think it is hyperbole to say that racing is at a crossroad.  What follows is a breakdown in my opinion of the likelihood that the listed solutions will actually take place.

To keep it in a racing parlance I offer you one fan’s morning line.

The Green Group (long shots)

99 – 1 / Working with PETA will improve the situation.  The real odds are much higher but as any fan knows the tote only goes this high.  PETA has publicly stated that their goal is to put the industry or to use their term “animal circus”, out of business. I take them at their word and would suggest working with them is futile.  That does not mean we should ignore them and in my opinion it would be best to respond to any of their claims that are false and inform the public how we are addressing any legitimate points the group makes.  

99 – 1 / Retain the status quo. Everything is fine, just look at record crowds at many of the big events and the celebrities that come by occasionally.  The only positive of crisis situations is that they generally force change. Total handle is down. Foal crops are down. Competition for gambling dollars is up. The game, for better or worse, will look very differently ten years from now. The status quo is not an option.

50 -1 / Establish a national racing commissioner. Very unlikely that an effective one can be put in place. Many of the unique stakeholders at this time seem more interested in protecting their fiefdoms. I can imagine that if the federal government and state AG’s start poking around they may force racing’s hand or one might be appointed as a PR move but will have no real power.

50 – 1 / Ban all medications totally. Unlikely to be enacted or enforced if enacted.

The Black Group (medium odds)

30 – 1 / Added scrutiny in the barns 24/7.  The devil will be in the details and any process is sure to have holes.  The costs and who will bear them make round the clock scrutiny unlikely but there may be some additional safeguards put in place.

20 – 1 / Whip usage banned at all tracks.  Unlikely. More likely that it will be restricted both in its definition (what is whipping?) or whip construction.

10 – 1 / Ban race day medications.  This genie is out of the bottle and although a total ban across all venues is still unlikely the tide is flowing in that direction.

10 – 1 / Better marketing. Many tracks do not have the expertise or desire. There are some exceptions however and it is important to try. Decreasing the takeout would go a long way.

The Red Group (lowest odds)

9 – 1 / Additional vet scrutiny on workouts and race days. Is feasible however must be independent from the insiders. Also, who will bear the costs?  

5 – 1 / Better thoroughbred aftercare. Possible that this will come about. There is certainly an appetite for it and many groups have set up a structure. The money is there just through benevolence alone. This would go a long way from a PR perspective but more importantly it is the right thing to do.

Even Money / Fewer tracks and fewer races. Contraction is coming. It will either be forced upon the game or the game will come to its senses on its own. Less can be more. There is no good economic reason to having tracks cannibalizing each other.

Will the game survive? If the right changes are enacted the chances are probably better than not. It is hard to imagine a sports landscape without the Kentucky Derby and other racing traditions. The game may be smaller and more regionalized but it can have a future.  The current challenge is a little bit like Russian roulette and hopefully if racing does die, it will not be by its own hand.

To the individual stakeholders I will close with a bit of history.  Ben Franklin was known to love games of chance. One of his most famous quotes seems to fit racing’s current situation and the need for cooperation.

“We must indeed, all hang together or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”  

Legend has it that the quote was made near the Liberty Bell. No that is not the defunct Liberty Bell Racetrack which was turned into a mall but if we are not wise, be prepared for more of the same.

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