The ‘Sport of Kings’ Needs a Commissioner

December 13, 2022

Photo by Ernie Belmont/Past The Wire

Horse Racing and Breeding Need Better Standards

By Ashley Tamulonis

A couple weeks ago, Horse Racing Today posed the following question on their Facebook page: “You are in charge of horse racing for a day, and you get to make three permanent changes. What are those changes?”

I think we can all agree that our industry is in desperate need of more than just three changes, but as the old adage says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Now, more than ever, we need to come together and improve the reputation of our beloved sport. With the likes of Jason Servis’s guilty plea to doping charges and the deaths of horses like Medina Spirit, X Y Jet, and Cezanne hanging over us, it’s high time we did something.

Firstly, we need to appoint a Commissioner of Horse Racing. Nearly every other major sport has a Commissioner, and it’s time we followed suit. We need rules that apply universally rather than each state having varied regulations. A great example of this is the controversy surrounding I’ll Have Another’s nasal strips preceding the 2012 Belmont Stakes (G1). He had competed with them on in both the Kentucky Derby (G1), held in Kentucky, and the Preakness Stakes (G1), hosted by Maryland, but Belmont Race Track, which is in New York, disallowed the use of the strips. It ended up being a moot argument as the Flower Alley colt was retired prior to the race due to a soft tissue injury, but the point remains the same. 

A second good example of rules needing to be standard throughout the country are the variations in what is and is not acceptable in terms of usage of the whip. The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) has actually done a good job of setting uniform standards for whip usage. While it’s a step in the right direction, it just isn’t enough to only universalize this aspect of the sport.

We can barely stagger post times, but something has to give. Medina Spirit was disqualified from his Kentucky Derby (G1) win due to a non-performance enhancing drug, but there are people adamantly standing behind letting Maximum Security keep his accolades despite Jason Servis pleading guilty and admitting on wiretap that the horse had been drugged. Jalon Samuel caused an accident that resulted in Trevor McCarthy being seriously injured and only received a 7-day suspension, which is more than golden boy Irad Ortiz, Jr. would have received if he had been the perpetrator. We cannot continue to pick and choose what gets punished and when. It has to be equal across the board.

Secondly, breeding should be limited to stallions that are at least 5 years old, and the number of mares they can cover in a season should also be restricted. Too often the top colts are retired at the end of their 3-year-old season because of the lure of lucrative stud fees. You have to look no further back than this year to see that. While likely 3-Year Old Male Champion Epicenter has been retired due to injury, many of his peers that won grade one races will be off to stud along with him. Horse racing cannot expect to gain new fans and keep old fans interested if their favorite runners do not run past their 3-year old season. Look at Tom Brady and the NFL. He has quarterbacked for over 20-years, but then we have superstars in our industry like Flightline that retire after six races.  

Circling back to the breeding aspect of things, one of the reasons why rushing colts off to stud is so common is because high stud fees and the ability to breed 200+ mares guarantee an exorbitant amount of money that can not necessarily be earned on the track. Once again, I’ll use Flightline as an example as his stud fee is set at $200,000. If he were to cover 200 mares in 2023 with all foals standing and nursing, he would bring in $40 million for Lane’s End, where he is standing at stud. 

Thirdly, with the foal crop declining each year, we need to consolidate race tracks. With fewer foals being born, field sizes are shrinking, which in turn means that betting is not nearly as profitable as it could be. With the exception of races like the Kentucky Derby (G1), field sizes, particularly in top tier races, have dwindled to the point where we see an odds-on favorite more often than not. Unless you’re betting Pick 3’s, etc, or longshots fill out the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, the return on investment (ROI) can be negligible. Far too often lately I have seen people state that they were not going to bet a particular race because the field size was small and there was a heavy favorite. Bettors are part of the backbone of this industry. If should go without saying that if gamblers aren’t betting, then there’s lost revenue.

The downside to consolidating tracks, of course, is lost jobs. However, I think that can be mitigated by the jobs that can be brought in at the tracks still standing. Grooms, exercise riders, etc. would follow the trainer with which they’re employed. Additional support staff at the betting windows, concessions, etc. would be needed. There would also be demand for new barns and housing facilities to accommodate the influx of horses and personnel from other tracks. 

Are these perfect solutions? No, but considering how plagued the horse industry is with issues, these would go a long way to helping make things right. 

@jonathanstettin Another great look back by Jonathan at the king of the claimers Oscar Barrera.

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