Time For A Revolution In Horse Racing

January 27, 2020

Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the foundations of a new nation, there would be a need for dramatic change from time to time. Yes indeed, a little revolution now and then can be a good thing.

 In 1955, the Greater New York Association (becoming NYRA in 1958) was formed as a non-profit entity to conduct horse racing at Jamaica Racetrack, Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. It replaced the Westchester Racing Association, the Queens County Jockey Club, the Saratoga Association and the Metropolitan Jockey Club. Under the leadership of Harry F. Guggenheim, John W. Hanes, Chris T. Chenery and George D. Widener a plan was formulated and executed that transformed the landscape of racing in New York for decades to come. It was revolutionary in its size and scope of vision. It was birthed by fresh ideas from visionaries who dared to re-imagine the game of horse racing. Of course, not all decisions subsequently made by the NYRA were as forward thinking or even logical but it’s creation represented a specific turning point in American horseracing during a time when racing enjoyed unrivaled popularity.

The challenge today is where to accrue fresh ideas that can serve as a new catalyst for change. Futurists are scientists that analyze the way the world is today and use that information to predict what the world will be like in the future. In this way predictions for the future will enable better decisions today. Horse racing in the 21st century is utterly fragmented and unless we have a re-birth of new ideas that spur us to action rather than rhetoric, horseracing is doomed to be a postscript of sporting history. This is the moment.

The year 2020 will define horseracing in the United States. With energy, hope, faith, discipline, innovation and desire, a revolution through change can re-ignite our imagination and give rise to a new era of horse racing. The revolution must encompass every conceivable facet of racing. It will begin with a thought or two, a revitalized concept of horse racing that deserves a place in the 21st century. We will stand firm and fight the good fight because we believe in the sport of horseracing.

If we rediscover the spirit of horseracing, we can reconnect with old fans, cultivate interest with millennials and resurrect the game. The revolution begins with the masses. Engagement with the fans. Humanizing the experience by seizing new opportunities through technology that will captivate and entertain the public. We have a plethora of social media platforms to reach millions of young people. We must saturate these channels with positive imagery and truthful stories about the daily lives of the horses and horse people. Jockeys, trainers, owners, assistant starters, grooms, exercise riders, veterinarians, officials all have stories to tell and share. All have a part to play and an insight to offer. In such a proactive manner we present human interests and can engage our most vehement detractors with a precise and clear vision. It is impossible to grow a business without cultivating new customers.

Fan engagement is an obvious way to develop a more positive culture. We all understand that horseracing is unequivocally driven and funded by betting turnover. The enthusiasm and participation of gamblers is paramount for the very existence of the game. Horses, owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, exercise riders, mutual clerks, stewards, track supervisors, commentators, analysts, racing officials, track veterinarians, etc., do not exist without the keen participation of the betting public. The fortunes of horse racing are directly correlated with the money that fans and gamblers are willing to invest in the outcome of horse races. Therein lies the enormous challenge for all of us sheltered within the tiny bubble of horse racing. We must create a game that is entertaining and inspires passion. A game that excites and offers opportunity for gambling. It is time for us all in racing to set aside petty agendas and paranoid aspersions. Impossible? Nay, imperative!

Therefore, it is incumbent of everyone in racing to ensure a uniformly level playing field and complete transparency. It is inconceivable that American racing has continued to train and race over surfaces that have remained relatively unchanged for well over 100 years. We continue to race and train on oval shaped dirt courses in a counter-clockwise direction. The popularity of turf racing directly correlates to the safety a natural surface provides. Turf courses are inside of the dirt tracks (with the exception of Woodbine) and are not available for training on a regular basis because turf obviously requires more time to repair, whereas traditional dirt requires only a harrow and sprinkling of water for a “fresh” track.

Horsemen are limited in training options by the track and the weather. Horses that are constantly racing and training in the same direction is not only tedious but it wears on their limbs. Horses lead with their near (left)front on the turns and off (right)front along the straightaways. Factor in the speeds and it should be intuitively obvious that injuries will occur. Common sense should dictate that some horses would prefer to race and train clockwise as opposed to counterclockwise and it would behoove their physical development in a more symmetrical manner. Many decades ago, Belmont had a 6 1/2 furlong straight known as the Widener chute. It stretched from Plainfield Avenue across the training and main tracks, finishing at approximately the current 1/4 pole. Sadly, it was discontinued when Belmont was re-built from 1963-1968. Progress, logistics, or convenience determined it would be better to have horses sprinting around one turn! It must have been a spectacular sight to view 22 horses charging down a straight chute at Belmont Park.

In addition, synthetic tracks are surfaces that should be readily available for training and racing. For example, during days of heavy rain the dirt tracks are unsuited for strenuous work but synthetic tracks may be more forgiving in this regard. Not unlike human athletes, it is paramount for a horse’s development that they maintain a consistent schedule of training to insure proper fitness before racing. Synthetic surfaces have a significant role to play in the continued viability of horse racing in the 21st century. Naturally, the liberal usage of medication in American racing has had a significantly nefarious impact on the health of the sport.

Perception becomes reality. Reliance on medication to keep horses racing and training is pure folly. However, factor in the economic circumstances of many owners and trainers and it becomes a more tangled scenario. I am not justifying the practice but when a trainer is faced with outstanding bills and an owner is unable to or unwilling to pay for the training of their horse the situation becomes desperate and can result in poor decisions.

Perhaps trainers could be afforded some form of financial safety net. For instance, all owners could be required to have a minimum of one month’s training fees on deposit in a central office, whereby training bills can be remitted. Lasix has become the great divider. Do horses really need it to race? Is EIPH cruel to the equine athletes? The studies have been performed, data has been gathered, and yet there continues to be a complete lack of uniformity in the conclusions and thus for formulating any cohesive action to move forward. However, it is on this issue that racing can unite and manage the perception in a positive light. One of the most prominent arguments for using lasix is as a prophylactic. The pro lasix argument depicts it’s usage as economically affordable and enables bleeders to continue to race.

In my personal view racing in New York was far superior prior to the introduction of raceday lasix. Subsequently, trainers felt compelled to use it based on the perception of it being a performance enhancer. Eliminating the use of raceday lasix will present a positive perception and level the playing field.

In regard to prophylactic measures to ensure greater safety in racing, perhaps the introduction of a readily available MRI machine would behoove the health of our horses. I believe there was discussion of introducing one in Southern California, but I honestly am unaware of its current status for training. It seems logical to have a means of diagnosing possible injuries before something dreadful occurs. Surely this is one absolute method for all trainers to improve the health and well-being of their racehorses. Horses can be routinely scanned and potential problem areas can be identified early and addressed in a safe and humane manner.

In addition, it would be an asset to have alternate forms of exercise available to trainers such as equine swimming pools. Swimming is an excellent adjunct to training as it improves cardiovascular health while limiting the stress on limbs training over firm surfaces. It might also be a plus to have weigh scales to measure horse’s weight before and after hard work or races. Often times, horses losing weight can be symptomatic of physical issues that affect health and performance. Naturally, the human eye should recognize weight loss but with the growth of massive public stables it is impossible for one trainer to physically monitor the condition of hundreds of horses daily.

The size of a few public stables has become anathema to a healthy and competitive game. It is representative of unabashed greed and is not an acceptable bye product of free enterprise. In this regard, I look to the past and am reminded of a healthier and far more competitive game. Simply put, owners that can afford to have 20 or more horses in training at a racetrack should be required to have a private trainer. In this way, there are more horses in more hands which encourages bigger fields and more opportunity and value for gamblers.

Consider this hypothetical argument. In days gone by, what if… horses from Greentree Stable, Harbor View Farm, Rokeby Stable, Main Chance Farm, Brookmeade, Cain Hoy, etc., were all placed in the barn of one public trainer. The finest bred and most expensive horse flesh available. Dare you imagine the winning percentage of such a trainer? Our voice must be heard in a uniform manner as a rational and passionate proponent for horse racing. Growing the fan base and cultivating new and intrigued gamblers is the objective. How will millennials or anyone for that matter discover the magic of horse racing? Advertising, advertising, and more advertising. Creative imagination must be our ally. It must be our raison d’être.

2020 is an election year. The vote may be racing’s most immediate and potent force for positive change. We bemoan the political posturizing that attacks racing but has racing ever garnered significant political support by consistently motivating the very individuals that live horse racing each and every day? Is it impossible to rally the racing fraternity behind a candidate and/or a policy that will address the real, hidden and sensationalist issues inhibiting progress and mis-representing the nature of horseracing? If we unite and vote, they will listen. An electionary coup d’etat! Seizing control of the destiny of the game and dictating a future path that will yield a plentiful and fruitful sport to an admiring public. It is not wishful thinking, rather it is revolution borne out of necessity to reform and re-invent racing in the United States.

Without revolution, racing will disappear. In being proactive, we will engage our most vehement detractors. We will enlighten the ignorant. We will guide the interested and we will capture the imagination of the masses. Or we will lament the Belmont Park housing estate, the Churchill Downs mall, the Saratoga amusement park…the choice is ours.

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