September 12, 2019


If an impartial observer were to comment on the state of horse racing today, it is not inconceivable they would conclude the horse racing industry is intent on manufacturing its own demise. The tragic developments within racing in recent months have given me pause to recall a conversation I had with an “Old Timer” years ago. “The game has run its course,” he declared. On that particular occasion, I was quite indignant at such a postulation; however, today I find myself reluctantly contemplating the validity of racing in the 21st Century. Growing up in horse racing has obviously sculpted the nature of my experience but it has also given me an accurate and intimate perspective on the realities of horse racing. 

In the film, “Braveheart” the main character, William Wallace is determined to unite the nation of Scotland in its fight for freedom against the tyranny of England. Uniting the nation required uniting the nobles, and as one of Wallace’s confidants rued, “they (the nobles) couldn’t agree on the color of shite.” Indeed, they were all too willing to sacrifice Wallace and the greater good for their own personal gain. 

While obviously a fictional tale, there are remarkable parallels to be drawn between “Braveheart”and the true and tragic decline of modern horse racing. Unity. It does not exist within horse racing. Throughout the nation, and in every racing jurisdiction there are multiple organizations fighting for their individual agendas. Everyone wants to be heard, but none are willing to listen. Perhaps racing should listen to the punters and gamblers whose very participation drives the economics of the game. What do they need? A level playing field, with complete transparency that encourages the competition with their wits on the outcome of horse races. 

A cautionary note though. Listening should not be equated with placating. Placating to an organization that only desires the elimination of the sport is pure folly. What do I mean? The cushion crop. Education, instruction and rigid rules need to be implemented. For example, apprentices could be required for their first 10 races to carry the cushion crop in a downward position. This will encourage them to develop horsemanship skills such as gathering and balancing the horse beneath them. Tapping a horse with the cushion crop in the downward position will aid in keeping the horse straight and maintaining forward propulsion. Perhaps in two year old races the cushion crop could also be limited to the downward position until they have learned the rudiments of running in a race after perhaps two starts. In this manner they may be given a nice introduction to racing and will develop confidence as their career progresses. For journeymen jockeys, giving a horse a few taps, changing their hands and allowing the horse to respond to their initial urgings seems logical. Limit the total number of strokes and insist on stringent penalties if a jockey blatantly defies the rules. In addition, it is imperative to respect and consider the thoughts and assessments of the jockeys. They are aboard the horses and feel what we cannot see. In my personal view, with a modicum of thought and education the picture can be drastically improved for the benefit of all. 

And then there is medication. Again, through my personal experience, racing in New York was dramatically altered by two major changes. The first was the elimination of race day blood tests for ALL horses entered to race that day. I vividly recall Dr. Manuel Gilman, the cantankerous chief examining vet for the NYRA, marching through the barn area before racing. He would examine each horse for soundness, check their tattoos and draw blood to test for a myriad of performance enhancers. In this manner, if a horse tested positive for anything untoward, they would be immediately scratched before racing, thereby protecting both the horseplayers and horsemen alike. During the mid 1990’s the practice was eliminated by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board due to budgetary constraints. 

The second major change was the introduction of Lasix in 1995. I recall at the time, many top horsemen with horses that had competed in the Derby and Preakness with Lasix, were reluctant to run in the Belmont Stakes without Lasix. In addition, prior to the introduction of Lasix in New York, I had never heard of the phrase “program trainer.” Obviously, some horses benefit from Lasix, and it does reduce the incidence of EIPH in racehorses at a very low economic cost. Unfortunately, it’s use as a prophylactic and perception as a performance enhancer on ALL horses has tarnished the image of racing in the United States. Furthermore, what role does the environment play in the development of EIPH in horses. Again, I draw from my own experience in Saratoga. Over the years, many old timers cautioned about Saratoga and bleeding. Horses that had never bled prior would bleed in Saratoga. It seems the common denominator was the environment, specifically the pollen and ragweed. Natural occurrences that affect many of us with allergies and apparently also horses. Dr David Nash, DVM, has done some extensive research on environmental causation for EIPH in horses. It is very interesting and noteworthy of consideration. If we improve the environment where horses are stabled, perhaps EIPH will decline. 

Commerce, is of course the driving force in all business endeavors and so it is with horse racing across the United States. In my view, horse racing is no longer a sport but purely a business in which decisions on horses are determined to improve performance and maximize profit. Naturally, there is nothing inherently nefarious about a strong work ethic to improve performance and profit. These are the very tenets that built America and the world economies. However, the emergence and domination of a few super sized public stables bears a stark resemblance to the rise of the monopolies at the turn of the 19th Century and subsequent emergence of the “Robber Barons.” Free enterprise is the often tendered retort to limiting the size of public stables. On this occasion, I will refer to the definition of Free Enterprise found in the Webster dictionary, “the freedom of private business to organize and operate for profit in a competitive system without interference by government beyond regulation necessary to protect public interest and keep the national economy in balance.” Suffice it to say, is the betting public served by small field sizes that are laden with uncoupled entries from the very same public stable? We are in dire need of a unified industry that is willing to listen, compromise and regulate in a judicious manner and can collectively solves these issues. Alas, can we all agree on the color of “shite.” 

Keith L. O’Brien

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