Racing’s biggest problem, according to the racers themselves, is the perception of a pervasive drug culture. They fret on this for good reason: The New York Times says (10/31/13), “Nearly four in five bettors — 79 percent — factored in the possibility of illegal drug use when handicapping races at certain tracks or in certain states. By a 9-to-1 margin, bettors said they bet less, not more, as a result.” For years, especially since Eight Belles, the industry has reassured the (betting) public of its commitment to cleaning house. Yet this morning, a Congressional panel meets (again) to discuss an intervention.

Beyond the absurdity of Congress, yes Congress, threatening to parent American horsemen, the larger questions are why: Why does government think it within its charter to save a second-rate, ever-so-slowly-dying “sport”? Aren’t the patently unfair racino subsidies enough? And why can’t (hasn’t) a 150-year-old industry police(d) itself?

I submit that American racing isn’t overly concerned about a higher-than-most breakdown rate – it’s just the cost of doing business. Nor is it too dismayed that, as The Times reports, 19 of this year’s top 20 trainers (in cash) have at least one career drug violation – the rules and regulators, you see, are inane. What it does care about, and all that matters in the end, is what the gamblers think.

In this, there is wonderful irony. To restore confidence – save itself, really – in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, baseball imposed draconian penalties on players who fraternized with society’s “seedier elements.” The gambler’s stain on baseball had to be removed. Today, racing, facing its own (unique) “integrity” crisis, considers harsher drugging rules in a desperate attempt to keep – or woo back, as the case may be – those very same elements exiled from baseball so many years ago. One sport’s pariah is another’s lifeblood.

I confess to not being interested in the perils of jockeyhood. It’s not that I don’t care about injured riders, just that what they do is entirely voluntary. Jockeys choose to risk life and limb for a paycheck; the horse, alas, has no such freedom. Equally true, and further debunking the jockey-racehorse-partnership myth, is that dinged up jockeys always garner press, their dead “teammates,” rarely.

And so it is that the Daily Racing Form recently (11/15/13) set out to chronicle 2013’s injured jocks, underscoring the profession’s “unforgiving” nature. The piece was typical DRF marketing fluff: Behold the jockey, our sport’s underappreciated hero. What did catch my attention, however, were the post-article comments from the mostly conditioned, often obtuse horseracing fans. A sampling:

“It really amazes me what jockeys experience on a daily basis. I cannot think of any other occupation – save those of soldiers, policemen and firemen – who risk their lives constantly.”

“Jockeys are such courageous athletes who deserve our respect and admiration for every day (morning, afternoon, and evening) that they get a leg up and risk their lives.”

“They earn the term survivor every day they ride.”

Soldiers. Policemen. Firemen. Jockeys? Courageous and deserving of respect and admiration are descriptions best reserved for people who contribute to the greater public good. Like the soldiers, policemen, and firemen. Jockeys are no more admirable than boxers and racecar drivers, and as whip-wielders, probably less so. Sometimes the racing people need to be called out on their, forgive the euphemism, nonessential matter from the horse’s digestive system.

download

David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (owner of the prestigious Woodbine Racetrack), gave a 2001 speech on the then-state of Ontario Horseracing (which has since taken a significant turn for the worse). With uncommon candor, at least for horseracing, Willmot, a racing-executive legend, shatters horseracing’s greatest myth:

“During the first month that I was CEO, I had a meeting with about eight or ten of our biggest gamblers. During our discussion, I used the word ‘fan,’ and talked about our ‘fans.’ And one of these guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I am not a fan of anything that you or your rich friends do around here. And don’t call me a ‘patron’ either, because I’m not a patron. I am a gambler. …And you think the only reason we are here is to watch you, your friends, and your brown furry animals enjoy your elitist activity.'”

Mr. Willmot concedes: “The truth of the matter is, racing is a gambling business 99.8 percent of the time and a sport the other point-two percent. A $20,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon is not a sport.”

Still, there are holdouts who liken horseracing to pro football, a sport with a gambling component. But disregarding for a moment the conspicuous absence of whips, on-field kills, and ex-player abattoirs, 80,000 people do not flood a football stadium to follow office-pool picks. Simply put, the NFL’s success is explained by fandom while horseracing’s, such as it is, by $2 bets (and increasingly by corporate welfare). To the gambler who drives racing, the horse is inconsequential beyond that day’s program; any fleeting emotional bond is the same felt for a blackjack card.

So please spare us talk of ambiance, tradition, the beauty of equines in full stride, and competitive athletes honing their craft. People don’t go to the racetrack for any of that. Horseracing is no more sport than taking a quarter to a scratch-off. It is unadulterated gaming, nothing more, nothing less. Problem is, VLTs have no bones to shatter, roulette wheels no carotids to slash. Gambling in and of itself is not immoral. Gambling on the backs of suffering horses is.

3-year-old Sonic Dancer died yesterday afternoon at Keeneland. In race 6, the colt snapped his right leg and threw jockey Calvin Borel in the process. Because the stricken Borel was in harm’s way, the race was stopped, declared a no-contest. Mr. Borel appears to be fine (relative to the horse, that is). According to the DRF’s Byron King, the broken Sonic Dancer ran, presumably on adrenaline, “for a couple furlongs after unseating Borel.” Imagine that.

The death in Kentucky would have passed unnoticed if not for the dinged up Hall of Famer. There exists no chart, no video, and nothing on the Keeneland website save for an update on Borel’s condition. In fact, the DRF article doesn’t mention the kill until the second-to-last sentence.

images (2)

A tweet from the jockey’s wife says, “Prayers to the connections of the fallen horse, and thanks to God above for keeping Boo from further harm today.” Apparently, God was too busy to also protect Sonic Dancer, but I’m sure if we pray hard enough, his “connections” will overcome their grief.

As you’ve probably noticed, I am now regularly reporting all Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses vanned off American tracks after actual races (training accidents are closely guarded secrets). One pro-racing reader took umbrage at the implication, arguing that not every horse who is vanned off is destroyed. While technically true, in an industry that does all it can to squelch ugliness, calling for the ambulance in full public view is an option of last resort, typically reserved for horses in distress. Fragile from the start, a racehorse unable to walk back to the barn is a bad omen.

In any event, it is equally true that catching a ride with the paramedics is not a prerequisite for euthanasia. A recent case in point, courtesy of the sadly unique NYS database:

5-year-old Congaree King ran the 4th race at Finger Lakes last Tuesday, finishing 8th (out of 9). The chart notes were unremarkable: “broke sluggishly, lagged back four wide on the turn and tired.” That’s it. Now, he is dead. The database: “appeared lame after race-x-rays next day revealed Fx LF leg.” This is the 34th kill of the year at Finger Lakes.

download (8)