As I begin to write this piece, I have to preface what I am about to write with this undoubted fact: I truly love the sport of horse racing.
My love for this great sport began back in 1987 when I would accompany my father to the now defunct Jefferson Downs in suburban New Orleans. At that time, I was 17 and knew nothing of the negatives that plague this sport. The only thing I knew then was the fact that you could make a truckload of money within minutes (not trying to advocate degenerate gambling here, folks) and savor on those hot summer nights the waffle cones that were served on track at Jefferson Downs (oh how I miss those nights).
As my thirst for knowledge about the sport increased, my love for it did so exponentially. My father was the best teacher for me when it came to reading a racing form to try and pick winners. He also astutely pointed out how this is something - if you are going to do it - in which you must be responsible for your own finances. With that fact enforced, I knew then and still know now that to be in this game I had to be smart and responsible.
I also took it upon myself to learn the ins and outs of this great sport. How I did that was to listen to people who were involved from every aspect but also to formulate my own thoughts and opinions of the many issues involving horse racing. Today I feel that I am a more perceptive and attentive person when it comes to this sport I love. I owe that to my father who was my teacher as well.
Now it is time for me to call the sport out and expose what is grossly wrong with horse racing. I will not hold back and sugarcoat anything. I will be blunt and honest and although this column will hurt to write, I feel it is absolutely necessary to do so because the machinations and ignorant moves that the powers that be have employed have gone too far without a legitimate response.
There are many things that are stunting the growth and prosperity this sport I love so dearly. If I could list every last one, this column would resemble a whole set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas. What I hope to accomplish is a few things actually.
First and foremost, I want you to know from my perspective what is wrong with the sport. Hearing it from me who follows the sport on a daily basis hopefully will open eyes. The other thing I hope to accomplish is that those higherups realize that exposing some of the many faults will give them a reality check; then they can begin to fix a sport which is not irrevocably broken. But if we maintain the path then this sport will be put to a point of no return. I'm not naive to think the second hope will work but someone has to say something. No longer can the problems that are plaguing this sport can be brushed aside like swatting mosquitoes on a humid Louisiana night.
Problem 1 - Marketing of the Sport of Horse Racing Is Substandard
This is a problem that to me strikes at the chord of the hardcore racing fan. I am an avid reader of the Daily Racing Form and also other sites such as Brisnet.com and Equibase.com among many. What is to me a common theme is the many articles of racetracks around the country complaining about lower on-track attendance. I have to laugh as it is plainly obvious as to why we are seeing that.
With the advent of online wagering the obvious response of many who follow the sport is, why bother going to the track when I can sit on my couch and bet online. Here is what I say to that: If you are a hardcore racetracker, big races around the many tracks in the US are ones with historical signifigance. Plus, wherever you may be in the US, you could go to any racetrack and have a chance to see a Triple Crown winner at your track before he tackles the rigors of the three-race gauntlet. Think those people in Southern California who watched I'll Have Another win the Santa Anita Derby were hopeful during the Belmont Stakes before he suffered that unfortunate injury? I would think so.
Now how does it pertain to the problem I stated. With the exception of the Fair Grounds, who do a great job of being customer friendly with countless promotions throughout the racing season, other tracks that I read up on do not put forth the effort that the crew at the Fair Grounds does. If other powers that be at racetracks around the country can emulate the Fair Grounds, then the decline in attendance and handle would not be so steep. This is a problem that I don't to which have a solution but if left up to me, I would make attending the track much more customer friendly by promoting the sport and its intricacies in an informative way. If you can educate the casual fan, you can hook them on this sport and they would attend more frequently.
You can also use the Churchill family model and have night racing at tracks that usually do not offer it. Just imagine the New York set of tracks with night racing if it was offered. Belmont Park and Saratoga running under the lights would be epic in my humble opinion. This is just one way to help boost attendance.
Problem 2 - The Drug Policy is a Joke
Now this is a problem that is a real sore spot for me and I want to focus on the inconsistencies we have here. I have seen rulings of rampant cheating amongst trainers like Rick Dutrow, Steve Asmussen and Doug O'Neill. The suspensions for all of these guys are yellow or soft at best. There are no banishments for life of any of these folks.
Dutrow, who is currently appealing a 10 year suspension, and O'Neill, who is appealing a 60-day suspension, are cahrged with pretty much similar offenses. Both commited heinious acts of cheating yet one gets 10 years and the other gets 60 days? See where I am going here. How about Steve Asmussen who has repeatedly violated the supposed drug policy? All he has ever gotten was a slap on the wrist.
The blame for this lies with not just the supposed big-wigs but with the Daily Racing Form, too. Why DRF, you ask? Well up until a few years ago, the Form was superb in listing suspensions for trainers as well as why they were being suspended and also any fines incurred. That was always located in the back pages of the Form but now you only get a bazooka load of advertisements and other meaningless drivel.
How about the jockey colony violating the drug policy? It is nowhere near as rampant as the trainers who cheat but since I am on this kick, my solution is simple. Institute a uniform drug policy at every racetrack and follow it to the max. If you commit a drug offense the first time, you get 30 days off the track without attending an off-track facility. If there is a second offense, you get a year. And finally patterning baseball with the three strikes and you're out rule, the third offense should result in a lifetime banishment from any track or off-track facility.
It sounds harsh but it is a very necessary step to take. I also would have every racetrack hire a committee of people to enforce random drug testing for their colony of trainers and jockeys. That step ought to help curb the rampant drug problem we have in our sport.
Problem 3 - Keep Government Out of Horse Racing
You have to love the brashness of our politicians at both the state and federal level when it comes to our sport. But for this piece, I want to focus on New York because to me that is the Mecca of horse racing based on what kind of history they have.
Just a few weeks ago, I read a pointed and bold column from Steven Crist, an excellent writer for the Daily Racing Form. His piece was about the looming takeover of the NYRA by Governor Andrew Cuomo and what impact his power play will have on racing in New York. It has been long known that the state governement in New York wants horse racing to go away forever, especially this administration that is currently in place.
Earlier this year the New York Racing Association instituted slots at their race tracks; with that, revenue purses have seen absolutely superb boosts. You see maiden races running for upwards of over 60,000 dollar purses, allowance races with over 95,000 purses and so forth. Genius move to help the racing faction, right? If you're Cuomo - thank God I am not - you swear that this is wrong. Cuomo if allowed to successfully take over the NYRA would consider suspending the purse allotments from the revenues from slots.
What sickens me the most is the fact that the governor would replace the NYRA board with political folks who don't know diddly about my beloved sport. Cuomo in my opinion is a complete enemy of racing who wants nothing more than to shut it down in New York and use the slot revenue for the state's desires.
To defend racing's interests in the Empire state, I would force Cuomo to outline a detailed plan on how to keep racing thriving in New York. If I don't get it, I would pursue legal action against him and the state.
My ultimate solution to this problem nationwide is to keep your state governments out of your factions no matter what. Slots at tracks have only served to help the industry and although they bring great revenue I believe it should in the hands of the horse racing operatives all over America's tracks to help their own racing people with the money. This is an industry that thrives on the everyday player who pumps his cash into the track menu whether it be horses or slots. For state governments such as New York to try to intercede is absolutely pathetic. My fingers are crossed that this takeover which may occur on Labor Day does not happen. It would be a bad sign for worse to come.
Problem 4 - Revamp The Out-of-Control Breeders Cup
This theoretically should not be a problem for a handicapper and gambler like me, using the creedo the more races the better. But in this case what the Breeders Cup has done with the rapid expansion of races over two days is just plain silly.
When I first started paying attention to the Breeders Cup, I was 17 years old when the third edition took place featuring the epic battle between Ferdinand and Alysheba, winners of the previous two Kentucky Derbys; boy was that race awesome!
I have always loved the Breeders Cup because of the very definition of what it was created to be. It was designed to be Championship day for the best horses all over the world to compete in designated races to determine the very vest. Now it is a two-day smorgasbord of junk. Is there really a need for a Marathon race? Or moreso a need for Juvenile turf races? I think that there is no need for these races to exist.
I loved the great unknown of whether horses who ran on turf would try dirt in the Breeders Cup Juvenile which usually gives you the benchmark for the following year's Kentucky Derby.
Also, eliminate the Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, since it has been proven on numerous occasions in past Breeders Cups that fillies can more than hold their own with the boys in the Sprint division. I would think of keeping only three races that were added: Filly and Mare Turf, the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile and the Ladies Classic.
Otherwise my ideal Breeders Cup lineup would consist of the following races over a 1 DAY period.
- Dirt Mile
- Filly and Mare Turf
- Ladies Classic
The other absurd part of the Breeders Cup is the number of qualifying races for each division. This year alone, there are 60-plus races for different divisions to try and win your way into the Breeders Cup. I might come off sounding like an elitist but I would put two races per division that I have on my proposed nine-race Cup ledger. I know what you are going to say, how can you do that when no matter how you do it a big longshot taking a stab can fluke win a qualifier to gain their way in? I get that but you have to try and limit only the best of the best for each division. As I said earlier, the Breeders Cup was designed for the best of the best in each division to race for ultimate supremacy; this idea of mine is a step to help bring back that definition to the forefront.
Problem 5 - We Need One Powerful Voice to Run Horse Racing and Help Rebuild Our Sport
Everything I have written before this section would probably not be an issue if we had a strong-willed and strong-minded commissioner to oversee this great sport. No, I am not looking for a Roger Goodell clone. Look how he is trying to run the NFL into the ground, but thats another topic for another day.
Basically if we had a commissioner overseeing this sport, we in my estimation would have nowhere near the problems seen over the recent years. I hope that one day sooner rather than later we find that very person to lead our sport out of the abyss and back to prominence.
Besides the above problems, I also have a few more suggestions tregarding who can take over that role. I want my commisioner to be an independent thinker and also an idealist. If the new boss wants to appoint a committee, he needs to make sure he/she alone is the deciding voice. The committee's job would be to enforce the commissioner's ideas and suggested laws. I am an optimist and again hopeful we have that voice somewhere.
In final analysis, there is more that I could say but these to me are the biggest and more pressing problems that our sport is currently experiencing. Let me tell you, I hurt for our sport and I felt sick in writing it. But my hope is someone can take what I wrote and use it to improve horse racing.
Realistically speaking I am one man with one set of opinions but I again felt the need to write here because at the end of the day I love horse racing. I don't want it to continue down the treacherous path it is on at this time.
I look forward to what hopefully is a bright future for the Sport of Kings.
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