Real Writing on Racing 💯
*This piece was written at the beginning of September but never published. We have had some issues on certain social media sites that greatly restrict distribution of Substack publications. As such we are now also sharing our Going in Circles Digest articles on a brand new racing media site called RCNG which can be found at RCNG HUB. I hope that you’ll check it out as the goal of that website (full disclosure - partially owned by Going in Circles Media) is to provide racing and sports enthusiasts with a fresh perspective, unencumbered by influence from the usual, exceedingly sensitive, industry overlords.
Before I start today I want to thank those who reached out after An Air of Inevitability was published, your kind word were much appreciated. I truly wish the theme of that piece was different, instead of somber tones, that a celebration of our sometimes great game was in order. Alas life rarely sends plaudits, problems are far more likely to wind up on our collective plates. It’s in that vein that we will attempt to discuss the disastrous storm of misconstrued advice being hurled at the industry from all angles in the wake of the latest crisis. Once again the well-meaning and opportunists among us, seem to be missing the proverbial point that that there are many causes that sinks ships yet ‘fixing’ one may serve to aggravate another. Of course that assumes that the knee jerk repair plans aren’t just slapping another coat of paint on a house with a broken foundation as racing has done for decades.
A friend, avid racing follower and former owner named Paul has a huge collection of old Daily Racing Forms that he has saved up over the years. Like many of us pack rats that accumulate ‘stuff’ with no particular purpose, Paul has come up with the decision to begin divesting himself from his old Forms. Rather than just toss them, he sifts through the piles and separates out ones that might hold some item of interest for his many racing friends scattered across the country. Whenever his travels take him close to racing venue, he’ll grab a stack of old forms that he delivers to whomever he feels might be interested in taking a brief trip back in time. On his latest trip to Saratoga this week Paul brought me a bag full of old Forms with one on top that he had identified correctly would be my favorite. It’s an old style DRF in the traditional newspaper layout that featured a Steve Haskin piece on my old boss and mentor, Allen Jerkens from August 25, 1991. As I breezed through that story and another underneath on the front page, I was taken by the irony of the words I was reading in that as much as we think our industry has changed, many of the very same problems of 32 years ago still remain unsolved.
The headline of the Jerkens story reads “Giant Killer Back in Spotlight” but a highlighted quote was what caught my eye. Haskin had asked Jerkens about how the sport had changed over the years and his part of his answer should sound eerily familiar to anyone paying attention the last few weeks.
“…horses don’t take the pressure like they used to. The breed just isn’t as hardy. Now the emphasis is on speed tracks.”
-Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens in 1991
Now remember this quote emanates from a man who started training in the late 1950’s so the context of “the good old days” we think of now perhaps aren’t all that different than the “good old days” that actually were the “good old days”. Also note that he wasn’t complaining but rather commenting in a matter of fact way about how the game had changed during his long tenure.
Scanning down to the lower section of that same DRF front page, I spotted another story that paralleled some of the same discussions of recent weeks under the headline “Jose Martin Calls Fritz’ Remarks ‘Insane’”. Apparently prominent New York Veterinarian Dr Robert Fritz had made some inflammatory accusations during a speaking engagement at the summer conference of the Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association that Martin, representing the newly formed Empire State Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, took umbrage with. Fritz had claimed, “Everyone knows they use drugs in New York. They don’t use Lasix, but other drugs hide the problem The reasons there are no positives in New York is that the tolerable levels are so high. In fact the tolerable level for bute, which is supposed to be illegal, is higher in New York than in California, where it is legal.”
Martin responded, “We condemn the remarks made by Dr. Fritz. It’s an insane remark and an insult to every trainer in New York. How can he make a remark comparing New York to California, when California is the capital of cocaine positives in the racing world? We ask (New York State Racing and Wagering Board chairman) Richard F. Corbisiero Jr. to conduct a full investigation into Dr Fritz’ remarks.”
Corbisiero waded into the fray with this statement, “Dr Fritz’ contention…is erroneous…If Dr. Fritz has any information about the use of other drugs, he is duty-bound to report these to us for appropriate action. Also, it is not New Yotk’s policy to ‘simply ignore the obvious illegal use of drugs’. Any statement to that effect is totally without foundation”.
I don’t know what the end result of that fracas was other than Dr Fritz name was unlikely to be found on the invitation list to the Martin family Christmas party. The details aren’t important other than the realization that as has been the case during most of the modern history of horse racing, nothing much was done. Remember that when people make claims that ‘the breed is too speed orientated’ and that ‘drugs are too prevalent’, these are not new or unique complaints, they have been tossed around for decades. A mistake that newer generations of horse racing enthusiasts often make is not grasping that racing is a very basic though stodgy sport that simply isn’t suited to change. The issues feel unique yet are actually just carryover versions of the same ones their grandfathers likely groused about. We aren’t suggesting that action isn’t necessary. To the contrary, it’s depressingly clear for those among us who aren’t ostriches, horseracing in North America is streaking towards a cliff. Yet most of the industry is paralyzed, unable to see the forest through the trees, many of the power brokers having little clue as to what truly needs fixing in the big picture. Several prominent loud voices were perfectly willing to serve up schemes in the name of safety that, oh by the way, also happen to benefit their own self-interests. It’s truly a racing industry specialty.
The problem is that nothing ever really gets fixed because we are an industry that loves to treat symptoms, not an industry that has the vision and stomach to actually cure the disease.
Safety has become a crutch
Somewhere along the line, safety became the single most abused word in the Horseracing lexicon. It became the ‘go-to word’ used when trying to protect your idea or proposal or simply wanted to demean detractors.
“Oh they are against safety…they don’t care about safety…safety must be the most important factor…”
You want to control the game via a costly and relatively inefficient regulatory scheme? Horseracing Industry Safety Act.
You want to create draconian rules that impart overly harsh sentences on trainers for non-PED, non-dangerous medications? Oh it’s for safety purposes.
You want to change the Triple Crown series by moving the middle leg despite not having had a single injury issue for decades? Safety.
Every racing argument made these days seems to have someone screaming about safety, trying to get the populist social media crew (which seems like the same dozen or so people if you include burner accounts) to gravitate towards backing them.
Don’t agree that six strikes of the riding crop isn’t an arbitrary number made up out of the blue which creates situations where the jockey is not able to put his best effort forth to win a race? You are against safety.
Don’t agree that simply moving to synthetic surfaces will clear up racings negative press regarding fatal injuries? Against safety.
Don’t agree with whatever inane idea that someone comes up with next that will have many more negative unintended consequences than positive benefits? Oh that’s right…you will be against safety once again.
Literally every press release sent out by industry organizations these days alludes to safety in some shape or fashion and I’m here to tell you that safety is rarely the lead actor, it’s just support staff. I’m sure many will roll their eyes and think this jerk doesn’t care about horses or jockeys or wherever else that we are supposedly protecting but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that I see things everyday that counter all this faux safety talk and the reality is that far too often the overriding safety talk, both real and imagined, serves to distract from the ‘untouched upon yet desperately need addressing’ problems.
Business matters the most
The ‘business of racing’ is subject to all manners of discourse these days. Wading into the murky waters of what’s real, what’s imagined, and what’s covered up regarding handle figures, sale prices and the integrity of the racing game in general, can take one down dozens of rabbit holes. Yet none seemingly end up at a place of finality that makes the exercise feel particularly fruitful. The rise of CAW money has spun all we know about handle, its sources and the division of what is removed from the pools into a tizzy. The constant drumbeat of positivity that emanates from the various auction grounds has a hollow sound that echo’s of the same names, the same buyers, the same sellers and few divergent paths for expensive bloodstock as they all wind up under the same shedrows. This year’s Breeders Cup is just the latest example of a great racing weekend that’s losing its luster with no stars and no buzz, ticket sales clearly lagging considering the barrage of low key emails being sent to past attendees, many whom are passing on spending exorbitant amounts of cash.
Mike Repole’s rants about the game caused a wide number of owners both big and small to nod their heads in agreement. Bettors are exasperated to the point that almost no significant player hasn’t cut their play and the casuals seem to be fine betting on football when offered a weakening product and a tote board that they feel CAW teams control. Breeders are breeding fewer horses, some of the stronger regional markets like Florida and Pennsylvania and California seeing huge decreases in foals. Yet none of these issues is tackled or even considered by the suits and elites in charge. No…they are too interested in pulverizing the industry with onerous regulations and control that isn’t only not helping, but squeezing the last few drops of enthusiasm out of us suckers that haven’t already abandoned this sinking ship.
I will leave on this note derived from an old philosophical thought experiment racing-ized:
“If a horse safely races around a track but no one is around to see it….is that success?”