A photo of a leading Irish trainer sitting on a dead horse, while smiling and offering a peace sign, wound up on the internet. The country’s leading apprentice jockey of 2020 got suspended and fined for riding at a lower weight than published in the program. Racing’s Hall of Fame released a list of finalists that included a trainer with 45 violations on the thoroughbredrulings.com website managed by The Jockey Club. A standout filly won a 2020 Eclipse Award after failing two drug tests.
How’s your year going?
Those four sentences – there could be more – ought to tell you a little about where Thoroughbred racing stands in 2021. At some kind of crossroads, again or still depending on how you look at it.
At its core, racing exists because of a public trust. Those outside the industry need to trust that the people inside the industry are doing the right things. The questions are pretty simple.
Are the horses respected and well cared for? Gordon Elliott’s treatment of a horse in his stable would make you say no. Elliott is a top National Hunt (jump racing) trainer in Ireland. He’s won major races in his home country and England for years, trained the likes of two-time English Grand National winner Tiger Roll (Ire). In 2019, Elliott trainee Morgan (Ire) collapsed and died on a gallop. Somehow, Elliott sat astride the horse’s body – a leg on each side – while talking on the phone and offering a peace sign to someone who snapped a photo. The image became public in February. At first, Elliott offered a statement of apology that didn’t win over many. Then he spoke of an “indefensible moment of madness” with the Racing Post newspaper. Then he got fined 15,000 euros and suspended for a year (with six months suspended) by the Irish racing authorities. England honored the ban. Some sponsors and owners left. Others stayed, and the stable was transferred to the oversight of another trainer.
Elliott himself called his actions indefensible. He meant, I think, for himself. But racing can’t defend them either. And that’s the real damage. Racing has to defend Gordon Elliott’s actions. A racehorse trainer sat on a dead racehorse? For a laugh? For comfort? And he only got suspended six months? Try defending the sport to someone who wants an answer. And before you pass this off as Ireland’s problem, Elliott rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup in 2004 and 2005, saddled a runner at Saratoga in 2008, ran a horse in the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in 2017, won the American Grand National at New Jersey’s Far Hills Races in 2018, won two races on the U.S. jump circuit in 2019. The Elliott photo and its fallout are racing’s problem.
Is the wagering product on the level? Alexander Crispin won the Eclipse Award as racing’s top apprentice jockey of 2020. We featured him in the March edition, a young talent on his way up. And then the world found out that Crispin got caught riding underweight at Laurel Park in January. Stewards obtained video evidence of Crispin crossing the scale at 115 pounds before a race and at 110 pounds after, suspended the jockey 30 days and fined him $1,000.
Crispin paid the price, but who knows how long gamblers paid it? Did you bet on a race in which he rode? You weren’t doing so with all the information. You want to try explaining that to the public? People can bet on almost anything these days, and those people want to know they’ve got a fair (or as fair as can be) chance. One rider cheating the system doesn’t sound like much, but it matters because it erodes confidence in the product.
Are rule-breakers pursued by authorities, penalized and marginalized? Not if you’re reading the ballot from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. This year’s group of potential inductees includes Doug O’Neill, a winner of more than 2,500 races including the Kentucky Derby-G1 (twice), the Preakness Stakes-G1 and five Breeders’ Cup races. According to that Jockey Club website, his horses have also tested positive for dantrolene, dexamethasone, flunixin, phenylbutazone, etodolac and above the limits for carbon dioxide and testosterone. The lists include fines of $15,000 in 2012, $10,000 in 2013 and $3,000 in 2006. In March, four days after the date on the letter to Hall of Fame voters, O’Neill was suspended 10 days and fined $7,500 for a lidocaine violation at Santa Anita last fall.
Gamine was voted champion female sprinter of 2020, based on three Grade 1 wins. But, she was disqualified from an allowance score at Oaklawn Park in May after testing positive for lidocaine and from a third in September’s Kentucky Oaks-G1 after testing positive for betamethasone. Her trainer Bob Baffert attributed the first violation to a pain-relief patch worn by his assistant trainer and blamed the second on threshold guidelines (Gamine received betamethasone 18 days before the Oaks, four days outside the recommended withdrawal time).
Horses are athletes and get treated for ailments and conditions. They race at tracks all over the country. Contamination, sensitive testing, different rules all play a part. Train horses long enough and you’ll violate a rule. I get it. But here we are, doing the industry a disservice.
You want to explain this to the public? You want to stand up for slots subsidies and friendly tax laws? You want to talk to legislators about job creation, open space and agriculture? You want to put public trust on trial? Again? Or still?
O’Neill might make the Hall of Fame. Crispin may have a long, successful riding career. Elliott could come back and be a force in international jump racing again. Baffert and his horses will surely continue to shine. They might never break another rule, or otherwise put racing on the defensive. Every rule-breaker or bad actor in the game might get caught and penalized.
But will racing’s public trust survive their actions? That’s the most important question, and I can’t answer it.