Back when I worked at the Cecil Whig, then perhaps the world’s smallest daily newspaper, the bosses would periodically bring in guest speakers to help us learn how to do our jobs better and/or more efficiently.
The sessions frequently occurred on Saturdays, when we were supposed to not be working or at least not on deadline (the paper published Monday-Friday) and involved things we pretty much already knew: manage your time, know your community, cultivate story ideas and sources for such ideas, then do it better, over and over.
Of course, most of us scoffed – we were young, cocky, overworked, underpaid – and I remember telling someone how good it all sounded except for one thing. We had to keep working. If we could only stop putting out the newspaper, we could actually make the newspaper better. They wanted us to build a better newspaper, while building a newspaper, which felt impossible.
I can’t help but see parallels to where the Thoroughbred industry finds itself. Jorge Navarro, a leading trainer in the national standings for years and a multiple leading trainer at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park, was just sentenced to five years in federal prison for cheating. He pleaded guilty. Another former national leader charged in the federal investigation, Jason Servis, awaits a trial. Navarro’s sentence also ordered him to pay $25.8 million, roughly the purses earned by horses he trained from 2016 until his arrest in March 2020. Of course, most of that money went to the horse owners who thus far haven’t been charged or ordered to pay restitution. Furthermore, horses trained by Navarro and Servis stand at stud – attracting mares based on performances nobody really wants to discuss too much. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.
The 2021 Kentucky Derby-G1 winner* and Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 runner-up Medina Spirit died while training in December at Santa Anita Park (*he crossed the finish line first, but tested over the limit for a medication and the result remains in doubt despite occurring eight months ago). His trainer Bob Baffert has been banned from the Derby for two years and his horses can’t earn points toward entry in the 2022 race, though Kentucky’s racing commission has yet to issue a ruling and it all sounds temporary or at least unsettled. Medina Spirit deserved better, but only racing could create such a story.
Federal oversight of racing is supposed to begin in July. It’s January. Noble work has been done, but ask around. Most everybody I talk to really wants this to be successful and a smooth transition. Few express confidence. There is a Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority website. There are big names on boards and committees and panels. In December, the authority submitted draft racetrack safety regulations to the Federal Trade Commission for review and public comment. You can download, read and post comments on a 162-page document. More draft rules, for anti-doping and medication control, were expected before the end of the year. Also in December, HISA announced that race-day testing would remain with state commissions until 2023 but the authority would administer out-of-competition testing starting in July. Sometimes, racing really is a Rubik’s Cube.
For the second time in 2021, racing was suspended at Maryland’s Laurel Park due to issues with the dirt surface. The first time, in April, sent the racing schedule to Pimlico and forced the relocation of horses and grooms to that Baltimore track and Timonium for months as the track was overhauled. The latest shutdown came in December, after seven horses were fatally injured on the track in November. Seven. In less than a month. The Maryland Racing Commission got involved, the track issues were addressed by a team of experts and racing resumed Dec. 16. But there was a lot of breath-holding as the year ended.
Because it’s racing, you can rest assured there is more. There’s always more and it’s difficult to see racing getting out of its own way long enough to fix itself. Like the old story about being unprepared, you can’t expect to build the landing gear while you’re flying the plane.
In a dream world – such as the one I thought of when I worked for that newspaper – racing could stop and find some sort of reset button. Just shut it down. Don’t race, don’t bet, don’t sell, don’t do anything but take care of the horses and plan for a better future. Use the pause to find common ground on national rules; figure out the best way to construct and maintain racetracks that operate year-round; once and for all, hilarious I know, create regulations and penalties that apply at every jurisdiction in the country – for horses, trainers, jockeys, owners, veterinarians, staff, medication usage, prohibited substances, racing dates, racing surfaces, takeout, wagering rules, stallion bookings, aftercare, state breeding programs, everything. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
Racing can’t stop. I know that. It will never happen, and shouldn’t or couldn’t, but imagine how good the newspaper – er, sport – could be