"It’s a dying art and we need to recognize it and do something about it.”
A trainer said that to me, during a late-August conversation about a horse, a race, a way of life, an opportunity. He (or she, I’m not saying) was talking about the state of racing in the region, the nation, maybe even the world for all I know. I gently steered the conversation back to the topic at hand and we ended on a positive note but those words are scribbled in my notebook.
Dying art? I hope not, not in the face of progress on a variety of fronts such as uniform medication and penalties, national Jockey Club fan initiatives, a rejuvenated state breeding program in Maryland, cooperation between Virginia’s breeding industry and Maryland’s racetracks, Grade 1 success by Pennsylvania stallions and other developments recent and not so.
But, as always in racing, there is work to be done and the most important parts of that statement from the trainer are the second and third?–?recognition and taking action.
Whether you believe the Thoroughbred industry is dying or not is up to you, but you can’t argue the need to do something.
Racing needs to think and act differently. The model we’re driving won’t work forever.
There is too much racing. There are not enough horses.
The sport gets close–oh so close–to uniform national medication policies but can’t quite get over the last hurdle (that was for you steeplechase folks).
The claiming-based racing product encourages treating racehorses as disposable.
Way too many people think way too many other people cheat when it comes to medication, following the rules and the ethical treatment of horses.
And then there’s competition from casinos and other entertainment and/or gambling products. Racing will always face an uphill battle to retain its current fans and generate new ones.
So will the art die?
Not if we work at it. Everyone should applaud the efforts of state governments and leaders who push for rewards for owners and breeders, for better racetrack facilities, for safer working conditions, for livelier venues.
But put these on your table for discussion in the region:
• Tracks should race less often. Yes, I just wrote that. Calm down. Do even rough math and you’ll find there are more than 1,100 racing programs in the region each year. That’s too many, given the decling foal crop of the last several years. And don’t just start shortening the calendar. Cut some days, sure, but realign them. Spread them out. Let one track stop racing while another races, knowing full well that they’re sharing the same pool of horses (which, by the way, is far shallower than it was). If you can’t sort it out, start small. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, introduce yourselves and race more collectively with incentives across tracks for horses based in cooperative states.
• Keep working on medication and pre-race security measures. The region is basically there, but look closely. Is something missing? Is Track A really the same as Tarck B in terms of testing and other procedures? Be the example for the country and start looking at the next steps regarding penalties for violations, limits on Lasix dosages, out-of-competition testing and stricter security/enforcement. This winter, Oaklawn Park will starting offering purse incentives to owners of horses that win without using Lasix. Bravo.
• Do we really want to explain the claiming game to the general public? It’s a good way for people to get into the sport as owners. It’s also a good way to level the playing field. But it’s a terrible way to treat horses. Your horse not performing up to the ability you’d like? Put him in for a tag, lose him, make him someone else’s problem. Know a guy who treats his horses great, or terribly? Claim from him and win. It’s a flawed, even if tradition-bound, system when it comes to horse welfare. The “void claim” rule is great, but are there other options? Could there be a rating system to group horses? Could claiming be changed to selling, where horses are designated to be auctioned periodically during a racing season? Think like an outsider and see if there’s a new system that helps protect horses better.
• Medication progress will address the cheating (or suspected cheating) issue, but some of that comes back to people playing the game. Owners, look at violation histories before you send your horse to a trainer. Ask questions, demand answers, consider your horses (and not only your bottom line) when making decisions.
Call them hare-brained if you want, but bold ideas and bolder implementation are what we need.
Or else, as that trainer said, we might not save the art.