It’s May. How you doing? Can you keep up? Racing, like the world, seemed to be in a great big hurry during the first few months of 2019. News came quickly, and from everywhere.
Breakdowns at Santa Anita. Twenty-two horses died between Dec. 26 and March 14. Everyone in racing knows horses get hurt, but that’s too many to find any comfort zone. The racing surface, the medication rules, the whips, pretty much everything took some blame for the fatalities. Track owner The Stronach Group halted racing, suspended workouts, studied the track, made a joint statement with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about use of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix, jockeys’ whips and more. All of it wound up national news for a while. From here, it pointed out the glaring hole in the sport’s makeup – no national voice, and no complete/verifiable/certain uniform best practices when it comes to horse welfare, care or treatment. That should change. Today.
Use of the whip and Lasix somehow got linked to breakdowns when, at best, they are loosely connected. Should jockeys hit horses less frequently? Yes. Should United States racing jurisdictions continue to take a harder look at Lasix. For sure. Line-in-the-sand bans will not work, however, so stop trying to draw them. Counsel jockeys on whip usage (and be prepared to penalize them in some form), card a whipless race or two to gauge reaction from horsemen and bettors. And new thinking about the whip should apply to everyone – the sales game, morning training sessions, jump racing (the training flat races and point-to-points on that circuit would be a good place to experiment), everybody. Find incremental steps with Lasix too: decrease the maximum allowable dosage, experiment with weight allowances for horses not racing on the medication, card periodic Lasix-free races. Then see where we are in six months or a year.
A racing bill to fund further improvements at Laurel Park and the rebirth of Bowie as a training center died in Maryland’s legislature, at least in part because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of Pimlico Race Course. The bill took with it some funding for improvements at Timonium, which will have to wait for another year (at least). In this space, I’ve written that Pimlico should be saved. I’ve also paid credit to the Maryland Jockey Club for the improvements at Laurel. There’s no easy answer and everyone has a point. But the risk is racing appears divided and dysfunctional to legislators and state government. That’s a bad look, given that the industry receives some $70 million a year in slots subsidies for purses, breeder/owner bonuses and facility improvements. The next 12 months won’t be easy.
Bisphosphonates became a thing. Maybe you’d never heard of the bone-growing medication before this year. I’m not sure I had. Maybe you’re familiar with its use in horses (for navicular treatment mainly). Maybe you know it gets used in horses headed for the sales ring or racetrack. Definitely, you should think bisphosphonate use is a bad idea. For sure, the industry needs to find a way to test for and eliminate their usage.
Regional Thoroughbred stakeholders released a detailed plan to reduce equine fatalities on the racetrack. The document contains all kinds of good stuff, and – once again for our region – shows the whole industry how to do something.
The Association of Racing Commissioners International released a plethora of statements about a new chair (Dr. Corinne Sweeney of New Bolton Center), stricter penalties for drug violations, research projects, Lasix usage and so on. Bring all that, and more.
Every day, horses train, race, breed, foal, live, die in this region and others. They trust we’re in charge and have their best interests in mind. Think about that. Every day. In the face of a storm, the show goes on.
The 144th Preakness runs this month – at Pimlico for now. Some 7,000 seats in the north end of the grandstand won’t be occupied this year because they’ve been deemed unsafe, which just sounds like the beginning of a slow drip stating, “Pimlico is too far gone to host the Preakness anymore.” My advice? Get there this year, enjoy it, remember your trip. Maybe scoop up a cup full of dirt or something as a souvenir.
Fasig-Tipton hosts its burgeoning 2-year-old sale at Timonium, Md., this month. The sale used to be an afterthought, a place people took horses who didn’t fit at other sales. Now, it’s a target, a goal, a must-attend event.
The venerable Fair Hill Races celebrate their 85th anniversary May 24-25 with two days of racing, a benefit party and a big look to the future. Founded by William duPont Jr., who built Delaware Park, the old course is scheduled to get a complete makeover this year – new turf course, grandstand, other facilities – with construction slated to begin in June. Backed by a joint partnership between the state of Maryland and a crossover non-profit called the Fair Hill Foundation, the place could be Kentucky Downs. And, for the non-racing people, the Kentucky Horse Park too. You should see it one more time as duPont meant it to be. Go racing.
And keep your eye on the news.