Last summer I began a column in this space with a line from John Steinbeck’s novel Travels with Charley. It went like this: “. . . the end is not in question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means.”
Welcome to uncertainty, Thoroughbred racing. Dreadful uncertainty.
Steinbeck was writing about race relations and civil rights in America in 1962. In what was probably a reach (Hey, I had just finished re-reading the book), I drew a parallel to racing’s lurches toward uniform medication rules and their enforcement. The end will be medication-free racing, national rules that can be easily modified as the landscape changes, strong penalties that work across state lines, modern post-race drug testing, robust out-of-competition drug testing, better barn security and an above-reproach investigative component.
Well, that better be the end. Otherwise, the end is the end. Polish your resume, go back to school, open a coffee shop, explore growing crops on your farms instead of horses because racing will cease to exist if it doesn’t change.
No, really. Look at just two news items that dominated the minds of owners, trainers and breeders in the Mid-Atlantic this winter. And a third one that rocked national racing interests.
- In Pennsylvania, the governor floated the idea of taking much of the slots revenue designated for racing and applying it to education a college scholarship fund for students of low-and-moderate income families to enroll at a state university. The noble intentions of Gov. Tom Wolf would decimate the state racing industry, estimated to have an impact of $1.6 billion on the state’s economy.
- In Maryland, racing leaders took a novel financial blueprint to the state legislature to solidify the future of racing at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park. The bill, which passed initial hurdles by large margins, would use racing’s share of slots revenue to finance more than $300 million in improvements at the two tracks, secure the future of the Preakness and give Baltimore City a public-use development space in a neighborhood that needs it. Some opposition to the proposal also focused on using slots revenue for education via the Kirwan Commission.
In both cases, people in racing made their support of the industry known. Jobs, economic activity, open space, horse welfare and agriculture are all part of the industry that reaches far beyond what much of the public only sees at the racetracks. Racing is worthy of support, and of aid from states, because of all that. Of course it is.
And then the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York held a news conference in early March, and dropped a bomb in the form of four indictments totaling 84 pages. How do all those “support the racing industry” campaigns sound now? To non-racing people? You think racing’s point about jobs and open space and horse welfare didn’t instantly get weaker?
Criminal indictments implicated 27 people – prominent trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis among them – in an investigation into treating racehorses with performance-enhancing substances, concealing their use, obstructing the investigation and more. The indictments are damning and cover a variety of infractions, some involving Maximum Security (the Servis-trained champion 3-year-old of 2019 and winner of the 2020 Saudi Cup) and X Y Jet (the Navarro-trained Grade 1 winner and earner of more than $3 million). The three-year FBI investigation alleges doping of horses with performance enhancers and pain blockers; the abuse of shockwave therapy; intentional misbranding and mislabeling substances; falsifying veterinary records; and even the secret disposal of dead horses. According to the charges, X Y Jet was administered “several adulterated and misbranded PEDs” before racing in Florida and Dubai in 2019. X Y Jet died of an apparent heart attack in January 2020.
In a press release announcing the charges, FBI assistant director William F. Sweeney Jr. said, “These men allegedly saw the $100 billion dollar global horse racing industry as their way to get rich at the expense of the animals that were doing all the hard work. Our investigation reveals the cruelty and inhumane treatment these horses suffered all to win a race. The FBI New York Joint Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force worked along with our law enforcement partners at the New York State Police, FDA, and DEA to stop this ring of criminals from abusing helpless animals simply so they could cheat the odds and rake in millions of dollars.”
Racing looks foolish, inept, corrupt. And we all suffer for it.
I can almost hear a politician mulling input from constituents or bouncing policy proposals off staff members: “We’re giving this industry a subsidy? This industry? This industry? The one that can’t regulate itself, can’t find a way to suspend rampant violators of various rules, celebrates the achievements of rules-breakers and sure seems to be abusing animals?” I’m sorry, but the kids in Pennsylvania and Maryland who need improved education options look like better bets than the 27 people from the horse industry indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
I know, these are charges and not convictions. The defendants are innocent until proven guilty. And don’t let two (or 27) bad apples spoil a bunch. But our coverage of the win by the Servis-trained Firenze Fire in the 2020 General George (page 48) reads a bit differently knowing what we know now. Racing does bring economic growth and powers agriculture and open space. But there are no more options. The Jockey Club and its allies pushing the national racing legislation and the HBPA and others resisting the move need to find common ground and craft a solution. Not tomorrow. Not after the formation of some other group that can’t enforce anything. Now.
Or the means are only going to get more uncertain, more dreadful.