Friday, March 31, 2006

Hay, Oats, and Water? What Are THEY On?

From the Thoroughbred Times, online, Thursday, March 30:

An Association of Racing Commissioners International panel is seeking an answer to the question, "Can you win a race on hay, oats, and water?'' Scot Waterman, D.V.M., executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, answered in the affirmative on Thursday, but with a very big condition.

"Yes, you can win with hay, oats, and water, with good horsemanship, with good nutrition. But too many people who are involved in this sport don't believe it," he said. "Many trainers don't believe in their own capabilities. They think they have to have these medications to win."

I think the internet term for what I did when I read this is: ROFLMAO. Maybe the damn regulators in this business need to show us how it's done. That's right, let's have a human version of "hay, oats, and water." Send them home right now to empty their medicine cabinets. No more aspirin for when those pontifical meetings go on and on and give them a splitting headache, nor any Preparation H, either. Get rid of their high blood pressure meds, viagara, prozac, insulin, muscle relaxants for bad backs, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for aching joints. I don't think that it's fair that they should make such important decisions for all the rest of us while under the influence of all this stuff. What? The quality of their life would suffer without these things? Maybe, or maybe they just don't believe in their own capabilities.

When I hear a would-be regulator pine for the utopia of "hay, oats, and water" regulations , I question whether he has any understanding of either horses or athleticism. For years the state of New York denied its racehorses Lasix because of this holier-than-thou concern for "purity." The result was the sidelining of many otherwise capable equine athletes due to pulmonary bleeding, and/or the subjecting of the animals to other experimental, less effective, and usually clandestine, "therapies."

The way I see it, denying a competitor efficacious therapeutic remedies for minor or easily correctable problems is nothing less than animal cruelty. What if, you might ask, these things are used to mask serious, life-threatening conditions in the horse? It has happened, of course, but regulators tend to stick together, so the failure of track vets, state vets, and stewards to detect and prevent these instances of abuse go largely unexamined. At one track I visited, when a jockey tries to scratch a horse at the gate, he reports to a vet who examines the horse from the other side of a chain link fence, never actually touching the animal. At another, the attending vet rarely leaves his comfy seat in a pickup truck while conducting his examination. But why should regulators want to look at themselves, when it is easier and makes for much better public relations for them to simply put more inane and harmful regulations on trainers and their charges?

Somehow, this madness must stop. Maybe "hay, oats, and water" for the regulators is the answer.

BTW, if you haven't seen my earlier articles on the regulators' criminalization of baking soda, please check these out:

The War On Baking Soda and The War On Baking Soda, an Update

Monday, March 27, 2006

ESPN To Racing: Drop Dead

Another milestone on the path to becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of sports:

Turfway Park's Rushaway Stakes and the Lane's End were to be featured on an ESPN2 broadcast last Saturday at 5 PM. Unfortunately for racing fans, a tennis game ran a little late...42 minutes late, to be exact...and our broadcast was pre-empted. At approximately 5:43, as the horses were approaching the gate for the Lane's End, our horse racing broadcast finally began. The Rushaway couldn't be shown, even on tape, because women's basketball was scheduled to start at 6, and it did. This is probably the most insulting thing I've seen on ESPN since bigmouth Jim Rome's statement that horse racing is not a sport.

For fun, check out this article from the archives of the Louisville Courier-Journal. It contains all the blather from Breeders' Cup officials and ESPN execs about the good reasons for terminating NBC's 21 year relationship with the Breeders' Cup. Memorable quote from an ESPN poobah: "...ESPN is going to make it a high priority to see that it is restored to its gloried past." Does he mean tennis or women's basketball?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Coming Soon to a Track Near You: Immigration Reform

Mainstream economic and legal considerations don't seem to apply to Thoroughbred horse racing in this country, I guess because we're just so far off the nation's radar screen. Thus, when two conglomerates gobble up the ownership of nearly every racetrack worth owning, the terms "anti-trust" and "monopoly" never appear in any public discussion. Indeed, with the exception of our own industry publications, no one seems to have noticed that it's happened.

Immigration reform is now being discussed by the popular media in a similar context. There are reports daily about the crisis that might be visited upon tomato and strawberry farmers, landscapers, cement contractors, and a host of other entrepreneurs if some relief isn't granted to the immigrant workers who are estimated to constitute up to 5% of America's current labor force. Racetracks and horse farms? They could merely be devastated by the loss of immigrant labor, but, as usual, who is paying attention?

Of all the employers dependent upon immigrant labor, race horse trainers are by far the most dependent of all. Trainers are responsible 24/7 for live animals, not just livestock on a feedlot , but athletes that require attention to every aspect of their lives. They must be exercised, bathed, walked, fed, watered, freshly bedded, groomed, and picked-up after daily, or multiple times a day. That's every day: Christmas Day, your birthday, and the day after your birthday, when you have that massive hangover. The biggest problem? A shortage of reliable labor, because, well, since this is my blog, I don't have to pussfoot around this one: if sufficient numbers of native born Americans can't be motivated to get up in the morning to pour concrete five or six days a week for reasonable wages, who thinks they would show up seven days a week to care for high-strung horses at $100 a head plus stakes?

Enter (legally and otherwise) the Mexican groom. In a way, he is culturally advantaged, because, unlike our own entitlement-ridden citizens, he comes from a place where there is no great public concern about the quality of your life, or even your survival. If you want to eat, he learns early in life, you work. Unlike most Americans, he has grown up around domestic livestock, often including horses, and understands the fundamental economic value of taking good care of the stock, and the amount of time and attention this requires. The wages for backside work, which would be sniffed at by many natives, are higher than our Mexican groom has ever seen, and represent an unprecedented opportunity to support his family and accumulate material goods. In short, he is knowledgeable and motivated, an ideal prospect. The problem he faces is that he can only be documented for the length of a single race meeting or eleven months, whichever is less, after which he presumably will return to Mexico and repeat an incredibly expensive admission process all over again, or remain in the U.S. and resort to something more, um, creative.

Necessity being a powerful motivator, many trainers have embraced the Mexicans heartily. Outright bigots, who bragged twenty years ago about having nothing to do with the "no-speakies", have discovered a new spirit of brotherly love, and are now operating their outfits exclusively with immigrant help, even dropping an occasional Spanish phrase of their own down the shedrow.

But hold your cavallos. Immigration "reform" is the hottest topic in Washington these days, and somebody's gonna get burned. George Bush has lots of buddies who employ immigrants, and, if for no other reason, he would like to implement a simpler and more realistic method of documenting them. Bush's desire to tackle this issue has ignited spirited public debate that is about to shatter the current "don't ask, don't tell, don't know" environment. If there is no reform now, immigrant laborers, and the employers who need them, may find themselves worse off than before.

Many of Bush's Republican allies on the right wing are pandering to their base on the issue by saying that illegal immigrants shouldn't be rewarded for their lawlessness by being granted any form of forgiveness. These immigration "hawks", personified by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, have pretty much adopted a scorched earth legislative agenda, proposing instant felon status for an estimated 11 million workers, along with any who give them material aid, including nurses, teachers and clergy, and $5,000 per day fines for their employers. For everybody else? Ten dollar tomatoes, I suppose. And maybe, a lot less horse racing.

For today, the good news is that Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Teddy Kennedy have put together a realistic compromise bill that may offer real relief. It's not at all clear that the legislation can be passed, but it's a definite step in the right direction.

I'm sure the American Horse Council and the NTRA are weighing in on this stuff in Washington, but I can't help thinking that our politicians need a little grass roots kick in the pants. We sure can't afford to ignore what's going on, and we can't afford to let them ignore us, either.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Early Book Favorite, 2007

I don't have a clue who should be favored in this year's Kentucky Derby future book, but the nod for next year must go to The Green Monkey. After all, $16 million is already bet on him. That's the amount agent Demi O'Byrne plopped down for his clients at Coolmore Stud when they purchased the son of Forestry at the Fasig-Tipton Select Two Year-Old in Training Sale in Miami last week, shattering all previous records.

This is a funny game. If a horse of mine gets loose in the morning and breezes an eighth of a mile in nine and change, I run for the veterinarian. A two year-old does it at a sale, and the big boys run for their checkbooks.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bringing Keeneland to Ocala

I’ve been to a lot of race tracks in many professional capacities, but whenever I’ve gone to Keeneland, so far, I’ve gone as a tourist. To me, Keeneland represents the apex of the sport, and to be able to participate competitively in the racing game there means that a horseman has truly arrived. It is the racetrack that every other track aspires to be, or should. Sadly, many of the others now aspire to be slots parlors, card rooms, or full-blown casinos, with a track on the back forty, somewhere between the concert hall and the driving range.

Keeneland marches to a different drummer. Organized as a non-profit operation by breeders as a place for themselves and their customers to buy, sell and compete, it has become both a first class track and North America’s leading Thoroughbred sales facility, most likely because the revenue that Keeneland generates goes back into its operation and into the lifeblood of the business, purses. Keeneland embodies an old and honorable economic paradigm: better horses bring more handle, more handle brings bigger purses, and bigger purses bring even better horses in an upward bound cycle.

But at other, call them “corporate”, racetracks, the paradigm is working in reverse, with a vengeance. At these tracks, purse pools are viewed as a monstrous cost center, a potential threat to the important things: return on assets and return on investment. Too often, the horsemen’s share of the action comes as a result of adversarial negotiations in which management, ever conscious of the “bottom line”, engages in behavior at least bordering on intimidation and coercion. Consistent demands for a more equitable share sometimes result in the ultimate corporate response. Thoroughbred racing is terminated in favor of something more profitable: real estate profiteering in Detroit and harness racing at Rockingham are two recent examples.

Simulcasting and phone betting haven’t helped. Few horsemen understand the formulas by which revenue is supposed to flow into purse pools from these, but they can read the headlines that appear in industry publications year after year: “Total handle up. Purses down." They can also observe that at a corporate track, after the average patron has parked his car, walked through a turnstile, got a program, maybe a Form, a beer and a hot dog, he has spent the better part of twenty bucks, and not a dime has yet passed into the purse pools.

As a horseman, it seems obvious. The Keeneland model is The Model. It is so because the revenue it generates can be spent in its entirety on the organization's racing and sales mission. There is no group of stockholders, nor a single private owner, seeking to maximize their personal profits.

Now it seems to me that there is an extraordinary opportunity for another track to come into existence in Ocala that could follow Keeneland's example. Moves by the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company to obtain a state license for a Thoroughbred meet could ultimately have this outcome, but only if OBS’s vision isn’t too limited. Although there's been no recent news, OBS announced some time ago that it is considering ceding it's interests in a racing license to Magna Corporation, the racing conglomerate that already owns Gulfstream Park. I urge them to look at Keeneland, and think again.

OBS is uniquely qualified to the task. Its ownership is broad-based throughout the industry, no individual being allowed to own more than one of its outstanding shares. It already is one of the most active sales venues in North America. It maintains a one-mile track, used now for sales previews and an annual one-day non-parimutuel race meet. The facility also conducts parimutuel off track betting year round. It's a race track in all but name already.

Racing in Ocala is something that Florida horsemen, and others, have talked about and wished for for a long time. If OBS would take a leadership role, the united support of horsemen would go a long way toward overcoming whatever political barriers might stand in the way. And there WILL be political barriers, not a few of which will be raised by the corporate racing interests already entrenched in Florida.

Racing needs another model race track. It needs solutions to our economic problems FROM WITHIN, far more than it needs casinos and concert halls. Bringing Keeneland to Ocala could be a giant step.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The War on Baking Soda, an Update

Well, call it a retroactive update. I just happened across this little gem from August 5 of last year. Not being one to say "I told you so" (usually), I'll leave my readers to peruse the attached article from the Texas Thoroughbred Association's newsletter without comment. NOTE: "TRC" refers to the Texas Racing Commission. My original comments appear here: "The War on Baking Soda".


Dr. Stewart Marsh, the TRC’s chief veterinarian, produced a surprising statistic during an industry meeting last Tuesday when he provided an updated report on the Commission’s random sampling for milkshake administration. He stated that only one horse, which would have been called a “positive,” finished as well as fourth. In total there were 9 horses that showed a millimole count higher than 38, the threshold level for calling a “positive,” for bicarbonate of soda in their system.

The meeting had been called to consider protocol to address milkshake administration in Texas. However, two problems surfaced during the discussion among representatives of breed and horsemen’s organizations, Texas tracks and Commission staff. First, from a legal perspective, since sodium bicarbonate is present in a horse’s system, its presence at high levels could not be treated as a positive under present TRC rules. Second, Dr. Marsh stated that his research had failed to turn up any literature within the past 10 years that showed speed and performance had been affected by milkshake administrations.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Old Stewball's Revenge

There's fresh controversy involving the scandal of horse slaughter in the United States. The Bush administration is in the process of a shameful end-run around Congress' move to cut funding for USDA inspections of the equine slaughterhouses by allowing the operations to absorb the inspection costs themselves in the form of fees. This allows them to continue to receive USDA certification for the horse meat they produce for the tables of Europe and other places, despite the intent of Congress. Our representatives need to quit pussyfooting around and pass an outright ban.

As we know from reports in industry publications, far too many racehorses come to the end of their days in these places. As a person who has been around a few shedrows, I can't help wondering whether anybody else has ever noticed the number of veterinary products at the race track that are clearly labeled "NOT TO BE ADMINISTERED TO ANIMALS INTENDED FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION." If those labels mean anything at all, a Frenchman sitting down to a nice thick sirloin that was previously attached to a $2,500 claimer at Charles Town is in big trouble---his descendents too, if he is able to produce any.

The typical horse that has raced 3 or 4 seasons likely has been wormed 25-35 times with products carrying the warning, has been treated with steroids dozens of times, maybe many more, and has routinely received non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents throughout his career. Muscle relaxants, antibiotics, breathing aids: the list is endless. Then there are the ubiquitous race day medications, legal and otherwise. Ok, I know they don't do that at YOUR track, but just suppose they did. Do you think the meds they give are something you'd want in your hamburger? Applied many times over the career of a racehorse, even some of the popular topical remedies are a little scary. Anyone for some pot roast marinated in DMSO? I don't think so.

Now to get back to those highly sought-after USDA inspections, if this kind of horse meat is certifiable, what kind of beef do you suppose is being certified to Americans' tables? Conversely, if the USDA has a double standard, the conspiracy theorists better start looking into the secret and undeclared chemical war that Bush has launched against Europe. (Just KIDDING, I swear.)

As for we horse lovers, while we wait for our politicians to find the requisite cohones to end the slaughter, at least we can take a little consolation in telling our racehorse-eating cousins across the pond: "I hope you choke on it!"

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In Slots We Trust

In any state where you find horse racing without slot machines, you will find hundreds of horsemen who are convinced beyond debate that bringing the one-armed bandits to their venue will usher in a new era of prosperity. "Look at Delaware Park and Mountaineer" is the mantra of the downtrodden everywhere. Actually, they might have something there. Looking at the way in which slots came to those places, a key to the horsemen's success was the fact that their own share of the slots revenue was guaranteed in the state law before the first busload of senior citizens began gambling away their grandchildren's inheritances.

Unfortunately, success in a few states has elevated belief in the efficacy of slots to the level of a religion, with blind faith and fervency replacing reason. Even a strong fundamentalism has evolved (pardon the pun), so that any person who raises questions about the central tenet that slots are good for racing, period, is looked upon as a heretic, with burning at the stake not entirely out of the question.

If racing ever needed a St. Paul, a Thomas Aquinas, or a Martin Luther, it is now. Fundamental doctrine needs to be revised, fundamentally. It's not about the slots at all, it's about the LAW.

There are a few things the faithful need to consider. Let's start with a nice slap to the head. Three days ago, the Miami Herald reported that negotiations between Gulfstream Park and representatives of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, over what percentage of newly legalized slot revenue will go to purse pools, have nearly broken down. Gulfstream, it seems, is standing by it's offer of slightly over 4 percent. Yes, I said FOUR, not FOURTEEN. Does this look like Mountaineer Park or Delaware??

Now if you live in Ohio or Michigan, and your local HBPA is supporting legislation at the state capitol for slots at your race track, this news item alone should be enough to challenge your religious fervor, and send you running to the nearest telephone to see if your share of this "new revenue stream" is specified in the legislation or will be determined by negotiations after the bill becomes law.

Negotiations between horsemen's organizations and track managements are a nasty business, at best. A committee comprised of trainers and owners trudges up to the general manager's office, loaded with a combination of hope, fear, and a minimal amount of trust for one another. Most of these will, at some time in the near future, be going back to management to ask for a race to be written, or stalls and tack and feed rooms to be allocated, and are, therefore, substantially dependent upon the goodwill of management for their livelihood. If they really piss off somebody on the other side of the table, they may simply be excluded from ever participating in racing at that facility again. The actual business acumen and educational level of the committee members may range from competent to abysmal, but often the dullards will tend to resent and subvert the insightful and articulate.

But management comes to the table like a pride of hungry lions. Unlike those horse-owning fools across the table, they know last year's return on investment (ROI), and return on assets (ROA) too. They know what every tenth of a percent of any revenue stream will mean to the bottom line. Having already secured one hundred percent of the revenue from parking, admissions, programs, and concessions, as well as the lion's share of revenue from simulcasting, phone betting, and the card room, if any, they are ready to feed again. And they sense their prey's fear and disunity.

Setting aside the larger question of why horsemen would want to settle anything this way, how could any in their right minds leave the distribution of slots revenue to this process? True, state legislatures are not exactly the College of Cardinals, but horsemen's associations can send competent professional lobbyists to represent them, and the numbers of voters on their membership rolls are a counterweight to the race tracks' bankrolls among career minded legislators. In race track language, we've got a much better shot.

Blind faith in slots is simply not enough. Before it's too late, horsemen and their leaders need to learn a new mantra: "Until the horsemen's share of the revenue is guaranteed in the law, WE ARE OPPOSED TO SLOTS LEGISLATION."

Otherwise, it will be the Christians and the lions all over again.

Friday, March 03, 2006

OMG! You Mean Sex STILL Sells?

"DON'T MISS YOUR DATE WITH THE BEULAH TWINS! This is your chance to meet Katie and Jenna, the nationally reknown(sic)...and beautiful...Beulah Twins from Beulah Park in Columbus, Ohio. Katie and Jenna will be handicapping the Beulah Park and Aqueduct cards, signing autographs and posing for pictures. The Beulah Twins have been featured in Playboy, Horseplayer Magazine, the New York Daily News and on the TV show 'Extra.'"

What? No slot machines? Just OTB betting, beautiful babes, free coffee mugs, beautiful babes, drawings for a $100 OTB account, beautiful babes, $2 off admission, and, uh, oh yeah, beautiful babes. Hasn't the Race Palace in Plainview, New York, been informed yet? Horse racing is nearly dead, and will be finished without slots, and no gaudy ads in the Daily Racing Form inviting people to come to the races for a good time will EVER change that. Or will they?

My congratulations to this spunky little outfit for actually establishing a link between entertainment and horse racing. The NTRA and race track managements everywhere could learn something here.

And then there's the twins. Go ahead, take a peek. You know you wanna.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The War on Baking Soda

The theory of "blood buffering" is not complicated. A horse running full out consumes glucose stored in its muscles in the form of glycogen, creating, as a by-product of this process, lactic acid. Since elevated levels of lactic acid are associated with muscle fatigue (an idea NOT universally accepted in scientific circles), lowering the acidity of the horse's blood before a race just might slow down the rate of acidic buildup, allowing the horse to perform at his best a little longer, whether a sixteenth of a mile or just a few strides, who knows? A medical doctor of my acquaintance once told me that managing pH levels in humans OR horses was tricky, at best, but nevertheless backside lore is replete with stories of old time trainers who topped off their evening feedings with a couple of scoops of baking soda and reputedly had great success at the races.

Of course, in racing, if some is good, more is better, and too much is nirvana. A product called "Milkshake", produced by a Michigan company, hit the market. It appeared to be made up primarily of molasses and some alkalizing agent, and came in a huge tube from which it was administered into the horse's mouth with a caulking gun, a clear violation of the hay, oats and water policies of many states, yet this product was openly marketed in backside tack shops without a stir.

Did it work? Who knows? Many said it did, but many said it had adverse affects on horses which were prone to pulmonary bleeding too. Nevertheless, by the early 90's enough people were conversant with the lactic acid issue that backside experimentation ran wild. Before long it was rumored that trainers everywhere (especially the ones with freakish win percentages) were "milkshaking": tube feeding massive amounts of baking soda, along with thyroid supplements, brown sugar, electrolytes, and whatever else they could get their hands on, very close to post time. Unfortunately, while almost anybody can come up with a favorite recipe, not everybody can competently run a stomach hose through a horse's nostril. Veterinarians, fearing liability, increasingly declined to participate in this procedure, leaving the horses at the mercy of amateurs. Undoubtedly, a small number of horses were killed by botched administrations, but no one knows for sure.

Soon backside buzz about the benefits of blood buffering morphed into a steady drone about the "crookedness" of "doping" horses. Inevitably, the talk wafted into the offices of the suit-wearing people who regulate and write about our business, and a new crusade was born. Vowing to "do something" about this new scandal, state authorities raced to implement tests that would provide evidence of milkshaking, and race track managements scrambled to do something EVEN BEFORE state rules could be implemented. Problem solved, with congratulations all around.

But I have a few questions. Wasn't tubing large quantities of anything a few hours before a race always illegal, everywhere? If the rules against flagrantly bad behavior can't be enforced, what good is another test going to do? And what, exactly, are they testing for? Baking soda, a perfectly legal substance whose ability to enhance a racehorse's performance is completely unproven? What shall we zero in on next? Corn oil? How about DMG, a substance the old Communist Bloc countries gave their Olympic athletes back in the day, to the universal cry of "cheating" from everybody who wasn't using it? This product is sold in every race track tack shop in America. How many other legal substances can we elevate to the status of morphine and caffeine before common sense kicks in?

Just curious.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

In the Beginning

This is the first post in what I hope will become a spirited exchange of information and opinions about the Thoroughbred racing industry in the United States. Trainers, jockey agents, jocks, vets, owners, grooms, and others who are involved in the sport are especially encouraged to post here. Anonymity, including my own, will serve to make our comments candid, and candid discussion is what is most sorely needed in this business.

Not a week goes by but some commentator in the Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, or Daily Racing Form makes sanctimonious and ill-informed pronouncements about equine medications, purse structures, backside conditions, and a host of other important issues. Although these authors may be polished wordsmiths, their knowledge of their subject matter is demonstrably shallow, most of it having been derived from conversations among themselves at conferences and seminars. In the real world of horse racing, many of them barely know which end of a horse to feed and which end to shovel.

Typically, opinions expressed in "official" industry media go unchallenged by the truly knowledgeable denizens of racing's backstretches because no one who actually derives a livelihood from racing wants to be singled out as too knowledgeable about medications, too contentious about the way the profits are divvied up, or too discontent about race track or backside conditions. Only negative consequences, ranging from increased scrutiny by racing officials to outright retaliation by track managements, can result.

It is my intention here to establish a forum where knowledgeable horsemen and women can engage in meaningful discussion about the issues that will ultimately make or break us as an industry. I encourage all to assist me in this.