The last place that a person would think to look for lessons about horse racing would seem to be classic works of children’s literature. Yet the seminal books of Ted Geisel, better know to the world as Dr Seuss, provide many sage words that the leaders of a sport with an uncertain future truly should heed. In light of the latest transgressions by the games biggest name these simple yet poignant quotes eerily highlight ways the game has gone off the tracks.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s just not” – Dr Seuss
I say this with all due respect to the people that put on the horse racing show on a daily basis. I’m talking about the worker bees, the backstretch workers, the people who work on the frontside of racetracks or ADW’s, the bettors that show up in person or online. I know you care, I really do. The passion and love for racing of so many is why this great yet flawed business has survived. However I question if many of the leaders of the sport have that same passion or love because it sure doesn’t seem like they do to the rest of us. Passing legislation isn’t love. Throwing parties and big events isn’t love. Dropping stud fees isn’t love. Attending the Breeders Cup isn’t love. No one loved the game more than the late, great track announcer at Churchill Downs, Luke Kruytbosch. On the day following the Kentucky Derby when everyone else in Louisville would be taking a quiet day after the long grind of Derby week, Luke would drive up to River Downs to take in a card of Ohio-bred 5000 claimers and hang out with the guys. No one expects everyone to be as passionate about racing as Luke was for that is an impossibly high standard to meet, but if you really care about racing you have to care about the ordinary horses, the less than fancy people and smaller tracks that aren’t holding big races too.
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple” – Dr Seuss
Whenever medication violations are revealed, especially when the connections of the offending horse are of the higher profile variety, the response is generally loud yet often misguided. The connections usually rifle off a defense of some sort which are factually accurate though less than compelling. Social media erupts with calls for the head of the trainer to be served up on a platter or fanboy defenses that use suspect deductive reasoning. The difficult and complex reality is that everyone is probably a little bit right and a little bit wrong. The system of medication rules that has been used in North America for years is massively flawed. Not because the technical minutae of the rules vary from state to state but because of the entire premise of how it’s designed. Without going into a long, dull explanation of the mechanics of drug rules lets just say that the holes and weaknesses of the system are often exposed. The names of the medications in question often sound sinister yet are many are hardly performance enhancing if at all. Having extremely low allowable limits that amount to residual traces that simply don’t have much ability to alter the outcome of races is just poor regulation policy. The 6 o’clock news doesn’t lead off by announcing who got parking tickets but in racing many of the violations which are akin to minor transgressions are revealed as though they are felonious. That said the biggest training outfits need to do a better job of quality control as it’s a terrible look for the sport for them to get repeated violations with no visible punishment. It’s a simple answer, write better rules and enforce them fairly and no the current federal bill doesn’t qualify. It’s just larger version of a system of rules that just aren’t very effective nor are they focused on the true performance enhancing substances.
“Oh the things that you can find if you don’t stay behind” – Dr Seuss
Racing in North America has rarely been ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation on all levels. The way racing is presented on air has changed yet still feels like it lags behind other sports and international jurisdictions in terms of promoting the actual wagering product. We have more mainstream television coverage than we ever have had before. Between NBC covering the Triple Crown races and Breeders Cup as well as other unique events like the Haskell and Royal Ascot, the daily FS1 coverage of NYRA and Churchill, the holdovers including both TVG1 and TVG2 puts a high volume of racing over the airways. In general the networks do a good job covering the actual races despite sometimes getting a little too cute with camera angles during the race. It’s the lack of focus on betting strategy or the TVG philosophy of non-wagering experts putting up terribly constructed tickets on every race that isn’t helping move the sport forward. Perhaps this isn’t easy to do and still keep the telecasts “entertainment value”, I don’t know. However let’s not forget where the revenue that keeps horse racing going comes from and misinforming those who are providing those dollars is a bigger sin that not educating them in the first place.
“They say I’m old fashioned and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast – Dr Seuss
Racing is often accused of not modernizing itself or changing to meet differing times which in a way is both true and false. The actual mechanics of the running of the race; paddock saddling, walking ring, post parade, loading in gate and running to the wire is virtually the same as it was 100 years ago. What could be changed to improve on that? Well frankly I can’t think of any major changes that would. The push to eliminate the riding crop (lets be clear, that’s what this movement is about) is where progress is progressing too fast. The core of racing’s existence is competition, to essentially see whose horse is fastest. Lately I have seen the word encouragement used as a negative in regards to riding crop or whip use which is a strange concept. The idea of strictly enforced regulations that allows the jockey to do his or her job safely and at the same time protects the horses from over-aggressive use is what should be the goal. What we are getting from the regulators with baffling encouragement from some segments of the industry with seemingly no input from jockeys or bettors, isn’t that. The idea of societal changes impacting modern sport is not a novel concept. Going overboard and financially damaging your product, aggravating your customer base and generally confusing everyone with no actual, tangible benefit is very typical of modern day racing.
“When you are in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done” – Dr Seuss
California horse racing I’m talking to you…
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks that you can think up if you only try!” – Dr Seuss
Sometimes when we talk about the lack of innovation or forward thinking in racing we assume that it’s about the customer experience or betting menu or something of that nature. While it is true that those areas could use some enhancement one issue that doesn’t get addressed is the huge talent distribution issue on the backsides of America’s tracks. Oh sure there is hand wringing about super trainers but it’s usually in the category of “yeah it’s a problem but we can’t do anything about it”. One of the biggest flaws in the way American racing is structured is that there is no department of research and development, a lab where smart, passionate people are looking to develop innovative ideas that can solve or temper issues from a less than direct angle. Where I’m going with this is that condition books and the way races and schedules are written has changed over the years to the advantage of the big outfits and is not only squeezing the smaller players out, its leading to a less than ideal wagering product. At this years Jockey Club Roundtable conference, Sal Sinatra of the Stronach Group laid out an outline of a different model of classifying horses that can reduce the number of claiming races and better utilize the horse population. This system which is meant to increase field size and competitiveness, protect owners investments by not forcing them to race for claiming prices and reduces the power of large outfits as they wouldn’t be able to systematically control classes of races by using sheer volume. Industry reaction to that system? Crickets. Doing the same thing and expecting different results…
I will leave you with one last quote from the legendary Dr Seuss and this one is straight from the people whose voices racing leaders just aren’t hearing, the ones who are just walking away from our great sport.
“Being crazy isn’t enough”