The first Saturday in February has come and gone, and believe it or not, the Kentucky Derby is just three months away. Now, let’s not lose touch of reality; if you live in the Northeast, the winter has been long, cold and brutal. It’s been rough on NYRA and their venerable Aqueduct Racetrack which has seen many cards canceled during its inner track winter meet.
NYRA, the body that owns Aqueduct, Saratoga and Belmont race courses has more issues than just the weather. There have been an unusually high number of horse fatalities at the Big A, which prompted canceled race cards as investigations took place. Nobody ever wants to see a horse go down in a race or a workout and when it happens, the naysayers are quick to point out that the sport is inhumane and unfair.
Not to sound cold and callous, but horses do break down in races and that will continue to happen as long as the sport is in operation. There can be investigations and inquiries galore, but as long as there are race purses to be had, horses are going to be in the starting gates.
Unfortunately, that is one of the problems. The winter can be tough on horsemen and horsewomen. These are people that ply their trade 365 days a year, grooming, training and most importantly, racing their horses. In the winter, the good horses go south to Gulfstream Park or west to Santa Anita, while the rest look for homes at Tampa Bay, Parx and Aqueduct. And, of the cold weather tracks, Aqueduct, and its winterized inner track offers the best purses.
One can see where I’m going here. When fatalities increased, the track was inspected and every time came back as safe for horses to run on. So why are some many horses breaking down at the Big A? Simply, it is because of money. Aqueduct has attractive claiming and allowance purses. If there is a $60,000 purse for the “fifth on a Thursday,” there may be a great temptation to send a horse that just might not be 100 percent to the gate in an attempt to get the $36,000 that goes to the winner. It’s easy to blame the track or the weather for the breakdowns, but for the most part, the blame lies on the connections. These horses cost money and the only way to recoup money is to race and win it back.
There are some calling for winter racing in New York to be stopped, but that’s never going to happen. The state of New York not only needs horse racing in the winter, it mandates it. Even on a dreary Wednesday in late January, on track handle at the Big A is between $300,000 and $400,000 dollars with more coming from off track sites. That is revenue that is not only desired, it is budgeted in just like local municipalities budget a figure each year for traffic violations. Eliminating winter racing in New York would lead to a budget shortfall, something that the Empire State doesn’t want. As we all know, it is all about money and the state is not going to cut off its hand to spite its foot.
NYRA took some controversial actions in an attempt to reduce the fatalities. One was that horses that finish 25 lengths or more behind the winner would have to be evaluated and would have to complete a four furlong (half-mile) workout in at least 53 seconds. The time is certainly not hard to do, but if a horse is lame, this at least gives us some type of barometer before the animal is allowed to race again. The other rule says that horses can’t run more than once every 14 days.
The rules to many, seem fair, but in reality they’re terrible. Many horses can run and run effectively twice in 14 days. Conquistador Cielo won the Met Mile on Memorial Day 1982, and then came back five days later to win the Belmont Stakes. Under this theory, the Kentucky Derby winner would be ineligible to run the Preakness in two weeks, or at the least, be right at the cutoff. Healthy horses were made to run; that’s what they do and that’s what they love to do. Keeping them cooped up in the barn really does them no good. Of course, the horses stabled at Aqueduct in the winter are many cuts below Conquistador Cielo, but you get the point.
The 25 length rule certainly sounds good but is also misguided. Think about the 1973 Belmont Stakes when Secretariat won by 31 lengths. Under the NYRA scenario, all the other finishers would be not allowed to race again until they turn the half mile in 53 seconds or less. Sometimes horses get beat badly because the jockey realizes that it’s just not their day and ease the animal up to preserve them rather than ruin them. Using the 25 rule is far too arbitrary, so much so that when the spring meet starts the rule will be put away for further review.
There are others that say it’s just too cold to race during the winter, but the truth remains that horses don’t mind racing in the cold, in fact they prefer it over the hot, muggy summer, so calling for the elimination of winter racing is really nonsense. But, it does cost money to operate Parx and Aqueduct and if they operate in deficit, that’s the reason for closure, not all the other things.
The one positive rule is the implementation of 8 race cards during the week and 9 race cards on weekends. Having races with two, three four or five starters should be avoided whenever possible. To me, the minimum should be six with eight being ideal. I’ve always credited harness racing because most tracks have races with at least eight starters. The more starters means that there are better options for the bettor and as we know, it’s the bettor that gives the sport the money that it needs to survive. It’s simply better to have 48 horses in 8 races, than 9.
Dangerous sports like boxing, auto racing and even football are played and for the most part there isn’t much outcry. That may be because these sports are played by humans and the old line that humans know the risk is always used. Horses don’t talk, so groups do the talking for them and that’s not always good. Thoroughbreds are born to race, that’s what they do and that’s what they’ll continue to do. When a horse breaks down, people get upset, but when a person dies in a car accident, we’re less sensitized. In many ways, it just doesn’t make sense.
Making tracks as safe as they can be is paramount and nobody will argue this. Making sure the horses are physically ready to race is paramount and that can’t be argued either. Making sure the track surface is as safe as it can be is vital, but that’s where the industry dropped the figurative ball. Polytrack was created to reduce horse fatalities and during its run, when many tracks switched to it, fatalities were indeed reduced. But, the horsemen didn’t like it and the most important ingredient–the bettors– didn’t either. The fake dirt didn’t fly and tracks like Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Keeneland have or will be taking it out for good old dirt again. Polytrack appeared to be a safe measure, but once again, money was the reason for it not sticking around.
NYRA was right to examine why there were so many fatalities, so on that point, they did the right thing. That’s why we have agencies and governments; to investigate problems and hopefully come up with proper solutions. Unfortunately, the remedies are tough and the remedies enacted by NYRA are not effective ones. Hopefully, they’ll learn from their mistakes and will revise accordingly.
Until next time.