As horse racing heads into its summer season, there are many questions. We all know that the winter at Santa Anita was not a good one. The national media took note of the 30 equine fatalities and forced the sport to take a good, hard look at itself. The goal is simple—make the sport safer.
Opinions ranged from banning race day medications, suspending the trainers who get caught drugging horses, and limiting whip use but real reform will be hard to achieve. Here’s why.
As the Santa Anita season concluded, racing officials there banned trainer Jerry Hollendorfer because four of his horses died during the meet along with two more to the north at Golden Gate Fields. But a few days later, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) welcomed him with open arms, inviting him to bring his horses to Belmont and Saratoga. That didn’t play well with those who want to see changes made to better protect the safety and welfare of thoroughbreds and a few days later, NYRA reversed course and said the Hall of Fame trainer would not be allowed to train/race horses at the NYRA tracks.
There is a loophole. Holledorfer may not be allowed to train in New York, but his horses will be allowed to come to New York. The trainer is transferring them to Don Chatlos, his longtime assistant who does have the necessary credentials—license, insurance—to train and race horses. Mind you, this is legal, but there is a bit of stench, don’t you think? No matter your opinion on this, for those who think uniformity and national regulation is imminent, think again.
Some believe that a national governing body with a commissioner will help to cure ills such as these, but that won’t be happening anytime soon. And if this was a normal year, with fewer fatalities at Santa Anita, NYRA would have certainly allowed Hollendorfer to train and race. In the end, NYRA reversed course because they had to show some sensitivity.
Why does this happen? Why wouldn’t New York automatically honor California’s ban on Hollendorfer? The reason is simple—money. In this case, California’s loss would be New York’s gain. If Hollendorfer brings his horses to New York, it helps fill fields, adds value for bettors and hopefully increases handle. This isn’t baseball; where money is made through ticket sales, hot dog sales, merchandise sales and TV money. Horse racing relies on having healthy horses and bettors, plain and simple. And, New York will still benefit if Hollendorfer’s horses make it to Saratoga one week from now.
In horse racing, the states compete against each other; they want to collect as much money as they can, so when a trainer can’t train in one state, he looks for another. NYRA can justify it too. They can blame the rains that plagued Southern California this winter and they can say that the Santa Anita track wasn’t equipped to handle it and thus grant permission for a banned trainer to come to their tracks and work.
The disturbing part is the lack of transparency. Hollendorfer is not the first to suffer equine fatalities and this requires a thorough investigation. Will we ever find out if the trainer was the victim of bad luck; or, was he pushing unsound horses into training and the starting gate? We know this happens, but where does it come from? Are the tracks pushing trainers to make sure fields are full? Is it the owner, the person paying the training bills, or is it the trainer who thinks that the chances of fatal injury are not severe enough? There is the old school thought of “when in doubt, send them out” when we need more “when in doubt, keep them out.”
There are reforms coming and there is talk of making changes to help the sport get safer, but there hasn’t been a lot of discourse. Where are the leaders; Bob Baffert? Bill Mott? Doug O’Neill? Mark Casse? Where is Javier Castellano? John Velazquez? The Oritz brother and Flavien Prat? We need to hear from these guys more not less; because these are the leaders that can help the sport survive and thrive.
The sport has never made things easy for itself. In the early 2000s, many tracks switched to synthetics and equine fatalities decreased significantly. Many applauded the reform, but it never fully caught on. The New York tracks, Churchill Downs and Gulfstream never switched and after a few years, most of the big-time tracks went back to dirt. There were tons of reasons for not going all-in on the fake dirt: bettors didn’t like it, trainers didn’t like it, there were too many soft tissue injuries, and the list goes on and on.
Soft tissue injures are no joke; they often end the racing career of a horse, but when a horse suffers one and quietly retires, the sporting world doesn’t read about it like they did this winter and spring at Santa Anita.
The last thing the industry needs is hearings on Capitol Hill. Do you remember when they called on baseball to come and testify about the use of PEDs? Do you recall the circus it was led by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and of course Rafael Palmiero, who defiantly wagged that finger, denying PED use only to fail a test weeks later.
If the Horse Racing industry doesn’t do more, the odds are great that Congress will get involved. We will see members of the House of Representatives who know nothing about the sport, speak into microphones and lecture those that supposedly care about Thoroughbreds and thoroughbred racing.
The Santa Anita meet has mercifully ended and while the industry let out a collective sigh of relief, it is now time to roll up the sleeves and come up with real reforms to make the sport better and safer for all.