ON SANTA’S GIFT LIST FOR AVID RACING FANS: “TALL TALES AND STRAIGHT TALK FROM THE BACKSIDE”

A recently published book that I purchased for reading over the holidays is one that Santa Claus would be advised to deliver to racing fans:  Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales And Straight Talk From The Backside of the Track.

The book is published by the Louisville [Kentucky] Story Program, a nonprofit that “strengthens the bonds of community by amplifying unheard voices and untold stories.”  Better Lucky Than Good superbly achieves this mission by profiling folks who work on the backside at Churchill Downs—as well as some of the businesspeople who serve them in the poor neighborhood surrounding the famed racetrack–hard-working individuals who labor in relative obscurity. 

Better Lucky Than Good has no vignettes about high-profile owners or trainers.  Rather, it is full of first-person narratives from behind-the-scenes characters who keep the railroad running, so to speak—grooms, exercise riders, farriers, assistant trainers, and more.  The book “took three years to engage backside workers and residents of South Louisville in conversations and a collaboration that…led to the most caring, in-depth look into the lives and stories of equine workers ever published.”

In all, Better Lucky Than Good contains 32 vignettes or short chapters that take the reader into a fascinating world of its own.  One can learn about the life of a female exercise rider from near Seattle who is also an MMA fighter.  Or about how a former Peace Corp volunteer from Indiana came to head up the Backside Learning Center.  The grandson of the founder of Wagner’s Pharmacy, where racetrackers like to eat breakfast or lunch, describes the long history of the ramshackle place.  A groom from Mexico tells of his journey into the world of horse racing. 

Photographs accompany these and other intriguing stories.

I don’t know anyone at Louisville Story Program, but appreciate the unique and entertaining perspectives provided in Better Lucky Than Good.  “Tall tales and Straight Talk from the backside of the track” is an apt description.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

(Better Lucky Than Good is available new in paperback at $30 plus shipping at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or LouisvilleStoryProgram.org.) 

DEFECTIVE RACING HALL OF FAME SELECTION?

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame inducted Jerry Hollendorfer in 2011.  His biographical sketch begins: “At the time of his Hall of Fame induction, Jerry Hollendorfer ranked in the top 10 in all-time wins and purse earnings among North American trainers.”

Last Saturday, Mighty Elijah became the eighth race-related horse fatality for Mr. Hollendorfer in the past 13 months, when the gelding suffered a leg injury at Los Alamitos and was euthanized.

Mr. Hollendorfer is banned from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Field, both owned by the Stronach Group.  He got a court order to permit him to train and race at Del Mar. This is incongruent with a Hall of Fame profile.

Did Mr. Hollendorfer’s training abilities erode since he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011 or did the HOF selection committee fail to do sufficient due diligence?

Major American professional sports have a superior system for evaluating HOF candidates.  For instance, in the National Football League, a player or coach cannot be considered until he has been retired for at least five years, which allows for a more objective retrospective assessment of a person’s body of work. Mr. Hollendorfer would likely not be voted into the HOF today, given what is known about his recent widely publicized sordid record with horse fatalities, a record that has contributed mightily to tarnishing racing’s image, especially in California.

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Continuing with the subject of horse fatalities, consider the following narrative from Harness Racing Update on December 13, 2019:

“Famed researcher Dr. Tom Tobin of the Gluck Institute at the University of Kentucky said studies show one death per 700 starts in Kentucky thoroughbreds, one death per 1,000 starts for the same breed in England, and one death per 16,600 starts in the Ohio standardbred.  A thoroughbred is 36 times more likely to succumb to a racing injury than a standardbred.”

California has one Standardbred track, Cal Expo.  The last time a horse fatality occurred there as a result of a racing injury was 2006.

When critics call for reform or abandonment of horse racing, the harness folks get unfairly painted with a broad brush.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business

AMERICAN RACING’S WORST EMEMY IS ITSELF

Safety of jockeys and horses has been the dominant theme of American racing in 2019.  A rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita, capped off with a fatal injury in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, rightfully put a harsh spotlight on the entire racing enterprise.

No one cause is responsible for fatalities, but hard data point to track surface as a major contributor.  The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database is quite revealing in this regard.

Among racetracks that provided statistics to the Equine Injury Database from 2009 through 2018, the horse fatality rate per thousand starts averaged, over the 10-year period, 1.97 on dirt and 1.47 on turf. 

Five North American racetracks have synthetic surfaces.  Arlington Park in Chicago is one of them, but the track does not make public its fatality statistics.  The other four tracks reported average fatalities per thousand starts from 2009 through 2018 as follows:

Golden Gates Field (Tapeta surface), 1.37
Presque Isle Downs (Tapeta surface), 0.95
Turfway Park (Polytrack surface), 1.2
Woodbine (Polytrack surface from 2009-2015), 1.02
Woodbine (Tapeta surface from 2016-2018), 0.965

Two inferences:  First, Synthetic surfaces reduce horse fatalities, thereby also reducing risk for jockeys.  Second, the Tapeta surface has slightly bested the Polytrack surface in terms of safety.

If American horse racing is to provide a more humane product, replacing dirt tracks with synthetic surfaces is the place to start.  Yet three high-profile racetracks, Del Mar, Keeneland, and Santa Anita, did the reverse: replacing synthetic surfaces with dirt tracks, in spite of the known elevated safety risks. They have done great damage to the industry in which they are leaders.  And prominent tracks like Churchill Downs, Saratoga, and Belmont Park are also at fault in keeping dirt surfaces.

Copyright © 2019 Horse Racing Business