ARE THE HIGHS WORTH THE LOWS?

Horse racing is a sport that attracts people for different reasons.  For example, the intellectual challenge of figuring out races is a main draw.  The intrigue of breeding and/or racing horses as an owner is another.

For owners, the experience can be a roller-coaster ride from extreme psychological highs to the lowest of lows, and the swing in emotions can occur quickly.  The 2017 Irish Derby is a case in point.

Trainer Aidan O’Brien won the race for the twelfth time.  Capri, son of Galileo and one of five Coolmore Stud entries, came home first with his stablemate Wings of Eagles finishing third.  Wings of Eagles had won the Epsom Derby in June at odds of 40/1.

The Coolmore/O’Brien upbeat mood over winning the race was surely quickly tempered by the discovery that Wings of Eagles had incurred a bad sesamoid fracture.  While the colt reportedly can be saved, he will never race again.

Whether an injured animal is an Epsom Derby winner or the cheapest of claimers, the conscientious owner is affected emotionally.  Years ago, the father of a childhood friend of mine owned several racehorses that competed primarily at Churchill Downs.  When one of his horses was injured in a low-dollar claiming race and had to be euthanized, the owner was visibly upset, perhaps just as much so as the owner of a stakes-caliber horse.

Another owner I knew bred his mare–his only horse–to a stallion standing at Overbrook Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.  After the colt was born, the owner would drive monthly a distance of 350 miles one way from his home to Lexington to watch the colt grow and develop.  The colt never raced, suffering a fatal injury in training as a 2-year-old.  The normally placid and seemingly unemotional owner was obviously shaken by the turn of events.

Some owners, a small minority I like to think, certainly don’t care about their animals, or else they would not allow them to be illegally medicated by unscrupulous trainers and veterinarians or sent off to slaughter when their racing days are over.  But the vast majority of owners do care and, when a life-ending injury occurs, they have the same empty feeling that dog owners do when the beloved family pet must be euthanized, even after a long canine life.  Penny, our family’s rescued Shih Tzu passed in 2014 at age 13 and we miss her and talk about her often.

Whether it is Ruffian, Go for Wand, Barbaro, Wings of Eagles or a $4,000 claimer, most owners suffer when a career-ending or life-ending injury results…and not just financially.  A caring racehorse owner quietly grieves.

Prospective racehorse owners have to ask themselves if they can occasionally cope with career-ending or terminal injuries.  Are the highs worth these lows?

They, of course, are not alone in pondering such a question.  A few years ago, for instance, an owner of Indy 500 cars left the sport, saying that he could not emotionally handle the death of another driver.  National Football League owners must struggle with the long-term effects on players of collisions and concussions.  MMA fighting, boxing, and ice hockey have the same issues.

Whether the highs of racehorse ownership compensate for the lows is a decision that will vary across individuals.  My personal view is that the highs are worth the lows, with two imperative humane stipulations having to do with integrity and a safety net:  the owner will not allow his or her horses to race on medication that is performance enhancing or masks a physical problem and invites injury, and, secondly, he or she will get an injured horse competent and ongoing veterinarian care and a proper retirement home in the event injury precludes the horse from racing again.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

AMERICAN PRESIDENTS AND HORSE RACING

Independence Day, 2017

In colonial America, the most popular sport was horse racing.  A number of early presidents of the United States were avid fans.

William Bushong, the Chief Historian of the White House Historical Association,  published an article in 2015 titled “Presidents and the Heyday of Horse Racing in the Federal City.”  He wrote:

“Presidential parties attending horse races was once a common occurrence in the colonial period and early republic.  Even before the seat of national government moved from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington, D.C. in 1800, horse racing was a popular and well-established sport in the region.  George Washington, statesman, general, and president, embodied this generation of early Americans who found sport and pleasure in horse racing.  Washington regularly attended and wagered on horse races throughout his life at meetings in Annapolis, Alexandria, and Williamsburg.

Over the next two decades what became known officially as the National Race Course, located just outside the Washington city boundary two miles north of the White House near Meridian Hill, vied with the best tracks in the nation in terms of patronage and the quality of the racing. Thomas Jefferson and James and Dolley Madison rarely missed the meets.  The best horses in the country competed there into the 1840s, and the Jockey Club dinner and ball, a highlight of the social season, concluded the meeting.”

Bushong said that Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and James K. Polk were regular attendees at horse races, along with senators, congressmen, and other government office holders.  Ulysses S. Grant was the last president who was an avowed follower of horse racing, preferring Standardbreds.  After Grant, sitting presidents tended to distance themselves from the sport, at least publicly, because of its connections to gambling and its elitist reputation as the “sport of kings.”

Richard Nixon is the only president to have attended the Kentucky Derby while in office, in 1969.  However, future or former presidents have attended, such as Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.  According to Bushong, Franklin D. Roosevelt listened on the radio to the 1937 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Besides presidents, various cabinet officials have been not only fans of horse racing, but owners and breeders–for example, former Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, U. S. Senator and Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, and Ambassador to Great Britain William Farish.

Horse racing was an integral part of the social and cultural milieu in early America.  While it is not so popular in contemporary times, it is firmly entrenched in American history as the first major sport.  To this day, large amounts of money and bragging rights hinge on the question of “Who has the fastest horse?”

Happy Independence Day USA!

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

THE BETTOR-AS-INVESTOR RATIONALE FOR MEDICATION REFORM

The most divisive issue in American horse racing is drug policy.  While virtually everyone involved agrees, at least publicly, that the sport needs to improve its methods of testing and sanctioning for illicit medication use, there is widespread disagreement on how to achieve these objectives.  Most notably, some people want federal government involvement and others don’t.

Earlier this year, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas gave a speech in which he devoted part of it to medication.  His overall perspective was bettor-centric, which is precisely where it should be in that bettors are the lifeblood of the sport and business of horse racing.  In his conception, racehorse trainers and owners are taking on a number of investors when they run a horse, even though most of the investments will last fifteen minutes or less until the race is over.  A trainer’s job is to protect his or her investors “at all costs” or to “give them the best chance” to have a positive payoff.

Lukas is exactly right, in my opinion, that the trainer has a fiduciary responsibility to bettors who wager on his or her horse in a race.  Further, he said that medication comes “front and center” when bettors are correctly looked upon as investors.  The bettors/investors deserve a race that is not decided by performance-enhancing drugs.

The solution, in Lukas’ view, is straightforward.  Each racetrack should support a rigorous drug testing lab (to Olympic standards) with a percentage of pari-mutuel revenue.  Once performance-enhancing drugs are classified and a violation occurs, the horse owner in question is ruled off for a period of time.

Lukas stated that this penalty will cause owners to do more due diligence in hiring trainers.  Moreover, they will put pressure on trainers to never embarrass them.

The idea of trainers’ fiduciary responsibility to bettors is strategically sound.  Once adopted, the answers to racing’s drug problems crystallize.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business