01/22/2015 2:01PM

Crist: NYRA shortsighted with new runback rule


Nearly 50 years ago in his “Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing,” the groundbreaking granddaddy of modern handicapping books, Tom Ainslie instructed readers to view with extreme skepticism any horse who had not raced in the last 14 days. Sharp and in-form horses should be racing at least that often, he said, and a quick runback was a sign of a thriving horse.

Today in New York, Ainslie would never make a bet. Under a bizarre and ultimately cynical directive issued by the New York Racing Association last week, no horse will be allowed to race at Aqueduct more than once every 15 days. The measure is supposed to address safety concerns raised by a rash of breakdowns at the Aqueduct winter meeting.

It is unlikely to do so, given that it is based on false assumptions and corporate image-crafting rather than any science or even common sense.

It’s a good thing NYRA doesn’t host the Preakness: No horse who ran in the Kentucky Derby would be allowed to run 14 days later in the second leg of the Triple Crown. Woody Stephens would not have been allowed to win the Metropolitan Handicap on a Monday and the Belmont Stakes five days later with Conquistador Cielo. John Veitch could not have sent out Proud Truth to win the Discovery a week before taking the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But what do Hall of Fame horse trainers know about training horses, compared to a bureaucracy trying to claim credit for safer racing and then overreacting when the numbers turn against them?

As a practical matter, the 15-day rule won’t accomplish a thing besides understandably angering owners and trainers, who are in effect being told they are irresponsible and courting disaster every time they run back a horse in 14 days or fewer.

“Whoever made that rule has no idea about training horses,” trainer Mike Hushion said last week.

As a symbolic matter, it is a terrible precedent that can only harm the sport by endorsing the falsehood that quick runbacks are inherently dangerous.

It would be one thing if NYRA or anyone else had done a legitimate, comprehensive study proving that horses who run back within 15 days break down more often. But there is no such study because it isn’t true. In fact, research presented several years ago by The Jockey Club suggests the opposite: Horses who race early and often appear to gain bone strength and turn out to be sturdier. The most at-risk horses are not the sharp claimers running back on 10 days’ rest but the 5-year-old maidens making their belated debuts after years of physical problems.

The 15-day rule does absolutely nothing to address the breakdown situation; you might as well hire a witch doctor to chant spells over a black candle at midnight. The rule sounds as if it might have something to do with safety, but all it really does is to anticipate the wrongheaded objections of the misinformed. The horses must be running too much, so let’s have them race less often! Look how much we care about safety!

NYRA has generally done a commendable job of doing what it can to promote safety and equine welfare, instituting most of the recommendations of a state task force and taking the issue seriously. Unfortunately, it also has taken advantage of brief swings in the fatality numbers to congratulate itself for allegedly superior management, so now it is embarrassed and panicked when the numbers inevitably even out and start to trend the other way.

The problem with taking credit for randomly good times is that you then have to offer an explanation for the randomly bad times. Whoever is telling NYRA to stake its claim to competency by counting casualties and blaming trainers is giving it very bad advice.

Officials say fans should not worry about the 15-day rule messing up stakes races at Belmont and Saratoga because it is only a short-term measure, likely to disappear this spring. If so, that sends another curious message. If mandating 15-day rests is a lifesaving safety rule in February, why isn’t it the same in June? Either it is a good and necessary measure or it isn’t.

It isn’t.

philcoforde More than 1 year ago
Steve's point about the Kentucky Derby fortnight jump to the Preakness is ON POINT.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not worried about a 15 day rule as a fan and everyday handicapper. The Aqueduct winter meet was taken off my radar a few years ago. I consider it a bad boutique meet similar to the Los Al/Fairplex meet in So. Cal, or the fair meets in No. Cal. Sometimes its best to shutdown for a few months and let the athletes be horses. If the Yankees or the Giants played year round, they to would deteriorate to the levels of the well rested Mets and Jets. Give the horses a rest and save NY racing the black eye.
Robert Davies More than 1 year ago
Agree; ridiculous rule. If you had the track vets and others that watch over the horses and allow them to race (because they are "sound") this rule would not be even considered. Likely the track itself is too hard and unforgiving especially when its below freezing....should be obvious, yes?
Bob Lunny More than 1 year ago
It's the track, not the horses
Bob Lunny More than 1 year ago
Its the track, not the horses
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The article about all the Aqueduct scratches today is the first I've heard of this. Am I reading this correctly? "No horse will be allowed to race at Aqueduct more than once every 15 days" . Does this mean that a horse could run at Gulfstream and run back at Aqueduct a week later and that would be okay? If that's the case, doesn't that say more about the condition of the Aqueduct racetrack? The fact that this is a rule that might disappear in the spring when their more important racing starts and most at a different track (no Peter Pan to Belmont starters?!) exemplifies the stupidity of this rule and the possible problems with the Aqueduct surface. NYRA knows more about a trainer's horse than he/she does?! It's also pretty absurd considering how many complain that horses don't run often enough these days and fret over the endlessly declining popularity of the sport. I have been a fan of this sport for a very long time and it gets harder and harder to get anyone I know interested. They don't see how I can be interested in a sport in which the participants that make the sport exciting are only seen for a couple of minutes, if that, every 30 to 60 days on average. You might get some newbie to gamble a bit, but for the most part, you can't create real fans by not letting them see the athlete involved. I didn't get involved with racing years ago because I was craving to gamble. I got into gambling because I became involved with horses such as Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Forego, Foolish Pleasure, Ruffian, Sham and others of the early to mid 70's.
Robert Davies More than 1 year ago
Totally agree; I got excited by Secretariat running at my home track (Woodbine) when I was a little kid, the Cdn International, EP Taylor, Woodbine Mile, Queen's Plate, Breeders' and all the great horses that won them! Let's face it compulsive gamblers can get action faster and easier in a multitude of ways now so the faster racetrack mgmt's understand and accept that, the better. Card BETTER races, NOT more races!
nancyb More than 1 year ago
Though I generally agree that the runback rule makes little sense as a blanket prohibition, the JC study you quote refers to bone development and soundness in young, previously unraced horses. The obvious question is whether closely spaced recent races is something the fatalities had in common. Nothing I have read in DRF has explained what was in the report that made this rule seem like the solution. I'd rather know how 5 racetracks in KY have managed fewer deaths for the YEAR than Aqueduct has in one MEET. Granted those statistics include one and a half synthetic tracks (Keeneland for part of the year and Turfway) and one turf only (KY Downs), but still? I find your cynical opinion that any recent improvement in horse mortality is 'random' most disturbing. To say that it is simply 'a brief swing' is to say that everything that can be done has been done. We all know that's not true. Incidentally, a void-claim rule might keep a few 'ouchy' horses in the barn. I know there are some trainers who thrive on the claiming game but if no one will step in to safeguard animal welfare, perhaps reducing the financial incentive to risk a horse's life with one more start will help.
Michael Beauregard More than 1 year ago
I think it was Friday a horse was entered in a clm race but not to be claimed he had not started in 9 months . If he is in a claiming race why can't he be claimed. I PASSED THE RACE NOT FAIR>I don't understand The conditions so i pass.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
You know I read in these stories the peoples misconception of what the problem is. For the most part it falls to the cheaper horses, but why? Without investigating every horse myself I'll give an off the top of my head answer. I would say most of them were fairly classy at some point so whoever had them originally was told "look the horse has problems, let's drop him steal a purse and get rid of him". Then the next guy invests and it can go one of 2 ways depending on the trainer that gets him, either " I think I can correct it" or "He's got issues lets drop him quick and trying to steal a purse and get rid of him". So understand the first scenario means, you just invested a lot of money but you may not see your horse run for a while and even if you do get him right, then you'll have to wait for him to cycle around, the second option is drop him and run him and then becomes a game of hot potato until the last guys stuck.
Héctor Lebrón More than 1 year ago
Totally agreed.