04/01/2015 2:36PM

Hovdey: Fix what’s broken and leave the rest

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It has been a bedrock contention of this corner for years that efforts to shoehorn Thoroughbred horse racing into the sporting culture as a major player have been doomed by the game’s intrinsic personality flaws.

No amount of chatter about a “league office” or an all-powerful “commissioner” or trainers called “coach” could ever cause racing to be confused with the NFL or the NBA, nor would a “national marketing strategy” inspire an onrush of new customers to a world so rife with the archaic and arcane.

Still, horse racing has every right to be viewed as a fascinating, idiosyncratic niche pastime with a cadre of true believers and a patronage that mixes blue collar with upper crust. There is not a darn thing wrong with something being identified as a throwback (bowling, vinyl, handwriting), as long as its consumers are being thrown back to a something that fills a yearning for an admirable, bygone ideal.

Horse racing should be a small, polished gem of a sport with a few headline-inducing days that afford nothing more than a peek inside an exotic world where the curious are welcomed but not relied upon for ongoing business. Horse racing does not need new fans as much as it needs to take perfect care of the fans it has, which means horse racing must stop trying to be hip, or liked, or trending, and spend more time and resources on getting the little things right.

Little things like identifying which horses are which before they run in a race. The mixup of the two Dan McFarlane-trained horses running in the same race at Turf Paradise last weekend is one of those mind-boggling goofs that throws every other security procedure into question. Yes, it has happened before, and it should not have happened then. Yes, some horses can look alike (although probably not to each other). And yes, there are way too many trainers who can’t pick out one of their plain bays from another, even when they are standing not far from each other in the same saddling paddock.

Of course, it is the horse identifier who has been thrown under the bus on this one and likely will be dragged the length of the stretch. But then go ahead, racing fan, and try explaining to your neighbor how multimillion-dollar racehorses are still being identified by a tattoo applied to the inside of their upper lip (ouch), when your two-dollar house cat is walking around with a microchip implant that would bring him home whether you want him back or not.

Here’s a great term accepted as gospel in the game: quick official. Makes sense when used in reference to a game of constant movement played over a longer period of time. Official decisions on the field or the court need to be made quickly because the contest is ongoing, and fans deserve as few interruptions as possible.

In horse racing, quick official is a whole different beast. The race is over. Things may or may not have happened during the running of the race that might bear further scrutiny, if only to assure horseplayers that the contest was played as fairly as possible. Well into the late 1980s, this was accomplished by allowing the jockeys the time to bring their horses back to the scales and consider any objection. This also afforded the stewards a window to review and discuss a piece of the race that might be in question.

Then came the accounting department, whose mandate was maximizing the churn of the betting dollar so that the house could get its cut. The accountants looked at those few minutes between the end of the race and the traditional high sign from the clerk of scales as a wasteland of lost revenue. So began the quick official, wherein a jockey must request a hold be put on the race in the immediate moments following the finish by seeking out either a mounted outrider or a stewards’ assistant stationed on the turn.

The quick official, now pretty much the law of the land, represents a classic clash of the bottom line with the integrity of the sport. Guess which one usually wins. Its flaws were illustrated last weekend at Gulfstream Park, where the Florida Derby was declared official before Jose Ortiz, riding the favored Upstart, was able to claim foul on John Velazquez and the victorious Materiality for an incident in midstretch. Whether or not the claim would have had merit is beside the point. If there is ever a race that should not require a quick whistle, it should be a million-dollar event carded as the last race of the day.

Then again, every pari-mutuel event should be treated with the same scrutiny, which is why the super-duper surveillance being touted for the Santa Anita Derby/Oaks, Wood Memorial, and Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday is so disingenuous. Is anybody fooled by flashy PR anymore? Guess so.

If the corresponding count from last week is an indication, there will be upward of 150 races run at U.S. Thoroughbred tracks this Saturday. Are fans – experienced or otherwise – being asked to believe that only a few marquee events deserve such diligence? Is the message that the people involved with the horses in those events are more prone to cheating? Or that those particular horses are more likely targets of tampering?

Then again, perhaps the heightened surveillance will be in place to make sure the horses match their names on the program. I really can’t argue with that.

Justin Glagola More than 1 year ago
Can anyone answer these 3 questions? 1) why North American uses Race day medications such a lasix blute etc and the rest of the world does not? 2) Why do the stewards/ofiicals in other countries are less willing to take down horses when "contact" and "race ridding" happen but in North American you can never tell if the stewards/officials are going to put up an Objection or disqualify or no change in a race? Good examples 2015 Holly Bull, the race after on GP turf, BC Classic 2014, Jasizzle win in the Mountaineer spirt race on WV derby day? 3) Why only in North American do they use people to hold the horses in the gate while the rest of the world does not?....It seems to me North American races have more gate mishaps in one year than the the rest of worlds horse races combined.
Tom Jefferson More than 1 year ago
Great points Justin. The race day meds are an outrage and continue to be defended by trainers and vets here. It's just a corrupt culture. Regarding the stewards in other countries none of them tolerate herding that goes on constantly here (or flagging the whip in a horse's face). Herding is what causes most of our problems. Jocks in front bear out and force horses trying to pass to veer or take up. It's plainly what just happened in the Florida Derby. It shouldn't be a matter of taking a horse down it can be solved by resolving not to tolerate in any longer and giving jocks days that continue doing it.
Chuck Seddio More than 1 year ago
I didn't know mr hovdey was a lackey for turf paradise and its credents. RINGER
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Come on Chuck, the only thing Jay is a ringer for is a great writer, well-versed in it's (racings) glorious history, past and present, with always a clever and thought provoking style.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
you for got to sign it, Mrs.Hovdey
Mark Oleary More than 1 year ago
One more thing on that obvious scam at Turf Paradise. Like I wrote yesterday, I believe there was no mistake, or human error, etc. It was a blatant case of running a ringer to cash a huge bet. Just look at every number associated with that race: ike the odds of both horses and the distance of the race. It was tailor made for a fix, and somewhere some group is laughing and counting greenbacks. Lots of greenbacks.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
I tend to not think it was a scam. The total win pool was about 30 grand. After takeout, that would mean a 29-1 shot would have less than a $1,000 bet on him. Where is this huge bet? And that would not even count normal money bet on him. Also, if you watch the race, the winner is dead last turning for home and just barely gets up. That doesn't sound like a race where there is a fix. Too much of a sweat.
Mark Oleary More than 1 year ago
Jim, I agree with you about horseracing dying and the young playing the easier game where there is no skill, etc. I love reading the Form as we called it and trying to handicap the winner. That takes real skill. However, all that reading, handicapping, slicing and dicing the numbers becomes moot when the race is fixed by either a doped up or down horse, a jock that puts his horse into a box behind horses or the slower part of the track, or any of the hundreds of other ways to alter the outcome of a race. So Jim, what is your solution, because I have been trying to figure out how to save racing for 40 years or so. I love the sport, the horses, the colors, the pageantry of a big race etc., but racing is really up against it and losing ground quickly. Jim, I have some answers and solutions too, but like you, no one wants to listen to me either.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
Horse racing does take a lot of skill and that's part of it's problem. With all the info out there now, it takes 2 solid hours to properly handicap a card. That's a big time commitment that most people can't give. I think it's part of the reason that racing lends it self to the older generation. People who are either retired or semi-retired. A person in their 30's or 40's working full-time and raising a family, it's just very hard to do.
Rob Talstra More than 1 year ago
I have said this many times and i will say it again because it is the MAIN reason horse racing is dying.. Horse racing does the main thing that keeps fans interest backward.. If every sport, Baseball, basketball ,football had ALL their stars and superstars retire after just 1-2 years just how popular would those sports be? They would slowly die just like horse racing is.. Forget about promotions and all the other gimmicks to try to draw fans.. The biggest attendance days are when u have a superstar rivalry or a superstar horse racing that day.. This almost NEVER happens because before anything can really start they retire.. So here is hoping almost every good horse out there gets gelded (haha) because thats the only way this sport will ever regain some traction.. We need MANY more horses like Shared belief..
Kevin More than 1 year ago
Two words (in support of your position): California Chrome.
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Love the chip idea.But don't you think some scumbag would not dig/swap a chip out for a race.Tattooing is probably still less tamper proof.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
I thought about that too right at first, but it's GPS tracking. If someone did take it out what are you going to do with the chip? If it's tracked to the barn when the horse is on the track...well that should say it all.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
You hit a soft spot with Bowling, which sport digressed the most last 25 years ? The one item that gets the most press/pub/ink in horse racing is a DQ/Non DQ, didn't even look at it et al.. Every thing changes eras are different. They took Dr Fager down on the first turn, The Wicked North on last turn, each had nothing to do with problem. That's resolved today, doesn't happen. Another good example from another sport: NBA, Jerry west hit a 63 footer to tie playoff game vs. NY Knicks early 70's, only to send to O/T. If a 3 pointer, not only wins game, but ties series at 2, instead of NY 3-1 A few years later problem fixed 3 point shot put in rules, 22-23 feet ?
Bugsy Anderson More than 1 year ago
Biggest difference from say 40 years ago to now? The money is so good at so many places, that there really isnt any prestige any more..... Winning these non-triple crown stakes, does not mean what it used to. This creates another problem. Why would the top horses meet 5-7 times a year, and create some great rivalries, and stories, when they can go to places like Sunland, Philly, Charlestown, and what not, to pick up these HUGE purses, and only race the best in the class at the Breeders.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
Why is it important to have those marquee races at tracks such as Parx (get with the program, Bugsy, it hasn't been Philadelphia Park for years), Charles Town, etc.? Because some of us live near those "minor" tracks and are thrilled to get the opportunity to see the star horses compete, and to see the big-name jockeys and trainers in person. It keeps our interest high and inspires us to come to the track instead of staying home and watching on tv and/or betting on-line.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
Just because it's good for you doesn't mean it's good for the game.
Matthew Hood More than 1 year ago
I disagree, I think it's very good for the sport. How is keeping people interested across the whole country a bad thing? These "Big Races" he's talking about are only 12-15 races on the entire calender. A much bigger problem is claimers running for $40,000-$50,000 purses. These very few stakes races for big purses are not hurting the sport.
mrbascum More than 1 year ago
Remember when the Wood Memorial had so many entries it had to be split in 2 divisions? Figure a way to get back to that era and all the problems will disappear
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Remember when most Americans knew who the Boxing Heavyweight Champ was?
TEDK215 More than 1 year ago
hey Hovdey, how would you like to lose your wager to a guy with no morality or ANY sense of humanity? Im pretty sure you know who Im talking about, yet he remains in the hall of shame.
Nathan More than 1 year ago
Wa6ne lukas?
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
et al
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Are you talking about Ty Cobb?