04/01/2015 2:36PM

Hovdey: Fix what’s broken and leave the rest


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.