12/19/2008 1:00AM

Letters to the Editor


Horsemen's voice calls for caution with Illinois funds

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, I made a presentation to the Illinois Racing Board regarding the 2009 stakes programs of both Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race course, as reported in the Dec. 11 Racing Form article, "Illinois stakes set for '09." My concern was overnight purses for the everyday horsemen at the two tracks.

The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association board is extremely concerned about keeping overnight purses at 2008 levels. Realism, not optimism, was the approach used for determining our position on the 2009 stakes. Knowing that all indications point to a decline in wagering handle for 2009, how could tracks maintain the same level of purses for stakes in 2009 and keep overnight purses at 2008 levels, without resulting in an overpayment to horsemen for 2009?

The horsemen never suggested eliminating any of the stakes races or reducing a graded stakes below its minimum level. We only suggested lowering the published values to a more manageable level. If the economy did turn around, we would be amenable to raising the levels.

Just so everyone understands, the tracks manage horsemen's purse money. If a track manages our account poorly and an overpayment to horsemen develops, the track will never lose. Currently, the overpayment of purses at Arlington is nearly zero, while at Hawthorne it is nearly $1.7 million (up from zero last year). Hawthorne's overpayment is caused by two factors: (a) the loss of dark-day simulcast-hosting revenue during January and February for the past two years because more time was given to Arlington, and (b) the poor economy, which has caused a severe decline in wagering.

A track will always reclaim an overpayment. This retrieval process can come in the form of a cut in overnight purses or a new revenue source, like the impact fees that the state legislature has mandated be paid by casinos to racetracks.

The numbers in the unedited final 2008 Arlington purse report would make anyone concerned, especially with all the doom and gloom projected for handle. If we attempt to keep overnight purses at 2008 levels, as promised by Arlington, and we accept the proposed stakes schedule, we could have a serious overpayment. Without a new source of revenue, we are in trouble.

Even with no decline in handle at the Arlington meet, there still might be a six-figure overpayment. And even if stakes reductions proposed by horsemen were implemented, a 10-percent decline in handle during the Arlington meet could still generate an overpayment of millions. If a decline in handle is a reality, it will be even worse at Hawthorne, and the eagerly awaited impact fee won't have an impact at all.

Greg Szymski, Executive Director, Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association

No middle ground in matter of drugs

I read with wry amusement - and a jaundiced eye - the Dec. 12 article "NTRA battles public opinion," on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the decline of the public's "confidence" in Thoroughbred racing.

Surveys have located the root this decline in ontrack injuries to horses. Even more ironic was the glaring disconnect reported between that public - increasingly skeptical of developments in regulation - and the regulators themselves, most of whom believe, the article told us, that "deliberate abuse of drugs in racing is extremely rare."

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

The issue is not "abuse," but "use." Even as designer drugs become ever more exotic, and those who administer them grow ever more sophisticated in their employment, chemists charged with rooting out "deliberate abuse" are faced with a nigh-impossible task.

The truth is, we don't fully understand how these performance-enhancing chemicals act on horses' electrolytes or endocrine or nervous systems, and in any case can't detect their presence before the results are posted on the infield tote board or a promising 3-year-old breaks down at the eighth pole.

Quite apart from altering the outcomes of races, these drugs play a significant role in injuries and deaths among Thoroughbreds.

As for those charged with making the rules: The Securities and Exchange Commission was quite comfortable with 30-to-1 debt-to-asset ratios - until it became manifest that such models were disastrously flawed. We will all now spend some time in financial purgatory as a result. Place not thy trust in "regulators."

The only solution for horse racing is to ban drugs - period. Europe lives with this arrangement quite comfortably, while America, contrary to logic, is a special case. It's a safe bet that pressure from trainers, owners, and state governments in this country will act to keep the present template in place, so we'll be having this conversation well into the next generation. Let's hope that conversation is not a eulogy.

Kenneth M. Steele - Bensalem, Pa.

Racing may become yesterday's news

As onetime Thoroughbred owners and breeders (and in one case a trainer), we found ourselves greatly appreciating and agreeing with a Dec. 14 letter to the Racing Form. "Symposium focus overlooks key issue," particularly on the subject of media coverage of horse racing.

We remember when racing was widely covered by the local papers. During the summer, it was the local meet, and in the winter you got the results from California, which was particularly helpful in keeping track of local horsemen who raced at tracks in parts south of here.

Nowadays, if you ask someone why horse racing is relegated to the obscure pages of the sports section - if there's even any racing coverage at all - the standard reason is that there's not enough interest. As the Dec. 14 letter noted, the casual fan has no chance. It seems that there is no viable plan to make racing attractive to new fans, either, and the fan base the sport does have is aging. Who is going to replace it?

Here in Vancouver, the only racing news we get comes from the weekly reports of Tommy Wolski, a former jockey. Even at that, the news is usually a week behind, and we have to share space with Standardbreds, although racing is racing regardless of the breed, and the harness people have the same concerns as the Thoroughbred people when it comes to racing coverage.

It's disheartening when all you can find in the sports pages are articles about under-performing hockey and football teams. Even soccer and tennis get more ink than racing.

That letter was right on the money. Horse racing must be made appealing to more than just the die-hard fan, or it will surely become extinct.

Harvey Greenwood, Beverley Evans - Vancouver, British Columbia