Updated on 09/10/2015 11:24AM

Simon: Owners pay tab while leaving bill to others

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Who owns the racing game? The answer to that question should be the deciding factor when it comes to who makes the critical decisions on how the sport is managed – and that includes whether the sport should seek federal help to set up a national test lab and establish federal guidelines for all states that conduct Thoroughbred racing if those states want their tracks to be able to simulcast races across state lines.

The thought of federal intervention – in the form of the Barr-Tonko bill (the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015) introduced in the House of Representatives in July that would set up a third-party anti-doping authority to oversee drug testing in the sport – has sent many people into apoplectic fits. The notion that the federal government could help racing may be hard for some to accept, but there appears no other way to institute national uniform medication rules and establish an advanced lab to catch cheaters, while also implementing an effective out-of-competition testing protocol that is so critical.

The call to set up the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as that testing lab has been met with typical resistance from the usual constituents, the most high-profile being trainers and veterinarians – the two groups collectively at the forefront of administration of race-day medications to racehorses. They provide their standard reasons: that the administration of Lasix is humane treatment for a serious problem; that it “normalizes” performance as opposed to enhancing it; and that it is needed if tracks want starters to fill races. That no Thoroughbreds in any other country in the world require Lasix on race day does nothing to dispel their argument that racing as we know it would end without this drug.

But the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 is not a one-medication (Lasix) issue. Racing needs stringent national medication standards to keep cheaters out of the sport and to stay one step ahead of the labs that are producing illegal, performance-enhancing drugs used by unscrupulous trainers. For a sport whose lifeblood is based on betting, ensuring the integrity of its competition to the highest standards is absolutely essential.

Against this backdrop, I am reminded of an interview I did with Fred Hooper decades ago. For those who were not around when he was such a powerful force in racing and breeding, Hooper was a hands-on owner, even though by profession he was in the heavy construction business, building roads, dams, and bridges throughout the Southeast. By any standard, he was perceived to be a meddler in the daily affairs of his horses, monitoring workouts, races, and every detail and decision about runners in his stable, and he notoriously went through a lot of trainers. When I asked him about this, he said, “Trainers are employees. They do what I tell them to do.”

Many trainers will no doubt take umbrage to that since they are closest to the horse, believe they know what is best, and prefer to be left to make all decisions relating to the care of the horse. But the fact is that owners and breeders have the most skin in the game. And what is best for owners is best for bettors – specifically, ensuring a level playing field that protects the integrity of the game.

How much are owners invested in the sport? More than most get back, by far. The home-run horse, the 3-year-old who can win a classic race and be syndicated for millions for stud duty, may grab the headlines, but that horse is a rarity, an elusive dream to just about every owner who pays a training bill.

In rough numbers, purses in North America will total $1.1 billion in 2015. To chase that $1.1 billion, owners will spend $2 billion on training costs and more than $1 billion to buy auction yearlings and 2-year-olds to supply the racehorses. Add to that the amount spent by owners-breeders who own and breed the mares, pay the stud fees, and raise the offspring for two years hoping they can get them to the track, and you can add at least another $1 billion.

Once the owner gets the horse to the track, if it is lucky enough to win a race (only half of all starters each year actually win), he must pay the trainer 10 percent of the winning purse and the jockey another 10 percent.

For those keeping score, owners are supplying tracks with the runners who produce betting handle, while paying trainers, veterinarians, feed companies, farriers, grooms, hotwalkers, and others to care for their horses.

In light of that, owners should be the ones with the largest say in what is done with their stable and by whom. It is their competition.

For a number of reasons, though, they have not collectively exercised their voice very loudly or effectively over the years, possibly because they are not involved in the sport daily like others, and for the fact that some owner organizations are largely run by trainers. Owners often don’t want to be involved because they prefer racing to be a diversion from their daily business, a leisure activity, or just fun.

And let it be noted that not all owners have come out in favor of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act. Even the venerable Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, made up of many of the nation’s influential owners and breeders, has so far failed to support the bill. Fence sitting is a long-practiced art in racing.

But lining up behind the bill and pushing for its passage are organizations such as The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup Limited, Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, and the Water Hay Oats Alliance.

Owners who believe the sport should be free of race-day medication and a strong national test lab is required to ensure the integrity of competition is maintained need to speak out in favor of the bill. It’s time to get off the fence.

In a previous version of this article, USADA's full name was misstated. It is the United States Anti-Doping Agency, not United States Anti-Doping Administration.

Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
Having trainers and vets in charge of medication policy is putting the fox in charge of the hen house. And, yet, these two groups have held the sport of horse racing hostage ever since the 1978 Horse Racing Act was first enacted. The trainers groups basically held a gun to the head of the Breeders Cup that tried several years ago to remove race day meds at their world class annual event. Because of wording in the 1978 Act that gives "horsemen" veto power over material rule changes, it allowed them to threaten the Breeders Cup with the loss of the simulcasting rights. The Breeders Cup, not wishing to commit economic suicide, had to back down from their plan to phase in the removal of race day drugs. 38 racing jurisdictions is too cumbersome and unwieldy to ever come together on a uniform set of medication standards and policies. Each state, wishing to preserve its sovereignty, has continued to thwart meaningful medication reform. The concern about getting the federal government involved in anything is a good one except for one thing: that's not what this bill would do. Instead, it cedes oversight into the hands of an independent agency, one that has demonstrated its power and ability to clean up various sports that were rampant with drugs and scandal for years. This is the only thing that will put Thoroughbred racing on the road to restoring integrity to the sport in the U.S.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For all of you in opposition to government oversight, it will not be 'The Government' that oversees horse racing, it will be USADA, which not only caught Lance Armstrong, but countless other cheaters. This is akin to the difference between your local, small town police force with limited resources investigating a plane crash compared to the NTSB. I prefer the latter before flying that aircraft or carrier again.
Michael Griffiths More than 1 year ago
Lance was not caught by the USADA
MikeW More than 1 year ago
What goes unnoticed in racing today, is that a small group of racing secretaries, largely unsupervised, set the purchase price on over 90% of all racehorses through the claiming price scale embodied in the condition books. These purchase, or claiming prices conveniently ignore both the cost of new racehorses or their future earning power. The beneficiaries of this circumstance are the claiming barns that prey on breeders and/or their clients. It is no surprise that foal crops have plummeted in recent years.
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
It concerns me that a large body of stakeholders, the trainers, do not buy into this type of change. It would be better to me if the change came from within. Without that, we cannot expect horseracing to be able to deal with its many other challenges. It is too bad there is no initiative for everyone to come together here. With respect to the Federal government, I have the highest respect for what it does. We wouldn't even be conversing here if the government didn't fund the initial efforts to build an Internet. But, with respect to laws like this, legislators often have little understanding of the business. It also leaves the game open to anti-gambling types to throw poison pills at the legislation. It is not without its risks.
Barry Irwin More than 1 year ago
Excellent piece.
Cliff Amyotte More than 1 year ago
The trainers wear their big $1,000 suits on tv to show how great they are...there have been many coaches with great teams over the years that simply open the locker room door and the players do the rest....it is the jockey and the horses that come back with dirt in their faces and sweat on the bodies...but in the corporate world mass thievery goes with simple slaps on their wrists while a black boy is shot dead for stealing a bag of chips...just like a jockey is killed when a drugged up horse breaks his leg and crushes the rider..a slap on the wrist...as much as I love the excitement and betting of horses it's time to tell the tracks clean up or take your ball and go home...we can always find something else to do!
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
Apparently you can march in a BLM rally.
Cliff Amyotte More than 1 year ago
Here Here! But byou forgot who the biggest partner is...The fans the bettors... we are the supreme partner without us there is no fun, distraction or business for the owners...you want honesty? then let the bettors vote and implement the rules...no demand the rules...or take your ball and go home....we are the power!
Richard Holmes More than 1 year ago
The racing industry in the United States has proven that they are incapable of adequately policing themselves. They have had every opportunity to do it, but they haven't done it. As an owner and a bettor, I am all in favor of someone coming in and cleaning up the sport once and for all. So many bettors have left the game because of the lack of integrity in the sport. Cheating is rampant and everyone knows it. And aside from true cheating, even the legal drugs are out of control. There needs to be an overhaul of the system. We need a model more like Hong Kong when it comes to race day medication. We need to bring integrity back to racing.
Tom More than 1 year ago
The racing industry is DOOMED if we allow the Feds to get involved in any way, shape, or form.
Barry Irwin More than 1 year ago
Not true Tom. The ONLY action that is required by the Federal government in this initiative is for them to appoint USADA. That's it. BTW, if you bet horses across state lines today, it is because the Federal government in 1978 passed the law that allows it.
genewashington1 More than 1 year ago
The last thing that racing needs is fWashington getting involved. Our government is dreadful at doing anything.
Barry Irwin More than 1 year ago
The Feds already are involved through the 1978 Interstate Horseracing Act. Get with the program.
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
Educate yourself on this issue. The knee-jerk reaction of don't let the Feds get involved is a bogus one. The bill is required to authorize turning oversight over to a NON-GOVERNMENTAL, INDEPENDENT AGENCY, the same one that nailed Lance Armstrong and cleaned up the Olympics. Some of the same reasons why we have civilian oversight of the military applies to the situation of who calls the shots in drug policy in the sport of horse racing. It's the owners and breeders who pay ALL of the bills, they are the ones who have the most to gain or lose by cleaning up the sport. The trainers have been obstructionist throughout calls for medication reform in racing. (There are some notable exceptions: Ken McPeek, D. Wayne Lukas, and even Todd Pletcher signed on to a group of trainers in support of major changes).