Updated on 09/10/2015 11:24AM

Simon: Owners pay tab while leaving bill to others


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.