Day At The Track

Can the downward spiral be stopped?

10:19 AM 12 Jan 2018 NZDT
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Rules, Rules and more Rules
Rules, Rules and more Rules

Here we go with another view on the proposed new rule for Harness Racing. Another one of many interesting letters sent to Harnesslink;

As a participant in this industry for the better part of my 36 years on this earth (I started scrubbing buckets and washing boots when I was 4), I can tell you harness racing horseman are a jealous, fickle bunch of people. Yes, there are many genuine good-hearted people in our industry. Many are sincere and jovial and hardworking, but we are also competitive. We compete to make a living. Competing drivers some people to look for advantages. It happens in all major sports, in every level of competition. From little league and pop warner football straight up through the professional ranks. Why would our sport be any different? 

The most recent efforts being made by to ensure the integrity of the harness racing industry are all well and good, but let’s face it, it far from fixes the problem.

We must first be completely transparent about what hinders our industry before we can start making rules to try and fix it. The harness racing industry has been plagued with black eyes and scandals that lead people outside our industry wondering why they should even give it a second glance. Our fan base is dwindling rapidly, our bettors are leaving in droves and the owners are beginning to look for other investment opportunities.

What have we done to remedy any of these problems?

The first attempt was simulcasting. We sold our soul to keep bettors gambling on our product. We decided it was a great idea to let the betting public stand in small, drab establishments and gamble on our horses instead of coming to our venues to do it. Oh, and we’ll give these establishments a huge piece of the handle to accommodate our bettors. 

Who ever thought that was a good business model besides OTB and Roberts Communications? 

So, after years of allowing our fans and bettors the opportunity to avoid coming in person to watch and wager, we needed flashy new enticements to get them through the doors. 

SLOTS!

Slots at the tracks will bring people in the doors. We’ll allow casinos and track owners to put slot machines, or Video Lottery Terminals (as they are called in the legislation in New York) to draw patrons to the tracks. Years of increasing state lotteries and Indian casinos has been one of the downfalls of our industry and then we decided to just put them in our facilities.

Again, we only get a fraction of the proceeds, but at least people are coming back to the track. Walk into almost all the VLT parlors/casinos in the industry and see if anyone can tell you where the racetrack is--  it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. 

We’ve gotten people back to the track, except they don’t even realize it’s a racetrack.

This worked for a while until the governments realized they could just have the slots without the horses.

Canada was one of the first jurisdictions to have the benefit of slots, but it was also the first jurisdiction to be crippled by it as well. Now that we all got a wake-up call to what could really happen to our industry we decided to try and figure out a long-term solution.

What will that solution be? Marketing? Advertising? Sponsorships? Social Media Campaigns? Cleaning up our drug riddled industry? Here lies one of the major problems in our sport, drugging to gain an advantage. 

It is also one of the most confusing and ambiguous aspects of our sport. These solutions take one thing our industry fears, CHANGE. 

We have no universal governing body that determines competition rules pertaining to what drugs are allowed and what drugs are deemed unacceptable, like the MLB, NFL, or NBA-- or any other professional sport. 

Rules vary from state to state even for drugs that are deemed acceptable, such as Lasix.  Lasix in one state is given 4 hours prior to competition, in another state it is given 3 hours prior to competition.  Same drug, different rules.  Same goes for Bute, you can race on it day of the race in Massachusetts, but in other states you must administer at least 24 hours prior to race day. 

Some trainers have decided to push the limits of drug testing and continue to look for new and improved drugs to gain competitive advantages. They win more races, they make more money, they get more owners and the owners buy more horses. It’s a fact. 

To change that cycle we need to not only improve our drug testing, we need to improve the penalties that go along with these violations. 

These changes are meant to improve the integrity of the sport, but the integrity needs to be improved across the board. 

From racing commissions, to racetrack owners to horse owners, to trainers and drivers. Complete transparency should be the goal. 

Judges and Racing Commissions are supposed to protect the betting public. That’s laughable. They are gamblers; if you want to protect them, give them a rock-solid set of rules that are abided by at every track. That’s the protection they should have. Its like playing blackjack. It is an industry standard that 17 is a hand that dealers stand on. Yes, there are some exceptions on how they get to it, but 17 is the number. We have racetrack owners preaching integrity and throwing trainers out of their tracks because they have had positive tests. But the same racetrack owner casts a blind eye when it comes to a business partner that gets a positive. 

Why isn’t the racing commission or USTA protecting the betting public from that scenario? Jurisdictions have made rules to suspend trainers and horses with positive tests which I believe is a step in the right direction. 

The new rules which they want to put into place suspending owners as well is, in my opinion, going to far. In this day in age, where owners are buying big ticket yearlings in partnership groups, it seems detrimental to take this step.

The industry has in the last few years made an attempt to become more “Owner Forward”.

The USTA has been pushing owner seminars, fractional ownership groups have become a growing trend; owners are being encouraged to have their own personal owner colors worn in high dollar stakes events. How is suspending owners going to help any of those situations? Its basically a ploy by certain tracks to stop owners from putting horses in trainers barns they deem undesirable. 

Why stop with owners? Why not include the drivers of horses who test positive on post-race tests? It is being claimed that it’s the owner’s fiduciary responsibility to put horses in the barns of trainers who don’t drug their horses. 

Why isn’t it the driver’s fiduciary responsibility to not drive for trainers who are know drug offenders?  Having been a catch driver, I know first hand that drivers have the ability to choose who they drive for. They could very easy not drive for the known drug-using trainers. However, being that our livelihood is based on driving horses that make money, we choose to drive the drugged horses. Why? Because if we don’t there will be someone else who will. Remember, we are a fickle group.  A horse tests positive, the owner, trainer, and the driver must return the money they made. Why then does the driver get absolved for any suspension in these new rules. They made the choice to drive for that trainer just as the owner made the choice to put the horse in that trainer’s barn. Our industry is performance based, the better you preform, the more opportunities you get. 

The rules in our industry aren’t helping to fix the integrity in our sport.  Strip it down to the base and work out the problems. Start with a governing body that has clout when it comes to rules, not just keeping records.

Work with state racing commissions to develop a universal rulebook.  Make fines and suspensions high dollar amounts and multiple years, not a couple hundred dollars or 10 to 15 days. We worry about shadow trainers. How about making it harder to get a trainer’s license? Any Tom, Dick or Harry can order the trainers guide, get a few signatures and presto, they have a trainer’s license.

Institute year long apprenticeships before getting licensed. In order to get a driver’s license, you need to have a certain number of qualifying drives. An apprenticeship would work in the same way. Make trainers go through re-evaluations to keep their license. Make other practicals besides going a mile in 2:25. Most people used to have to work their way up in this business; now all you have to do is be willing to put your name down as a beard to get a barnful of horses. We are focusing solely on drugs as a detriment to the animals, but it is not the only problem: lack of knowledge in the advancement of feeds, veterinary care, and rehabilitation and training methods are just as big of a detriment to the horse. 

Shouting from the rooftops that we need to fix the integrity of our sports isn’t working. These new rules coupled with the flawed system are basically putting lipstick on Miss Piggy and trying to pass her off as Marilyn Monroe.

We need to come to grips with fact that our industry is basically a classic car.  It was the “be all and end all” at one point in time.  People came to the tracks for entertainment because there wasn’t much else to do. That time has passed, and we need to reinvent ourselves to the current society where people need to have their attention stimulated more frequently and in new exciting ways. 

People are still interested in classic cars, but they need to be renovated and reconditioned to grab people’s attention again. Fixing our industry is much like refinishing a classic car, you need to strip it down to its bare bones and start with the frame. Making new rules and regulations works for a bit, but it’s basically like slapping bondo on a dent in a fender and covering it in cheap paint-- people can tell it’s a quick fix and it doesn’t add to the integrity of the car. 

As an industry, from the USTA president and directors all the way down to the grooms, we need to work together to look at what we have; be transparent about it, and start fixing it.  Let’s face it, everyone stops and stares at the showroom quality, cherry red vintage Corvette that drives down the road.  Maybe we need to stop using bondo and start using elbow grease to fix the dents and give people something to be in awe of.

A Concerned Horseman,

Brian Connor

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