Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inside the Inner Sanctum

This past Sunday, I attended my first Jockey Club Round Table, the annual event hosted by the racing world's aristocracy in Saratoga. By now, most of those interested in racing will have seen the press reports on the Round Table (here, for example), all of which focused on the call by Louis Romanet of France for the US to join the rest of the so-called civilized world and ban Lasix, at least in the more important stakes races.

But the bulk of the Round Table actually concentrated on less contentious issues: the necessary changes that need to be made to ensure a level, drug-free (except, of course, for Lasix) playing field, safer race tracks, and the assurance of retirement homes for horses once their racing careers are done. All these initiatives are necessary, minimum requirements to restore a little bit of public confidence in racing, and it's a good thing that the Jockey Club can use the influence of the 100 grandees who are its members to pull together industry initiatives, about which more later. But all these efforts, however noble, won't be sufficient to save the industry, and it's unlikely that leadership on the tough questions of downsizing and coordination will come from a group that's done so well with the status quo. As I recall, the Second Estate (the nobility) didn't do so well in the Revolution.

Not that I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, or at least not entirely. It was nice of the Jockey Club to invite someone (me) who's a fairly persistent critic of industry self-satisfaction, and I particularly appreciate that Jockey Club President Alan Marzelli made a point of coming over and welcoming that persistent critic.

Nonetheless, the Round Table is most definitely not an occasion for an open, back-and-forth discussion of racing issues. Unlike many public programs, there is no opportunity to ask questions of, or debate with, the speakers. The meeting is carefully scripted, with speakers kept to their time limits, and the audience just that, an audience, even if it did consist of most of the important names in the racing business.

Now, for the details: the Round Table session was roughly divided between reports on race track safety and thoroughbred retirement, on the one hand, and drug testing and enforcement on the other. (a full transcipt of the Round Table is available on the Jockey Club web site.) And there is indeed a lot of incremental progress being made in these areas. For example, the Jockey Club itself has set up a free service to help people who may have acquired a retired thoroughbred research the tattoo number and identify the horse. And, as Diana Pikulski of theThoroughbred Retirement Foundation reported, the various retirement programs are expanding as fast as they can obtain more funding. The Jockey Club, which registers all new thoroughbred foals, has instituted a checkoff option so that breeders can contribute to a retirement fund when they apply for their foal papers. (Some race tracks, including NYRA, have set up their own voluntary funds, financed by the tracks and the owners, to provide additional retirement money.) All good initiatives, though they won't provide homes for the 1.3 million thoroughbreds living in North America (roughly 15% of all American horses are thoroughbreds.) As a lawyer, I found myself wondering whether it wouldn't be possible to use the emerging legal device of a "pet trust" (think Leona Helmsley, who left most of her money to her dog) as a vehicle for funding thoroughbred retirement. Though it probably wouldn't be such a good idea to entrust the funds in such a trust to the same people who've presided over the Jockey Club's and the Breeders Cup's recent investment losses.

The discussion of race track safety came, unfortunately, just before the release of the recent report on fatalities on synthetic tracks in California, and before theArlington Park accident that threatens to leave young jockey Michael Straight paralyzed -- the second such calamitous accident on Arlington's synthetic surface this year. Those development confirm what a lot ofus already knew; synthetic tracks aren't a panacea. What keeps breakdowns to a minimum is a combination of good track superintendents who have the resources to keep their surfaces well-maintained, and trainers who won't send out horses that are only marginally fit. Both those factors depend more on the economics of racing than on scientific studies.

The second half of the Round Table program, focusing on drug issues, raised a number of interesting questions, with all the participants substantially agreeing on a range of issues, except for Lasix. The Jockey Club showed some courage in inviting people who take a tougher stand than do most trainers and state regulators: Joe Gorajec, chair of the Indiana Racing Commission, Steve Crist of the Racing Form, and, of course, Monsieur Romanet, scion of a leading French racing family and chair of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. But, while urging tougher drug rules, including meanigful suspensions for trainers, and perhaps owners as well, and the banning of such commonly used meds as "bleeder adjuncts" like Amacar or Kentucky Red; non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Bute and topical corticosteroids, all of which should probably be banned because they're either harmful to the horse, or mask conditions that could lead to serious injury on the track, or both.

The big issue that continues to defy agreement is Lasix. The recent South African study makes the point, as US horsemen are delighted to tell you, that Lasix does indeed have a therapeutic effect; it substantially reduces the incidence of bleeding in the lungs of horses when they're racing; horses without Laix were found to be three to four times more likely to show any evidence of bleeding than those treated with Lasix, and seven to 11 times more likely to have severe bleeding. No question; it's a drug that works.

But Lasix also is a huge performance enhancer. It's easy to understand why. For a start, the horse treated with Lasix will lose 12-14 pounds of water; that's equivalent to going from a 126-pound weight to a bug boy carrying 112 pounds. Some trainers also believe that Lasix can effectively mask the use of other drugs that may be prohibited; I understand that the better testing labs can "see" the other drugs through the Lasix, but we don't know for sure. And trainers of horses coming over to the US from Europe certainly aren't shy about adding Lasix, with good reason. Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator looked pretty good on first-time Lasix at last year's Breeders Cup Classic, and just yesterday, Salve Germania, an Irish invader with, to be charitable, a mediocre record in Europe, came over to Saratoga and, on first-time Lasix, won the Grade II Ballston Spa Handicap at odds of 24-1, beating such established US fillies and mares as Rutherienne and Cocoa Beach.

Just as trainers have adjusted to the new ban on anabolic steroids in the US, they could adjust to a ban on Lasix, or rather a reestablishment of the ban that existed, in New York anyway, until just 15 years ago. But we've been breeding horses for two decades now that are more and more susceptible to bleeding, so the adjustment period would be difficult. Don't hold your breath waiting for the US to rejoin the rest of the world.

From my own perspective, a very interesting aspect of the Round Table was the agreement of all the US speakers on the drug issue that racing should stick to the self-regulation model (you know, the one that's worked so well to prevent fraud in the securities markets) and not, heaven forbid, have uniform federal regulation. The vehicle of choice seemed to be "interstate compacts" that would allow the various state racing authorities to adopt uniform rules without having to go back to their legislatures every time they wanted to change the rules. Now, anything that keeps racing out of the hands of the comically inept New York State legislature is probably a plus, but I wonder why there's such an aversion to unified, federal standards. Are the rules of the Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration really so terrible? (Ah, I forget, to the "just say no to health care" crowd in the Republican Party, any rules that interfere with the ability of the rich to do what they want are terrible.) Racing is certainly an industry that impacts interstate commerce; why shouldn't it be subject to federal oversight?

I appreciate the opportunity to take a look inside the tent, and one must give credit for those initiatives that are underway on safety, drug and retirement issues. But oh so much more needs to be done. Can we structure a racing industry that's viable over the long term? Can we make the game attractive to new fans, and keep those we have from spending themselves out of action? OK, these questions weren't on the agenda for the Round Table, but I do think I saw a couple of very large gorillas lurking in the shadows of that conference room last Sunday.

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