Friday, December 30, 2011

Hong Kong 3: Drug Rules and Horse Care

When it comes to drug use, Hong Kong is one of the strictest racing jurisdictions in the world. No medications are allowed. Period. And some drugs -- Lasix, for example -- can't even be used in training.

At the same time, Hong Kong is among the most transparent jurisdictions regarding the physical condition of horses entered in races. The Hong Kong Jockey Club's web site has a link to complete veterinary information for every horse entered in every race, and in far more detail than is available to US bettors. For example, a look at Sunday's upcoming card at Sha Tin shows reports on which horses showed up lame after a race, which had fevers, which showed mucus or traces of blood in the trachea, which ones had fractured bones, which ones had suspensory injuries, and much more. I'm not sure whether all that information would actually help a bettor, though I find it valuable in explaining layoff lines, but it can't hurt.

Hong Kong, of course, has many inherent advantages over the US when it comes to regulating drugs. As I mentioned in the first of these posts, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is racing's sole regulator, enforcer, operator, and virtually sole employer. All the vets work for the Jockey Club, as do all the grooms. No trainers with private vets to make everyone suspicious. That makes things a lot easier to police. And the HKJC's drug testing lab, with a professional staff of 40, is a match for just about any of the labs in the US. Given the small number of racing days, Hong Kong almost certainly tests a higher proportion of horses than any US jurisdiction. It's not just the winners and a few random horses from each race that are tested, but also any horse that, in the opinion of the stewards, fails to perform to expectations.

Another advantage Hong Kong has in being able to ensure clean racing is that it screens horses before they can be imported into the jurisdiction. Once a member of the Jockey Club wins the annual lottery giving him or her the right to import a horse, that owner has to secure the Jockey Club's approval for the actual import. That screening process keeps out unsound horses and tends to insure a homogeneous, competitive supply of horses in the barns.

A further advantage is that older horses have a guaranteed retirement option; they don't have to be held together with drugs and tape while they slide down the claiming ladder. The Jockey Club requires each owner to post a HK$40,000 (US$5,000) deposit when the owner imports a horse. If the owner can arrange a confirmed retirement placing for the horse, the deposit is refunded. If not, the Jockey Club adds some of its own funds and itself arranges for retraining of the horse and finding a new career for it in China. In some cases, the Jockey Club will pay as much as another HK$80,000 on top of the owner's deposit. It's a great plan, and not just because it has the ancillary effect of reducing drug use in older horses. The US could do well to emulate such a plan, with mandatory contributions toward retirement by each thoroughbred's breeder and each subsequent owner.

Still, even with all these advantages, Hong Kong race horses aren't paragons of health. The incidence of actual bleeding during or immediately after a race is very high by world standards -- 4.6 per 1,000 runners. That compares to 2.0 per thousand in the US before widespread use of Lasix and only 0.7 per thousand currently. Dr. Brian Stewart of the Hong Kong Jockey Club attributes the high rate primarily to pollution and high humidity in an urban training environment. And, interestingly, there's less bleeding at the evening meetings at Happy Valley, when temperatures and humidity tend to be lower. Horses also tend to lose weight on the van trip over to Happy Valley from their barns at Sha Tin. I can understand that; I'm sure I lose weight just through stress and fear every time I take a long taxi ride in Hong Kong. Dr. Stewart's full report on bleeding at Hong Kong tracks can be found here.

Some of the pollution problem -- and Hong Kong is certainly a lot more polluted than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, thanks both to too many cars on the road and to industrial pollution blowing over from China -- may be alleviated in a couple of years when the Jockey Club opens its Conghua training center in China, about three hours' drive from Hong Kong. The training center will have room for 400 horses, allowing them to be rotated out of the crowded racetrack training environment at Sha Tin, and will have a mile and a quarter turf course, a six-furlong uphill turf gallop and two synthetic training tracks, as well as swimming pools and turn-out paddocks. I can feel the envy of those who train even at Fair Hill or Saratoga, much less Belmont and Aqueduct.  In any event, getting horses out of Hong Kong for a part of each season should help the bleeding problem.

Part of the opposition to Lasix on the part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club is based on their vets' firm belief that Lasix is a masking agent for some other drugs. That's a belief that most US equine vets strongly reject; the US lab chiefs say that their testing has advanced to the point where Lasix is no longer effective in hiding other drug use. That's a scientific argument that I don't have the knowledge to have an opinion on, and one, I suspect, that will remain unresolved.

Could the US go to a racing environment that's as drug-free as Hong Kong's? Should it? After all, Hong Kong has an incidence of serious bleeding that's more than six times as high as that in the US. But those are questions for another day. For now, with only one or two more trips to the racetrack left before we return to New York, I'm just content to enjoy the high-quality racing and the spectacular customer service in Hong Kong.

See you at Aqueduct.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hong Kong 2: The Race Track Experience


The beer garden at Happy Valley

Critics, consultants and industry insiders in US horse racing agonize over how to make race-going a fan-friendly, exciting experience, one that newcomers will enjoy and want to repeat. In Hong Kong, they've figured out how to do that. True, the circumstances are different, and Hong Kong racing doesn't face the kind of competition from other spectator sports and gambling options that tracks in the US face, but, nonetheless, perhaps there's something to be learned from looking at how it's done elsewhere.

This is the second of three reports based on several visits to each of the Hong Kong race tracks. Yesterday's dealt with the economics of Hong Kong racing. Tomorrow's will deal with care of horses, medication rules, and equine retirement.


Happy Valley


The urban racetrack is an unprepossessing species in America. Aqueduct, Hawthorne, Pimlico. Blighted neighborhoods, wind whistling through near-empty stands, a few thousand patrons whose median age is deceased.

Not so in Hong Kong. Happy Valley, the in-town racecourse that runs on Wednesday evenings, is close to the center of the city, a short walk from a major subway stop, in an upscale neighborhood, with the track surrounded by expensive high-rises. And going to the races, with 30,000 or more fellow racing fans, is fun.

As for the track itself, think Aqueduct on steroids. No, not that kind of steroids; Hong Kong has just about the tightest drug rules in the world. But take an urban race track with a mid-week meeting, fill it with 30,000 or more people, build the stands 8 stories high, surround the track with skyscraper apartment buildings, throw in a beer garden for the expatriates, and you have Happy Valley. It's Hong Kong's second track, home to mid-week night racing, mostly for average-quality horses, and with few of the top-quality stakes that are mostly run at the other Hong Kong track, Sha Tin, out in the New Territories.

While visiting Hong Kong, we've seen both extremes of the accommodations at Happy Valley. Thanks to Bill Nader and Anny Kwan, we enjoyed the luxury of the Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive box high up in the members' stand (aka club house, but in fact so much more), with a serious buffet and excellent wine. The huge members' stand has a wide variety of restaurants, lounges and viewing areas; ours was but one of many. And on another visit, we paid our HK$10 (about US$1.25) grandstand admission and watched the races from the commotion of the stretch-side beer garden, where a fully costumed Santa Claus was standing at the rail yelling his heart out for Number 5, and from the balcony just off the food court on the second floor. Two nights of good, competitive racing, with full fields -- Hong Kong averages 12.4 horses per race, compared to just under 8 at most of the major US tracks -- and lots of good betting opportunities.

The betting menu at the Hong Kong tracks is a bit more extensive than at most US tracks. All races offer win and place (i.e., 1st, 2nd or 3rd) betting, plus quiniellas and "place quiniellas" (pick any two of the top 3 horses) and trifectas (called "tierce" in Hong Kong). No exacta or superfecta betting, but quiniella-type bets on the top 3 in any order ("trio") and the top 4 in any order ("First 4"). The biggest single-race pool (which is typically the exacta pool in the US) is the trio.

Rolling doubles and Pick 3 bets are also available, with consolation payoffs if you hit the first leg (or first two in the Pick 3) and finish second in the last leg. The big high-payoff exotics are the double trio (hit the trio in two consecutive races) and, especially, the triple trio (hit it in three consecutive races). The latter builds up a jackpot, much like the Pick Six at US tracks. It's not easy to get the three top finishers three races in a row, when the average field size is more than 12; as of the end of Tuesday's race card, the Triple Trio jackpot was over HK$14 million (almost US$2 million). There's also a Pick Six, which pays off if you get either the first or second-place horse in six consecutive races, with a bonus for getting all six winners; that bonus, as of Tuesday, was over HK$10 million.

The Happy Valley walking ring is on the apron, rather than behind the track, allowing lots of grandstand patrons -- at least those who aren't enthralled by the beer garden festivities -- to get a last look before placing their bets. In contrast to Sha Tin, though, the HK$10 racetrackers don't have the chance for seats on the finish line; that's clubhouse, or, in HK parlance, members' stand, territory.

Down the stretch at Sha Tin

Sha Tin

If Happy Valley is Aqueduct on steroids, then Sha Tin, out in the New Territories north of Kowloon, is a combination of Belmont, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita, done better. Mountains in the background, a la Santa Anita, stands eight stories high, a la Churchill, and a dedicated race track train, a la Belmont (though the one to Sha Tin was a lot more crowded, even on a relatively off day). The Sha Tin facility holds 80,000 or more, with excellent unreserved seating and remarkable restaurant facilities for those willing to pay a bit more. The high-rise stands offer great views of the track from the balconies, and the infield tote board is long enough to show lots more payoff and pool data than is typical at most US tracks.

For Hong Kong's big racing day, the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races on December 11th, we watched from the "Champions' Circle," set up for the day with a lavish buffet, lots of TV monitors, and easy access to the balconies facing the track and the walking ring behind the stands. A spectacular day of racing, from which American race track executives could learn. Take care of your foreign visitors, make a show of awarding the trophies, and, perhaps most impressive, have lots of helpful, friendly customer-service folks all over the track to help out the once-a-year visitors and, perhaps, turn them into regular racegoers.

Customer service is generally more friendly in Hong Kong than, say, in New York, but the Hong Kong Jockey Club puts a lot of time and effort into service, both at the track and in maintaining contact with its customers. Even by Hong Kong standards, it does well. Whether at the betting windows in the Champions Circle or at the (somewhat primitive-feeling) betting machines in the grandstand, there was always a mutuels information person within reach for the confused tourist. Try finding either of those (the friendly information person or the tourist) at Aqueduct in February.

And the information available to the serious bettor is significantly more complete at the Hong Kong tracks than in the US. The Jockey Club web site and most of the newspapers' racing sections include reports on horses that have bled in workouts or races and on horses that turned up lame or with other injuries. That contrasts with the general lack of explanation for a layoff that's found in the Daily Racing Form or track programs in the US. Equipment changes and  additions are also more comprehensively reported. In the US, the only equipment generally reported in the Form are blinkers and front bandages. In Hong Kong, there's also notification of, among other things, shadow rolls, figure-eight nosebands, the horse's weight (not just the assigned jockey weight) and a fair number of other equipment issues that may or may not make a difference, but certainly project an air of complete transparency.

The Form doesn't show as many prior races as in the US, and there's no precise equivalent of Beyer Speed Figures or the Ragozin or Thorograph Sheets for figure players, but in all other respects, the information provided to the Hong Kong bettor (at least the English-speaking variety; I can't comment on what's available in Chinese, but it certainly looked co-extensive with the English version) seems more thorough and complete than in the US.

As for medication notes, that's easy. None allowed. More on that tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hong Kong 1. Where Even the Owners Make Money

Sha Tin Racecourse on a busy day

Through a combination of fortuitous circumstances, my wife and I are lucky enough to be spending a month in Hong Kong, visiting our daughter, who works here, grading our law school exams far from the pleas of worried students, and, not so incidentally, checking out the Hong Kong racing scene.

Thanks to the kindness of Hong Kong Jockey Club Executive Director of Racing Bill Nader, formerly chief operating officer of NYRA, and Bill's assistant, Anny Kwan, we've enjoyed the best accommodations that Sha Tin and Happy Valley race courses have to offer, and we've also just wandered around in the grandstand at each track, absorbing the ambiance of being a regular racing fan.

So, for those who haven't had the chance to see Hong Kong racing in person, here are three blog postings on our experience, and how the Hong Kong scene compares with American racing. Today's post covers the economics of racing in Hong Kong; subsequent posts will deal with the experience of racegoing at the Sha Tin and Happy Valley tracks and with the medication and related issues.

First, the money.

Hong Kong has 83 racing days a season, typically a weekend day at the sprawling Sha Tin track in the New Territories north of Hong Kong proper, and a Wednesday night meet at close-in Happy Valley on Hong Kong island. For those 83 days, total handle is roughly HK$1 billion (US$128 million)per racecard; HK$81.9 billion for the most recent fiscal year. Counting betting on soccer and the lottery, both of which also flow through the HKJC coffers, total annual handle for the HKJC is upwards of HK$130 billion (US$ 17 billion).

Yesterday's 10-race card at Sha Tin -- a typical race day with mostly what would be mid-level claiming and allowances races in the US and a couple of high-level allowance/small stakes as the features (albeit with a purse of US$175,000 on the "small" stakes) -- drew 26,580 to the track, which felt comfortably busy, but by no means crowded, and attracted total handle of HK$ 1,113,121,195 (US$142 million). Of that, roughly 10% is typically bet on-track, with the rest on the HKJC's phone and computer networks and in the 100-plus OTB storefronts. No matter; all the takeout from each wagering platform flows through to the HKJC.

Takeout averages 18.5%, marginally less than the US average, but in the same general range as most US tracks. That produces net revenue of nearly HK$24 billion, of which nearly two-thirds goes to the Hong Kong government in the form of taxes. The remaining one-third is split roughly equally between money for operations and purses on the one hand and charitable contributions on the other, making the Jockey Club by far the most important philanthropist in Hong Kong. Some idea of the scope of HKJC's charitable efforts can be seen here. And the most recent annual report of the HKJC is available here.

Unlike US horse racing, the HKJC has an effective monopoly on legal gambling in its jurisdiction. The nearest casinos are in Macao, an hour away by high-speed ferry. And those casinos, while glitzy, are no match for the better gambling palaces in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even for establishments like Foxwood's in Connecticut, all of which siphon off money from US tracks. The HKJC also runs Hong Kong's lottery, although total lottery handle is less than a quarter of what's bet on the ponies. And the HKJC has, since 2003, enjoyed a monopoly on sports betting -- principally on overseas soccer -- that previously flowed to illegal bookmakers. Moreover, there are few organized sporting event in Hong Kong to divert attention away from the races; no pro football or basketball, no college sports with crazed alums tailgating before the big game, etc. Not even any standardbreds pulling silly little carts (aka harness racing). The thoroughbreds are just about the only game in town.

Like Keeneland, NYRA and the Oak Tree Racing Association, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is effectively a self-perpetuating not-for-profit corporation. It has no shareholders, and is governed by a self-selected leadership, presumably with the tacit approval of the government. Unlike Keeneland, NYRA and Oak Tree, however, the HKJC is the entire show as regards racing. It puts on the races, owns the facilities, employs just about everyone in the business except for horse owners and trainers (even the grooms and hotwalkers are HKJC employees), runs the vast network of OTBs and phone and online wagering, and, perhaps most important of all, is its own regulator, setting the rules, running the testing laboratory and meting out punishments. A bit lacking in checks and balances and in due process, at least to American eyes? Perhaps, but it works.

Total purses in the 2010-11 racing season were HK$785 million; just about US$100 million. The total number of starters for the 83 racing days was 9,502, and the average horse based in Hong Kong made 7.4 starts during the year -- also comparable with the US -- so earnings per start, a key measure of owners' financial health, was HK$82,600, or roughly US$10,500, and the average earnings per horse were HK$611,000, or US$ 78,300.

According to Bill Nader -- I wasn't able to verify these numbers independently, but I have no reason to doubt them -- the all-in cost of keeping a horse in training in Hong Kong is about US$45,000. Once again, that's comparable to training and vet costs at New York race tracks. Factoring in the jockeys' and trainers' commissions on purse money, that means that a horse based in Hong Kong probably needs to earn US$60,000 or so to break even. So, with actual purse money per horse averaging more than that, it appears that a majority of Hong Kong-based horses actually pay for themselves.

If only that were true in the US. According to the US Jockey Club's statistics, purse money for American horses comes to roughly 50% of the cost of maintaining our race horses in training, not counting the initial cost of breeding or purchasing the horses.

And owners aren't the only ones in the game who do well. For example, grooms, who are employed directly by the HKJC and assigned to trainers (no worries about the trainer missing a payroll or failing to pay his workers comp. premium) earn on the order of US$5,000 a month, plus a share of their horses' winnings, for caring for a maximum of three horses each. I know a fair number of US trainers who'd be happy with monthly earnings of that much, and few grooms in the US earn more than half that amount, usually for taking care of at least four horses. Not all grooms in Hong Kong may be driving Mercedes, but at least a few are.

And the Hong Kong government does very well from racing. Hong Kong is generally a low-tax jurisdiction; my daughter, who was paying something like 35% of her income in income and FICA taxes when she worked at CNN in Atlanta, now pays only 15%, the maximum personal tax rate in Hong Kong. But racing is the government's cash cow. Over 7% of total government revenue traces back to the HKJC, mostly in the form of very high taxes on betting handle; in addition, the HKJC pays a small tax in lieu of income tax on its annual surplus. The wagering taxes are so high, in fact, that the HKJC's annual report rails against the danger that the current rate of taxation might someday make Hong Kong gambling uncompetitive, compared to Macao and to unregulated internet gaming options.

In the long run, the demands of government may impinge on the financial success of Hong Kong racing. But that's true in the US as well, as financially strapped state governments look covetously at the slot-machine revenues that have been keeping so many race tracks afloat. In the short run, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's monopoly on legal gambling, combined with a public extremely fond of wagering -- according to Nader, 80% of adults in Hong Kong are HKJC customers, and roughly 20% are regulars -- presage a continuation of a racing business in which almost everyone, except, of course, the poor bettor, wins. So far this year, business at the track is up about 10% over last year, so the sun isn't showing any sign of setting soon.

Next: the Hong Kong race track experience.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terrorists on the Backstretch?

Six New York-based trainers have sued the Department of Homeland Security over its refusal to grant seasonal work visas to backstretch workers. The lawsuit, filed October 7th in Federal Court in Brooklyn, in the court district that includes Belmont and Aqueduct race tracks, claims that the government's refusal to renew the temporary visas means that it will rapidly become impossible for trainers to find enough workers to take care of the horses currently in their barns, much less care for any new arrivals.

The story is mis-reported here in the Daily News. Contrary to what the News says, the lawsuit was not filed by the NY Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (disclosure: I'm a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors), but rather by six individual trainers. The lead plaintiff is Kiaran McLaughlin, and the other five who've joined in the lawsuit are Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Mike Hushion, John Kimmel and Bruce Brown (more disclosure: Bruce trains horses for my partnership group, Castle Village Farm). But NYTHA has discussed the issue and is certainly supporting the trainers' position.

For years, hot walkers and grooms from Mexico and other Latin American countries have been routinely approved for so-called H-2B visas. Those visas permit foreign workers to be employed in the US for temporary periods (usually a year or less, but sometimes as long as three years) if (1) the prospective employer can show that there are no US workers able and willing to do the work, and (2) the work is temporary in nature, which includes seasonal work, a one-time or intermittent need for extra workers, or a peak-load need for a defined period.

Nothwithstanding that racetrack work has become virtually year-round, Latino backstretch help has, until the last year, continued to be employed under these temporary visas. Most workers regularly went home to Mexico or elsewhere, reapplied for a new visa, and then came back to the track again.

But recently, la migra, aka the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security, has decided that backstretch workers are not so temporary after all, and are therefore ineligible for the "temporary" H-2B visas. When visa approvals slowed down last year, trainers initially thought that it was just a case of bureaucratic ineptitude, possibly with a bit of terrorism phobia mixed in. But apparently the new government position represents a permanent policy shift. And, with no other readily available option for securing help, the trainers felt they had no option but to go to court.

Why won't a few of the millions of unemployed US citizens and legal residents take the jobs at the track? The pay is a bit above minimum wage, starting at around $300 a week. Not much, but then, as long as you don't have a family with you, you can get free housing in the run-down dorms on the backstretch. (Any day now, once the slot machine money starts rolling in, NYRA will build clean, modern high-rise dorms at Belmont and Saratoga, along the lines that Frank Stronach has built at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows. Meanwhile, even in the New York real estate market, the backstretch dorms aren't exactly luxury apartments.) And, in New York, anyway, you get free medical care, through the BEST Backstretch charity organization (yet more disclosure, I'm also a Director of BEST).

Of course, you have to get up around 4 am or so and be at the barn by 4:30. This is not fun in mid-February, in the cold and the dark. And, if your trainer is well-organized, you might get one day off a week; in return, you sometimes work late on a race day.

And, most important, you have to know what you're doing around a horse. Trainers don't, in general, make enough money to bear the cost of training neophytes. They want workers who know not to stand on the off side of a horse, who know how to pick hooves, put bandages on and tack up the horse. They want hot walkers who can hold onto the shank and keep a 1,200-pound animal under control, and then remember to rake the shedrow so the barn will impress the owners. A lot of it is dull, repetitive work, and there's not much of a career path; few grooms and hotwalkers move on to be assistant trainers or trainers in their own right.

So, more and more, trainers at most US tracks have come to depend on a steady flow of Mexican and other Latino workers, many of whom have grown up with horses, know what they're doing, and will work for long hours and low pay to improve the lot of their families back home. With the change in position by la migra, that employment pipeline is being closed, and the future of racing in New York, which appeared bright for the last few days after the announcement that the Aqueduct racino would open within weeks, is once more under a cloud.

I don't know nearly enough immigration law to have an opinion on the trainers' likelihood of success in the lawsuit, but it does seem to me a tough sell. The track jobs need year-round workers, but if US residents can't or won't do the work, who will? And trainers and horse owners, many of whom are losing money already, just aren't in a position to provide a drastic wage increase.

More on the economics of training and owning in upcoming posts.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Not Ready for Prime Time?

The powers that be at the New York Racing Association, not to mention nouveau uber-owner Mike Repole, have risen up to protest the Breeders Cup's decision to hold its 2012 edition at Santa Anita. Last Saturday, NYRA returned to the glory days of old with a "Super Saturday" card that included six graded stakes, five of them Grade 1s and the 6th, the Grade 2 Kelso, featuring Repole's local hero, Uncle Mo. Repole, who also had Stay Thirsty running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, celebrated in the Belmont Room with 50 or 60 of his closest friends.

Compared to the average Saturday at Belmont, the results were more than satisfactory. Attendance, on a day when rain threatened all afternoon and finally arrived late in the day, was a solid, if not overwhelming, 10,481. And all-sources handle was a very healthy $16.7 million.

On the same day, Santa Anita, running its own Breeders Cup preview card, had four Grade 1 stakes in an 11-race card, featuring Bob Baffert's Game On Dude and the filly Blind Luck. On a sunny day in Southern California, Attendance was 16,013, and total handle was $11.7 million.

Santa Anita also bested the Belmont numbers in field size. On the East Coast, only 80 horses ran in the 11 races, an average field of 7.3; for the six graded stakes, the field size was a puny 5.8. On the West Coast, Santa Anita averaged 9.4 horses per race, even with an average of only 7.5 starters in the four stakes races.

A closer look at the figures for handle suggests that the "talent-centric" focus of NYRA -- attract the best horses and they will come, might have trumped the "track-centric" approach of Santa Anita. The latter is surely a more pleasant place to watch the races; even on a sunny day, Belmont is a too-big, rambling plant, with a track that's so big it's hard to see the runners on the backstretch, even with binoculars. And, because Belmont's main track is a mile and a half, hardly any races start in front of the grandstand. Everything up to a mile and an eighth on the main track starts on the backstretch.

But the money certainly flowed for the big races. Each of the five Grade 1 stakes at Belmont took in at least $1.6 million in handle on the various bets keyed to that race. And the Jockey Club Gold Cup drew $2.6 million, including $670,000 for the all-stakes Pick 4. In Santa Anita, in contrast, the per-race handle on the four Grade 1 stakes ranged from $1.1 million to $1.3 million.

But Super Saturday also showed why Belmont may not quite be in shape to deserve the Breeders Cup. As on many big days, the weather was atrocious. Not as bad, perhaps, as the rain-drenched Breeders Cup at Monmouth in 2007, but certainly not a fun day to be out in the fresh air. Field size was reduced by a number of scratches due to weather and track conditions, especially in the stakes races. Belmont, where the grandstand faces north, into the winter wind, has neither heating nor air conditioning. Back in a different era, plans were made to make at least some of the grandstand more weather-friendly, but those plans fell victim to NYRA's then-impending bankruptcy and to reported cronyism or worse in the awarding of contracts. As a result, Belmont is far less fan-friendly than Santa Anita, where one can usually count on the weather to be good, or even Churchill, whose mammoth plant has lots of room inside if the weather turns chilly or wet.

And, despite a relatively recent makeover that walled off the furthest reaches of the grandstand side and slapped some fresh paint around, much of Belmont still reminds one of a bus station in a Rust Belt city. NYRA has done what it could with the money it has, replacing outmoded television screens with up-to-date flat screens, and installing an absolutely terrific infield tote board cum video display. But that's just not enough.

What does Belmont need to qualify as a deserving host for future Breeders Cups? Not much. Start by tearing up the track and replacing it with a mile-and-an-eighth oval, like Churchill and Aqueduct, so more races will start and finish in front of the grandstand. Then tear down the existing grandstand and replace it with something that works for "crowds" of 10,000 in spring and fall but that's expandable for the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders Cup -- and make sure the new plant is weatherized. Oh, and add lights, as Churchill has done, so that, eventually, racing can join the rest of professional sports and stage its championships in the evening, when they might draw a decent television audience.

So, Mike Repole, if you want to see the Cup back at Belmont, all it would take is a few hundred million, give or take a few hundred million. Otherwise, NYRA's pitch for future BCs is reduced to "it's our turn."

Friday, September 9, 2011

How Much Cheating?

Big kerfuffle over at the Paulick Report on the just-released report from the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) on drug test results from 2010. The report says that, of some 324,000-plus samples taken from horses last year, only 47 were found to contain Class 1 or 2 drugs -- those that have been determined to enhance performance and not to have any therapeutic use in horses, or in which the therapeutic effect is outweighed by the performance-enhancing potential.

Most of the commentators at Paulick's site think that the RCI report amounts to a whitewash. To a certain extent they have a point; the report specifically excludes Lasix, which has both therapeutic AND performance-enhancing effects. But the bulk of the criticism seems to be that, well, of course there aren't many positive tests, because the real cheaters are using brand-new designer drugs that can't even be tested for.It's a clever bit of logic; if you can't find the drug in the lab, that just proves that it's there.

I'm not a scientist. Don't even play one on TV. And I had enough trouble understanding all the scientific arguments at last June's "Summit" at Belmont, discussed here. But the extraordinarily low number of positive tests does seem to me to reinforce the impression that I get hanging out on the backstretch of NYRA tracks; most horsemen are serious about their craft and honest, following the rules as best they can. If Lasix is legal, why not use it, as it's clear that it helps a lot of horses run faster. By the way, kudos to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who, with the support of his Darley and Shadwell owners, is trying to go without Lasix for his new two-year-olds. Kiaran's giving up a powerful weapon, but he might gain some valuable knowledge if Lasix is eventually banned.

The state-by-state results in the RCI study are interesting. New York accounted for 15% of all the tests, but many fewer positives, with a positive-test score of only 0.011 percent. For the US as a whole, the rate was 0.49%. Only New Jersey had a lower positive rate than New York, with 0.08%.

At the other end of the spectrum, the positive rate in Minnesota was 3.26% and in Arizona it was 2.54%. Other states with more than  1% of tests returning positives were Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota (a stunning 7%, but a very small sample size), Ohio, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Among the other major racing jurisdictions, California reported a positive rate of 0.25%, and Florida was at 0.84%. Kentucky appears to test far fewer horses than either New York or California, and reported that its rate for drug positives exceeded the national average at 0.75%. No surprise there for those who heed the rumors. Kentucky didn't even order a test of Life at Ten after last year's Breeders Cup debacle.

The RCI report doesn't name names and doesn't really address the problem of getting serious with those few trainers who do break the rules. At last report, Dick Dutrow and Patrick Biancone are still racing in New York. A simple, nationwide "three strikes and you're out" policy for Class 1 and 2 drug violations would be a really good idea.



Friday, June 17, 2011

Lasix: What Is To Be Done?

My previous two posts (here and here) dealt with the scientific evidence regarding Lasix use in thoroughbreds and with the policies of the racing world outside North America. Here’s a brief summary of what we know, as presented at the open-to-the-public Monday session of the NTRA.AAEP/RMTC “Summit” on Lasix:

Most horses bleed.

Very few horses (less than 1%) bleed at a level that seriously impairs their racing ability.

Lasix works; it reduces both the incidence and the severity of bleeding, though it doesn’t eliminate low-grade bleeding.

Horses run better with Lasix than without it; whether you call the drug a “performance enhancer,” “performance enabler,” or “performance optimizer,” horses that get Lasix run faster.

Lasix does not appear to interfere with testing for other drugs.

The rest of this post discusses what the US and Canada, the principal holdouts that allow race-day use of Lasix, should do. Two principal camps have emerged. One, led by the Jockey Club and a number of prominent owners, is calling for the rapid elimination of race-day Lasix. The other, probably representing the majority of US trainers and horsemen’s associations, contends that North America should continue to permit race-day Lasix or even that other countries should also permit it.

(Before going on, I should probably note that my views don’t necessarily – in fact I’m sure they don’t – represent the official views of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, even though I ‘m a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors.)

The horsemen’s case for Lasix appears to have two basic elements. First, they argue, Lasix is actually good for the horse. By reducing the incidence and the severity of bleeding, Lasix spares horses from the pain that severe bleeding inflicts and enables a racehorse to perform up to its potential. Second, the racing environment is so much different in the US, as compared to most of the rest of the world, that’s it’s a case of comparing apples and oranges . In this view, the fact that the rest of the world eschews Lasix has no bearing on what’s right for the US.

What are the merits of these arguments? Of course, all (or almost all) of us in the game want to spare horses unnecessary pain. Most of us are in racing because we love horses; if we were in it solely for the money, there’d be serious cause to question our sanity, as most owners, and some trainers, actually lose money. And the use of Lasix apparently does spare horses some pain, particularly by reducing what would otherwise be painful Class 3 or 4 bleeding, or the even more severe bleeding that’s visible at the nostrils (bilateral epitaxis, in vet-speak) to a milder Class 1 or 2 smattering of blood in the trachea after a race. But if sparing some horses – fewer than 1% show Class 3 or 4 bleeding or bilateral epitaxis in a strict no-Lasix jurisdiction like Hong Kong – then the logical question to ask is why 95% or more of US starters race with Lasix? In most countries that ban the drug, repeated bleeders are simply banned from racing. And in most of those jurisdictions where racing is allowed in training, but not on race day, trainers report that they treat fewer than 10% of their horses with the drug.

As for the argument that racing permits horses to run to their potential, that all depends on how one defines “potential.” In the days before anti-bleeding medication, “bleeders” were shunned by owners and systematically removed from the gene pool. (Of course, not all bleeders were so identified; the great trainer Woody Stephens had his grooms carry a red towel, so they could wipe away the evidence of bleeding before anyone noticed.) And the argument is a slippery one; what about the use of painkillers to permit a horse to run to its potential despite internal warnings that something’s amiss? Bute and other pain meds aren’t permitted on race day in most US jurisdictions, though they're frequently used in training. If Lasix reduces pain in the lungs from bleeding, why not allow drugs that reduce pain elsewhere?

And the gene pool inevitably suffers. As Denis Egan, head of the Irish racing authority, noted at Monday’s drug summit, many foreign buyers and breeders view US-bred thoroughbreds as suspect, and not as sound as their foreign-bred counterparts, despite figures that show that the number of starts per horse per year is pretty much the same all over. There’s also a concern, as yet not proven by scientific research, that long-term Lasix use reduces calcium and therefore leads to more brittle bones. Many US trainers acknowledge a decline in soundness and durability as well. My conversations with Allen Jerkens at the rail of the Belmont training track certainly bear this out; the “Chief” says most current US race horses couldn’t stand up to the intensity of training that he used to give all his charges in decades past. On the other hand, repeated bleeding episodes, which might be avoided with widespread Lasix use, have been proven to produce scarring of the lungs and remodeling of the pulmonary blood vessels, both of which reduce lung function and make a horse prone to even more bleeding.

Regardless of what’s happening elsewhere, horses in the US do run less often and have shorter careers than they used to. Not all, or even most, of this decline can be blamed solely on Lasix. Breeding to sire lines prone to unsoundness (especially Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer); corrective surgery on foals that don’t look good enough for the sale ring; kid-glove treatment of babies, denying them the opportunity to run around in the field as much as they used to; and trainers’ concerns for a high win percentage to attract owners, thus largely eliminating the old practice of racing a horse into shape, all play a part. And the rapid expansion of the foal crop in response to the boom market of the 1970s and 1980s meant that many more questionable mares were kept in production. But Lasix also enters into the equation. According to data presented at the Summit, bleeding is to some degree an inherited trait, and the more horses whose bleeding was controlled by Lasix go to the breeding shed, the more that trait will tend to appear in subsequent generation.

Despite all those negatives, US trainers’ argument that racing here differs from the rest of the world has some merit. Our industry differs significantly from other countries'. First, we run many more races per year – too many -- with (necessarily) shorter fields. We run much more on dirt, and less on turf, than other countries; it’s plausible that horses’ inhaling dirt and blowback from synthetic tracks leads to more lung problems than racing on grass. We have many more minor-league tracks, where the horse population consists disproportionately of older horses with an accumulation of infirmities; see the all-too-true description of the barely-fictionalized Mountaineer in Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning novel, Lord of Misrule. We have a lot more owners who don’t have inherited or self-made real wealth and therefore can’t afford to make a small fortune in racing by starting out with a big fortune. The local building contractor who, with a few pals, owns a couple of claimers, or the partnerships that appeal to average race fans, don’t like to see their horses shipped out to the farm for R&R; that means bills to pay with no purse money coming in. We have too many horses, even with the recent reduction in matings and foals crops following the 2008 financial crisis. And, three decades into the legal Lasix era, we have too many trainers and too many vets who’ve never had to manage bleeding without chemical assistance; a lot of lore in the heads of old-time trainers and vets has simply been lost.

For all these reasons, Lasix makes a good bit of sense in US racing.

But we have a problem of political and public perception that seems to me more important than a narrow balancing of the day-to-day pluses and minuses of Lasix. Even though, as reported by the NTRA’s pollster at the Summit, more racing fans today perceive the game as fair, and drug use under control, than was true three years ago, before the elimination of some steroids and the increased concern for track safety in the wake of Eight Belles’ collapse at the end of that year’s Kentucky Derby, drug use is still a huge perception problem. While most sports are seen as relatively clean, horse racing and cycling still carry a stigma, facts notwithstanding.

And the perception can lead to huge over-reaction. The bill currently before Congress that would require horses to race “drug-free,” whatever that means, and impose draconian penalties on even inadvertent violations, is a case in point. If racing doesn’t act, the public will continue to act, by betting ever-less on US racing, and the political system will impose its own over-the-top solutions. What a leader does in this situation is figure out where the followers (in this case the public that still cares about racing) is going and get out in front of them.

Part of the perception problem is that the public and politicians see vets entering horses’ stalls with a Lasix injection and assume that the vet could be giving a whole lot of other meds as well. The New York Racing Association has actually solved that problem by requiring that Lasix shots be given only by the official track vets, and not letting private vets in the stall before a race, but that’s an initiative no one knows about and is hardly likely to change the views who have weak knowledge and strong opinions.

Even if Lasix is good for horses, human athletes run or play through pain all the time; in fact, being able to do that is part of the definition of a great athlete. Humans, as contrasted to horses, are supposed to have some choice in the matter (though try telling that to an NFL lineman trying to hang onto his roster spot). Not all thoroughbreds are great athletes, and maybe some just shouldn’t be racing.

At the Summit, a variety of trainers and vets described training regimens that seemed to reduce the incidence of bleeding without resorting to race-day Lasix. These ranged from training horses away from the race track to at least giving them periodic breaks, both of which reduced the stress induced by full-time residence at the track. Stress levels do seem to be correlated with bleeding. Also, training patterns in most countries appear to involve more stamina work and less high-speed sprint breezes, in which a horse is performing at close to 100% of its potential. Even where horses are stabled at the track, the use of dust-free bedding and other similar management techniques can help ease the problem.

Given the current state of US racing, it’s not economically feasible for all owners and trainers to adopt such measures immediately. Owners at tracks where the win purse is $5,000 can’t afford to take their horses out of training, and trainers whose horses are primarily low-level claimers face the same pressure. Abolition of race-day Lasix might work for the upper end of the business, where owners either make a lot of money with their horses or have a lot of money to take care of them. That’s why the suggestion that graded stakes in the US become Lasix-free isn’t a bad starting point. Trainer Richard Mandella, one of the Summit participants, said he could live with such a ban. So that’s one place to begin. Another is with new two-year-olds. Two-year-old racing has already begun this year, but perhaps, starting with next year’s crop, Lasix could be banned in any race restricted to horses of a particular age: two-year-olds beginning in 2012, three-year-olds in 2013, etc. , for a phase-in period of perhaps five years, by which time most of the Lasix habitu├ęs would be retired. Or perhaps that ban would take effect only at, say, major league and “Triple A”-level tracks, perhaps those offering $125,000 and up in average overnight purses.

Whatever good Lasix does, we’re prisoners of public and politicians’ opinions. If we can’t change them, and the last decade suggests that we’ve had only limited success in that endeavor, than we need to adjust to save the industry. Trainers will need to develop new methods of dealing with bleeding, owners will have to adjust to new patterns for a horse’s career. The status quo regarding Lasix, no matter how justifiable it is in scientific terms, just can’t be maintained.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lasix: What the Rest of the World Does

Yesterday's post addressed some of the scientific findings regarding Lasix use. Gina Rarick, an American who trains in France, where Lasix cannot be used on race day, but is permissible in training, wrote to ask whether the discussion at the NTRA/AAEP/RMTC "Summit" had dealt with the possibility that repeated Lasix use contributes to the leaching of calcium and other minerals from the horse's system and therefore to increasing fragility in a horse's musculo-skeletal system and, ultimately, to a higher rate of fatal breakdowns. Good question. My own, admittedly amateur, review of the available information suggests that it is definitely established that the use of Lasix lowers a horse's levels of calcium in the blood. What's not so clear is whether that short-term calcium loss translates into long-term bone fragility and more frequent breakdowns. Lots of opinions on the subject, but, at least as far as I can determine, not a whole lot of science. I'd love to see a well-designed study on the topic.

Science notwithstanding, it's true that, for whatever reason, the US and Canada stand alone among major racing jurisdictions in permitting race-day use of Lasix. Here's what other major racing countries do, as reported to the "Summit":

Australia: No race-day Lasix permitted, with a suggested withdrawal time of 48 hours (in practice, that means that a prudent trainer won't give a horse Lasix less than 4-5 days before a race). Trainers are permitted to use Lasix for horses in training, and some do before a breeze. Horses are reported as "bleeders" only if they show bilateral epitaxis (bleeding from both nostrils), either after a race or in training. Bleeding that is evident only on scoping, even at the performance-affecting 3/4 levels, doesn't count. If a horse is observed bleeding, then it's taken out of training for at least three months and isn't permitted to race again for at least three months, and then only after a 5/8ths-mile gallop with no bleeding.

France : Similar to Australia -- no race-day Lasix with a 48-hour withdrawal time, but Lasix use permitted in training at the trainer's discretion. No specific rules on barring horses that have been observed to bleed, but tthey do have to pass a vet exam before being allowed to race again.

Germany: Lasix appears to be banned both on race day and in training, and horses are banned for breeding purposes if they've ever raced on drugs, or if they've ever bled.

Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs the tracks, licenses owners, trainers and jockeys, makes and administers the rules, and runs the test lab (a collection of power in a single entity that, I suspect, makes Frank Stronach salivate), does not permit Lasix either on race day or in training. There are two categories of "bleeders." If a horse bleeds from the nostrils, it's categorized as an "official bleeder" and cannot race for at least three months, pending an official vet exam. After a third bleeding episode, the horse is barred from racing for life. The second category is a horse that appears to the stewards to have performed below expectations, in which case the stewards can order a vet exam and, if the horse scores a 3 or 4 rating for blood in the trachea, then they're required to have an official vet exam after a track gallop and can't be entered in a race for at least two weeks. In the past five years, Hong Kong reports that 0.5% of all horses were "official bleeders," and another 0.6% were reported as having "substantial blood in the trachea." Over the same time period, just under 1% of the Hong Kong race horse population was compusorily retired because of bleeding.

Ireland: No Lasix on race day, though it can be used in training. The definition of bleeding is very tight, with only horses that bleed visibly at the nostrils being classified as bleeders and subject to mandatory time off before returning to the races. Under that definition, only some 0.15% of starters are labeled as bleeders.

Japan: Lasix is banned for 10 days prior to race day, though it may be used in training, subject to the 10-day limit. Bleeding is defined as visibly bleeding from the nostrils, with no specific rules about blood that's visible on a scope. Horses that bleed visibly are barred from racing for one month in the first instance, two months in the second, and three months in the third. Visible bleeding was reported in between 0.1% and 0.2% in most recent racing years in Japan.

Singapore: No Lasix permitted on race day, though it can be used in training up to 3 1/2 days prior to a race. Bleeding is defined as in Hong Kong, but is reported to occur in less than 0.5% of starters.

UAE (Dubai): No drugs permitted within 48 hours of post time, with a recommended three-day withdrawal period for Lasix, but Lasix is allowed in training. As in most of the other jurisdictions, bleeding is defined as bleeding visibly at the nostrils, and horses are barered from racing for gradually longer periods after each bleeding episode. The prevalence of bleeders is somewhat higher than in other jurisdictions, perhaps because of the climate, at about 0.4% of all starters.

United Kingdom: No Lasix on race day, though it can be used in training.

To summarize: all the major racing jurisdictions outside North America ban the use of Lasix on race day. Most jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Germany excepted, permit the use of Lasix in training, as long as it's not given within a defined period prior to a race. And most of the jurisdictions report very low rates of "bleeding," by which they almost all mean that a horse bleeds visibly from both nostrils; the rates range from a low of one per 1,000 starters up to a high, in Hong Kong and Singapore, of perhaps five per 1,000 starts.

So how can we reconcile the fact that, according to the South African study that I reported on yesterday, "most horses bleed," with the very low rates of bleeding reported in non-Lasix countries?

A few possible explanations stand out, though there's little science so far to prove or disprove any of them.

First, training practices differ substantially as between North America and most of the rest of the world. Here, most horses train at the race track, are exercised for comparatively short times, and get comparatively more speed work, with racing-speed breezes. Elsewhere, it's more common to train away from the track, in a less pressured atmosphere. It's notable that the relatively higher rates of bleeding in non-Lasix jurisdictions occur in those places -- Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai -- where horses do train at the race track.

Second, most jurisdictions' definitions of bleeding don't include horses that score a 3 or 4 when scoped, even though those hores are clearly compromised in performance. According to the South African study, nearly 10% of horses have serious tracheal bleeding without Lasix (reduced to essentially zero with Lasix), enough to affect their racing performance.

Third, there's much more dirt racing in the US than elsewhere. It's not clear how that affects the tendency to bleed, and the South African study was conducted with turf racing, not on dirt.

Fourth, there are racing style, distance and pedigree differences. More races in the US are at short distances, with horses running at maximum effort all the way. In many turf-racing jurisdictions, horses tend to gallop along, at less than maximum effort, for a good part of the race

Could US racing survive without race-day Lasix? It would undoubtedly require major changes in training patterns and, ultimately, in breeding patterns as well. Is it possible? That's a question for tomoorow's post.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Science of Lasix: a View from the "Summit"

There has already been considerable media coverage of this week’s “International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH and the Racehorse.” (See, e.g., here,here, and here.) But most of these reports offer the always-tempting us vs. them scenario: “rest of world presses US to eliminate race-day meds.” In fact, the summit was far more informative, and thought-provoking, than that simplistic view suggests. So informative and thought-provoking, in fact, that I will be reporting on it in a series of three blog posts. Today: the science of Lasix and EIPH (“bleeding” in race horses. Next, what the rest of the world actually does. And, finally, some thoughts on how to resolve the conflict between foreign and media pressure to ban all race-days drugs with the economic realities of racing in the US.

(Lots of the presentations at the Summit have been posted online here, so I'll forego the pictures of bloody trachea and scarred lungs.)

I had earlier commented on the Lasix issue, among other drug-related problems in racing, in a piece for the New York Times’ The Rail blog. I’m delighted that attending the “summit” yesterday deepened my understanding of Lasix and its costs and benefits. But, as we’ll see, understanding a problem doesn’t necessarily lead to a solution.

On to the science of Lasix, a topic almost entirely absent from the media reports on the summit.

The first question is how many race horses bleed under the stress of a race or a high-speed breeze? The answer depends on how you define “bleed.” If it means actually bleeding from the nostrils, then the answer is about 1%. If it mains showing even a trace of blood in the trachea when a horse is “scoped” after a race, then the answer is somewhere near 80%, plus or minus 10%. Obviously, the definition that you use determines the scope of the problem and therefore the appropriate solution.

Fortunately, there’s now pretty good evidence to help define the issue better. A recent study of several hundred race horses in South Africa, conducted by researchers from the US, Australia and South Africa and frequently cited at the Summit, used the common veterinary practice of grading bleeding that shows up when a horse is scoped on a scale of 1-4. In the study, 79% of horses showed some signs of blood after racing without Lasix, but so did 57% of those that raced with Lasix. So, while Lasix does reduce both the incidence and the severity of bleeding in a majority of horses, it doesn’t eliminate it. What Lasix does do is to reduce the pressure on the very thin capillaries in the horse’s lung by some 15-20%. And that in turn reduces the “remodeling” of blood vessels and scarring of the lung tissue, making them less likely to bleed next time.

Most horses that “bleed” have a score of 1 or 2 on the 1-4 scale. In the opinion of most of the vets who spoke at yesterday’s meeting, a score of 1 has no impact on a horse’s racing performance, and a score of 2 is more or less on the borderline for performance-affecting. All the vets agreed that severe bleeding (a score of 3 or 4) definitely has an impact on racing performance, as does actual bleeding from the nostril, which is seen in only 1% or so of horses. In the South African study, 20% of horses without Lasix didn’t bleed at all, another 45% bled only to the 1 level, and another25% at the 2 level. In contrast, among horses treated with Lasix pre-race, 43% didn’t bleed at all, 48% bled at the 1 level, and only 9% bled at the 2 level. Thus, some 9% of the horses in the study that did not get Lasix bled at a level that all vets agreed clearly compromised their racing performance, while none of those treated with Lasix bled at that level. Lasix “works,” and in this study at least, it created a level playing field by letting horses that are more likely to bleed perform up to their potential. In that sense, Lasix can be thought of as a performance “enabler” or “optimizer.”

Bleeding also tends to get worse over time, so a horse that starts on Lasix presumably has a lower lifetime incidence of bleeding than one that races without the drug. That effect, though, doesn’t seem to translate into more starts per season or per racing career. Since the introduction of Lasix as a permitted drug in the US, starts per season and starts per career, as reported in the Jockey Club’s Fact Book, have declined by some 25%, to a level that’s on a par with most of the rest of the (non-Lasix) world. One can’t necessarily blame the use of Lasix for the decline in the number of starts, but Lasix apparently hasn’t helped.

Of course, Lasix is also a performance enhancer. Horses treated with Lasix, in the aggregate, perform better than those without the drug. Part of the difference reflects Lasix’s ability to suppress the kind of bleeding that would otherwise interfere with a horse’s performance. And part undoubtedly reflects Lasix’s reduction in a horse’s weight; in the South African study, horses treated with Lasix lost an average of 28 pounds pre-race, while those treated with a placebo lost only 12 pounds. That 16-pound advantage would be considered significant by almost any handicapper. Whatever the mechanism, horses on Lasix do better. That’s why 95% of US race horses run on Lasix, even though, based on the South African study, fewer than 10% of those horses would bleed at a level that substantially interfered with their performance if they raced without the drug.

One thing that Lasix does not do, the vets at the Summit agreed, is mask other drugs that racing authorities test for. Modern testing techniques are very sophisticated, and the only jurisdiction that still believes Lasix interferes with other drug testing is Hong Kong, where Lasix is not permitted at any time, not just when a horse is racing. Hong Kong notwithstanding, the experts at the Summit convinced me that the “masking” argument is no longer valid as a reason for getting rid of race-day Lasix.

One of the most interesting aspects of yesterday’s scientific discussion was the surprising (for me at least) finding that the Flair nasal strip has much the same effect on bleeding as Lasix does. While the Flair’s human equivalent, the Breathe Right strip, appears to have little or no effect on human athletes’ performance, several of the vets in attendance yesterday said that the Flair strip did help in horses. Some trainers used the Flair strip a few years ago, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion and has been banned in some racing jurisdictions, even though its manufacturer is a sponsor of the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance. If its efficacy is confirmed by additional scientific studies, the Flair strip might be a viable substitute for Lasix.

Tomorrow: how other countries deal with bleeding.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Were the Koreans Thinking?

This week's Fasig-Tipton Timonium sale of two-year-olds in training is being reported as at least a modest success. The average price was down only slightly from last year ($47,263 versus $47,984 in 2010), the median was down 7.4%, from 27,000 to $25,000, and the percentage of horses in the catalog that were actually sold (subtracting both RNAs and scratches) was down 10 points, from 68.2% of last year's catalog of 400 horses to only 57.2% of this year's enlarged catalog of 600. I guess that, in a difficult market for sellers, modest losses count as success.

[Note that my numbers differ slightly from those reported in the Blood-Horse; mine are calculated from the official sale report released by Fasig-Tipton, which can be found here.]

Perhaps the most bizarre element in the Timonium sale was the eager participation of Korean buyers at the lower end of the market. Koreans, bidding principally through the K.O.I.D. purchasing agency, bought 46 of the 343 horses sold, or nearly one of every seven two-year-olds that went to new owners. Kudos to Fasig-Tipton for attracting a new group of buyers; without the Koreans' participation, the overall numbers would certainly have been even lower.

But the way the Koreans bid and bought was truly bizarre. Of the 46 horses they purchased (including two "post-sale" purchases recorded in the official totals, and including two horses bought not by K.O.I.D., but by buyers with Korean names and no previous presence in the US market), 33 of them -- more than 70% -- were bought for a single price, exactly $20,000. Overall, the Koreans' average price was $19,935 and the median was, unsurprisingly, $20,000.

There is simply no way that kind of distribution occurs in a normal auction. The Koreans may well have set a limit of $20,000 for most of their purchases; they bought only five horses for more than that, the highest a Mineshaft filly for $45,000. But a $20,000 limit doesn't mean one should pay $20,000 for virtually every horse, which is what these neophyte buyers did.

So here's what I think happened. Early on the first day of the sale, Monday, at least a few consignors noted that the Korean bidders were going to $20,000, but no higher, and not often lower; only three of their 30 Monday purchases were for less than that magic number. So, I suspect, when consignors saw how the Koreans were bidding, the consignors or breeders kept pushing the bidding up to $20,000, or set their reserves at $19,999 (in which case the auctioneer will pull bids out of the air up to one step below the reserve price). The Koreans followed their game plan, which apparently was to pay up to $20,000 for anything they wanted, and a lot of sellers went home very happy with anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 more than they would have gotten without those locked-in bids.

How much extra did the Koreans pay? Let's say an average of $5,000 each for the 33 horses they bought right at that magic $20,000 figure. That's a total of $165,000. Not a lot, perhaps in the overall scheme of the Korean economy, or even of the overall auction totals, but a very nice bonus for the consignors who caught on. $165,000 can buy a lot of hay.

Just as the Arab, European and Japanese buyers in the American bloodstock market over the years, I suspect the Koreans will learn too, and the good old boys selling horses will need to find ever-newer marks. But that's capitalism, right?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cuomo Picks an Easy Target

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a state budget yesterday, in an attempt to close a $10 billion budget gap. While the Governor decided to end the state income tax surcharge on the rich (taxpayers with incomes over $250,000), his budget imposes draconian cuts on the poor, through massive reductions in Medicaid and in state support for low-income school districts.

But, despite his "no new taxes" pledge, the governor did manage to find a target from which to extract a little more revenue -- horse owners. Cuomo's budget (see pp. 70-72) proposes a 2.75% "fee" on gross purses earned at the track, with the money (some $3 million by my calculation, just from NYRA tracks; $7.6 million overall) earmarked for the support of the state Racing and Wagering Board. The Racing Board, which also charges licensing fees to everyone in the industry, reportedly has only a $2 million annual deficit, so it's not quite clear where the extra money will go.

While Wall Street fat cats with eight-figure incomes are spared any pain under the budget, and in fact get a tax reduction, it seems that thoroughbred owners must be even richer, since, the Governor thinks, they can bear this new tax. Well, perhaps we can. Most of us lose money anyway-- nationwide, purses amount to roughly half the cost of keeping our thoroughbreds in training, not to mention the cost of buying or breeding the horses in the first place -- so what's a few more dollars? I guess the governor is counting on our love of horses and of the spectacle of racing to overcome our rational analysis of what he's doing.

But for some of us, this might just be the last straw. Those of us who race at NYRA tracks already pay a $10 per start fee to the Racing and Wagering Board, or almost $200,000 a year. The new levy would add $3 million to that.

I previously calculated the cost of owning a thoroughbred race horse that runs in New York. That calculation showed that a horse needed to earn roughly $64,750 a year in purse money for the owner to break even. Fortunately, the elimination of the hated detention-barn system has reduced owners' costs a bit. Without the new levy, it would take only (sic) $63,300 in earning for a New York owner to break even. But the effect of the new levy in the Cuomo budget is to raise that amount to $65,700.

At the same time, NYRA purses have been more or less stagnant, at least for those of us who race through the winter on the Aqueduct inner track. Way back in 2002, we (Castle Village Farm) were lucky enough to have a horse that won his New York-bred N1X and N2X allowances in successive efforts on the inner track. The purse for those races was $43,000 for the N1X and $45,000 for the N2X. This month's condition book for Aqueduct shows that the purse for the NY-bred N1X is $40,000-$41,000 (an extra $1,000 for races at a mile or over) and $42,000-$43,000 for the N2X. True, purses at Saratoga have improved a lot, and those at Belmont to some degree, but a lot of blue-collar horsemen and small-scale owners depend on Aqueduct for a large proportion of their earnings.

And our costs have by no means been stagnant. Back in 2002, we paid our trainers a basic day rate of $65. Today, it's $90 a day per horse, nearly a 40% increase, and, even at that rate, trainers generally don't make any money on the day rate. Vet costs have increased, if not quite as much, although some of the costs, for expensive supplements like Gastrogard and Legend, are passed through to the owners on their trainers' bills. And workers' compensation costs, under the quasi-monopoly enjoyed by the New York State Insurance Fund, have risen even faster. So, over the past decade, the average cost of ownership has increased by perhaps 35-40%, while purse money, at least at Aqueduct, has decreased by nearly 6%. Guess we just have to grin and bear it and wait yet some more for slot machine revenues to start flowing into the purse account.

A further issue with Cuomo's proposed 2.75% purse levy is that it applies only to horse owners, and not to the race tracks or to the state's remaining OTBs, both of which are also subject to the Racing and Wagering Board's jurisdiction and both of whose activities generate a significant portion of the Board's workload. For bets placed at the track, or on NYRA Rewards, the net takeout, after state taxes, is split between NYRA and the purse account. For bets placed at the OTBs, the takeout goes primarily to local governments and the OTBs, and the small amount that's left is split between NYRA and purses. So why should the levy apply only to the purse account? If the regulatory costs were borne proportionately by all those subject to regulation, it would be a much fairer proposal.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the purse levy isn't all that important. Medicaid recipients who stand to lose their home health care, and underprivileged children in poor school districts who will be jammed into ever-larger classes surely have it worse than race horse owners. But the proposed levy is still a symptom of the ignorance and unconcern with which New York's political class views the racing industry.

Friday, January 21, 2011

One Unnecessary Death is Too Many - UPDATE

UPDATE: When racing resumed today, after a snow day, the rails to the outer track remained closed while horse were on the inner track. Gotta give credit to NYRA for moving quickly once the problem was pointed out to them.

With apologies to Bob:

Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many horses have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, Copyright © 1962 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1990 by Special Rider Music

One unnecessary death of a thoroughbred is one too many. Yesterday at Aqueduct there was almost another one. Luckily, and no thanks to NYRA, the horse escaped injury. Since it was my – and my partners in Castle Village Farm’s – horse, I guess I take it personally.

Here’s what happened. Our horse, Iguazu, was entered in Aqueduct’s 3rd race, a $35,000 maiden claiming sprint on the Aqueduct inner track. Iguazu, a four-year-old by Smoke Glacken, missed his entire three-year-old season with knee problems, and yesterday would have been his third start since the layoff, coming after good 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes in the prior races. With a six-horse field, and only one “ringer,” (a Todd Pletcher drop-down), the small but enthusiastic group of partners in attendance had dreams of the winners’ circle.

But Iguazu, calm in the paddock and the post parade, became agitated in the starting gate and broke through the barrier, taking off around the track minus jockey David Cohen, who was unhurt and who returned to win the next race. Whether the presence of an assistant starter flicking his whip behind the gate had anything to do with Iguazu’s false start is something we’ll never know, since Iguazu is unlikely to tell us, but using whips at the gate is a dangerous practice, and something that rarely if ever happened when super horseman Bobby Duncan was NYRA’s starter.

In the event, Iguazu took off around the inner track, and the NYRA outriders apparently decided that, rather than giving chase, they’d let him have a seven-furlong workout. So the outriders congregated down on the clubhouse turn, where, it seemed, it should be relatively easy to corral a loose and presumably somewhat tired horse. But NYRA’s outrider crew, like the starting gate staff, seems to have fallen off from the days when it was the best in the country. Even though Iguazu slowed down and cantered into the trap the outriders had set up, somehow they failed to grab him and in fact set him off at a gallop once again, this time in the opposite direction, back toward the finish line in front of the grandstand. Iguazu, by this point thoroughly confused, burst through the temporary rail separating the inner track from the paddock area and then, to our horror, galloped on through a gap in the rail that blocked off the Aqueduct main track, which is closed in winter and which was under a layer of ice and snow.

Earlier this season, another horse had escaped onto the main track, skidded on the icy surface and crashed into a pole, fracturing bones and having to be put down. After that incident, NYRA supposedly adopted a policy that would keep horses off the outer track, putting up temporary rails to seal off the two gaps where horses could cross to the outer. Except that the policy itself seemed to have a gap in it.

The racing gods must have been watching, though, because Iguazu made it around the ice-covered main track and down the ramp into the barn area, where he was eventually caught by a backstretch worker near Barn 7. He returned safely to trainer Bruce Brown’s barn at Belmont, where today he seems in good shape and eager to return to the races. A brief report on the incident by Dave Grening of the Daily Racing Form is here.

Most of us in this business are not expecting to make money. As my previous posts have shown, it’s very difficult indeed to make a profit owning race horses in New York. We’re in the game because we love horses, and we love the thrill of the winners’ circle. So, when something stupid and unnecessary threatens the safety of our horses, we understandably get upset.

And allowing Iguazu to get on the hazardous outer track yesterday was unnecessary and showed both incompetence (possibly by the gate crew and certainly by the outriders) and stupidity (in designing a “safety” policy that is in fact unsafe).

I wrote to NYRA CEO Charlie Hayward this morning, seeking an explanation of why Iguazu had been permitted to get onto the outer track. To NYRA’s credit, I received a very prompt answer from NYRA’s horsemen’s liaison, former trainer Bruce Johnstone. Here’s Bruce’s email, and my reply:


Steve:

I have been made aware of your concerns regarding our “not having the rail in place”. Please let me lead you through our premise as regards this situation. As pointed out this temporary rail was put into place after a previous bad outcome to a horse getting loose crossing the Main track prior to entering the Inner. The procedure is for the gaps in each temporary rail to be closed prior to the horses leaving the Paddock on the way to the Inner. When the horses have all entered the Inner, the gap rail is put into place. The attendant then opens the aforementioned gaps in both temporary rails on the Main. The reason for this is, when the race commences the field is being followed by both the human ambulance on the Inner and the Track Veterinarian on the Main. The gaps on the main are open in case an injury occurs past the wire and the vet needs to attend to the horse. In addition the horse ambulance is positioned on the Main and if needed it has access to Inner through this gap. Having said all this it didn’t help you as your horse took it to another level. If you would like to further discuss this you can reach me at –[deleted] – Hoping this gives you some picture of an actual protocol in place. Also glad he wasn’t injured.

And here’s my reply:

Bruce:

I understand the protocol. But I just think it's incredibly stupid, as it totally negates the reason for having the rail in place to begin with. Why not just position the track vet's SUV on the inner track to start with, If there's enough room for the ambulance on the inner track, there should be enough room for the vet as well. As for the horse ambulance, it would be a matter of seconds to have someone open the gaps on the main if there's an injury.

I understand NYRA's policy, but it ain't nearly good enough. How many dead horses will it take to come up with something better?

Steve Zorn

Well, my pointing out the fallacies in NYRA’s “protocol” may yet produce changes that will protect other horses. A subsequent message from Bruce Johnstone comments that “you are not offbase in your thoughts” and promises that he’ll be consulting with the powers that be at NYRA, in this case apparently Racing Secretary P J Campo and NYRA Executive VP/Chief Operating Officer Hal Handel. We’ll see.

I wonder if, on this as on so many other decisions, NYRA bothered to consult anyone who actually knew anything about horses. If they’d talked to almost any trainer beforehand, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been nudged toward something closer to my suggestions that would have actually increased safety, rather than leaving a large gap for a scared horse to run through.

Sorry about going on at this length, but when it’s your horse that’s almost killed by someone else’s stupidity, it’s difficult not to be upset.