Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pity the Poor Trainer

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) cancelled racing today, because of very cold temperatures and high winds. No disagreement with that decision; I was at the barn area at Belmont this morning, and it was way too cold to be out in the open on a horse. Some trainers did send their horses to the training track, much to the discomfort of the exercise riders, but many chose just to jog them in the shedrow, away from the wind. Even that wasn't exactly a day at the beach.

But what's incomprehensible about the decision is that it was only announced after 7 am, AFTER trainers had to send their horses for the early scheduled races over from Belmont to Aqueduct in the NYRA van for the horses' mandatory six-hour stay in the detention barn. Every trainer who had horses in the first few races today therefore had to load those horses onto the van, send a groom with them, and then wait around until van, horse and groom returned, after the cancellation was made official.

For many trainers, this is a big deal. Since the detention barn system was instituted a couple of years ago, most trainers have begun charging their owners a fee, somewhere around $100, to cover the added cost of sending someone to be with the horse in the detention facility ("gulag") before the race. But when races end up being cancelled, it's pretty hard for the trainer to bill that "raceday fee" to an owner. The trainer ends up just paying for extra help, or for overtime to cover the work that the groom over at the detention barn can't do back at the trainer's shedrow.

There's no reason NYRA couldn't have announced today's cancellation before the first van left Belmont for Aqueduct, or even last night. It's not as if the weather forecast changed significantly between 5 am, when trainers started getting horses ready, and 7 am, when the decision was announced. Trainers and their workers get up early and are at the barn by 5:00 or 5:30 am; it's only simple courtesy and respect for the folks who put on the show for someone at NYRA to do the same.

Today's little fiasco merely highlights the difficulties that the detention barn system poses. It significantly increases costs for owners and trainers, and the mandatory six-hour stay in a strange barn often unnerves horses, resulting in uncharacteristically poor performance. And it's something that can't be worked on by schooling, the way a horse's behavior in the paddock, or at the starting gate, can be.

By now, it's probably impossible to undo the detention barn, even though other methods of preventing illegal drugging -- better testing, more security patrols, cameras in the trainers' own barns, just for example -- would probably be cheaper and less disruptive. NYRA has too much invested in the current system, both in money and in public relations. But if we're going to be stuck with the system, the least NYRA could do would be to help trainers avoid needless trips to the detention barn when there's not going to be any racing.

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