Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Looking for a Partnership?

Lots of action on the racing partnership front, at least in New York. Lots of recent Facebook controversy about the ubiquitous Drawing Away Stables, and whether its partnership model contributes to the likelihood that its horses might be over-raced and under-retired. And a couple of interesting new partnership initiatives, from trainers Gary Contessa and Abigail Adsit, the latter a former Linda Rice assistant who's recently gone out on her own. And my own Castle Village Farm is looking to put together new claiming and two-year-old partnerships in the new year. At the same time, the failure of the well-known Karakorum Racing Stable, which once occupied Drawing Away's place as the New York partnership with the most starters, and which took with it a good deal of partners' and employees' money, reminds us that there are indeed risks in joining a thoroughbred partnership. (For a sanitized version of that story, see here.)

Overall, the rule of thumb for many years has been that purse earnings amount to about 50% of the cost of keeping all those race horses in training. With the advent of higher purses in New York, and relative stagnation in trainers' day rates (except perhaps at the stratospheric level of Todd Pletcher et al.), one can guess that a thoroughbred owner in New York might now lose only 25-30% of the cost of keeping an average horse in training. Still, that's a loss, and it doesn't count the cost of acquiring the horse in the first place, whether it's a $12,500 claimer or a $500,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland. Sometimes, your horse gets claimed for more than you paid for it, or you can sell it as a broodmare or stallion prospect. Far more often, you sell your horse for only a fraction of its purchase price or give it away (to, I hope, a good retirement home).

So don't go into a racing partnership expecting to make money. If you do, great. But more likely, you won.t. And if you don't, you'll still have the thrills that go with thoroughbred ownership -- watching your horse develop, hanging out at the barn, getting your picture taken in the winners circle. For most partners, a good result is having a good time while not losing too much money and not feeling that you're being taken advantage of.

So what should you look for in a partnership business plan or contract -- whether you're in one now and thinking about changing or whether you're thinking about getting involved for the first time?

Let's deal with the non-monetary issues first.

At the top of the list is what kind of involvement does the partnership provide? The high-end partnerships -- Centennial, Dogwood, Team Valor and West Point, for example --  have superb customer service, with staffers providing tours of the barns and meeting partners in the paddock. Of course, one pays for that kind of service (see below). At the other end of the scale, some partnerships bar partners from the training track and barn area, at least during training hours, and provide minimal information and partner support.

Questions to ask: Can I go to the barn and the training track to see my horse? Will the partnership help me with licensing? Does the partnership let me know what's going on, with phone or email notification of workouts, plans for races, entries, results and more? How can I be in touch with my fellow partners; is there an email list for the partnership? Will my opinion be listened to? Who makes decisions about which races to enter?

One goes, or should go, into a racing partnership knowing that the primary purpose is not to make money. Because that's true, the intangibles become all that much more important.

Next, What does your partnership do to make sure that its horses have a safe and secure retirement when their racing careers are over? Does the partnership have a clear retirement plan, and the financing to carry it out? Does the partnership contact successor owners of its horses, making it clear that the partnership is there to help if retirement becomes necessary? You'll feel better about your involvement if you know that the horses that give you so much pleasure are being taken care of.

Okay, now let's talk about the money. Basically, partnerships come in two flavors: those where the partners pay the ongoing training costs and those with a single up-front charge and no additional fees. The former is the more common and, in my opinion, makes more sense, for reasons that will become apparent.

So let's look at that model. The first question to ask is: how does the partnership manager or promoter -- who may be the trainer as well -- make money? There are really only three ways:

1. By marking up the cost of the horse. For example, West Point may buy a horse for $100,000 at the yearling sale, then syndicate it for $25,000 for a 10% share, effectively marking up the horse by 150%. Nice work if you can get it, and that markup does pay for a lot of customer service and advertising. Toward the other end, my own partnership, Castle Village Farm, charges a 15% markup on the initial capital in each partnership, whether that capital is then used to claim horses or to buy babies.

How do you know what the markup is? Easy. If a horse is purchased at public auction, that information is available on the website of the auction house, Fasig-Tipton, Keeneland or Ocala Breeders Sales Co. If the horse is claimed, you know what the claim price is. If it's a private purchase, the patrnership manager should be willing to tell you what the cost was. If not, that's a warning sign.

There's some justification for larger markups if the partnership manager personally bears the early risk. After all, if West Point buys a horse at auction and that horse breaks a leg before ever getting into training, it's likely that West Point will have to bear at least some of the initial cost. On the other hand, how much is too much? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but a prospective partner should know what the numbers are.

2. By taking a piece of the purse. Often, partnership managers retain a 5% or 10% interest in the horse's earnings, without being liable for an equivalent share of the cost of keeping the horse in training. That's probably fairest to the partners, since an unsuccessful horse at least doesn't generate added charges.

3. By charging an ongoing management fee (or, as in the case of the late, unlamented Karakorum), a monthly training fee that far exceeded the actual training cost). That fee can be zero, it can be actual cost (of maintaining and office, tending to partners' needs, etc.), or it can be much more. The partnership agreement should spell out how much, if anything, the monthly or quarterly fee is.

Most partnerships charge a combination of these three items. I ca't say what's the ideal mix. Sometimes you get what you pay for, in service and support; sometimes you get more than you pay for; often you get a lot less. In all cases, though, if the partnership won't tell you up front what the costs are, including all forms of management compensation, beware!

Next,  how does your partnership share and distribute financial information? Are there monthly or quarterly reports to partners that spell out purse earnings and costs, breaking out training fees, vet bills, van bills, etc.? Does the partnership respond to your questions about the bills? And, a related point, does the partnership provide you with K-1s (the income tax form for your partnership share) in a timely fashion, so you can file your taxes on time? The less financial information you're getting, the more likely it is that the partnership manager is a gonif.

What about those one-time-only partnerships, where you put up some money at the start and then "never, ever" pay any more bills? Could be a good idea; there's not much that's more depressing than paying bills month after month for a horse that never makes it to the race track or that never earns enough to cover its training bills. But there are lots of pitfalls with this kind of arrangement. If you don't pay the bills, who does? Generally, it's the trainer, and that can lead to a variety of undesirable results. First, the most common version of the one-time-fee partnership is where the trainer gets to keep a majority or more of the purse, instead of the trainer's customary 10% That's the deal that Drawing Away Stables has with trainer David Jacobson, and it sets up some unfortunate conflicts of interest. From the trainer's point of view, it's better, in this sort of arrangement, to run a horse often and cheap, where the trainer has the best chance of picking up a purse. But that can often mean running the horse for a claiming price below its original cost. If the horse wins and gets claimed, the trainer keeps most of the purse, while the partners bear the capital loss on the claim price.

Alternatively, in the one-time-fee partnerships, the trainer or partnership manager could keep all the purse money until the horse has paid for all its training costs. For roughly 90% of horses, that means never, so the partners never see a return on their investment.

In either case, if you're tempted by the thought of never having to pay training bills, be careful. Make sure you understand the entire financial structure before you get involved.

And above all, look for transparency. Make sure you understand the deal, and that the partnership gives you all the information that you need. There are many that will; you don't have to go with the ones that won't.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Jockeys and Health Insurance

Recently, the Jockeys Guild has been making a strong push for someone, anyone really, other than the jockeys, to provide health insurance for riders and their families. In New York, the Governor's Office has convened a Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety to consider that issue, among others. The Task Force is chaired by NYRA Director and thoroughbred owner Anthony Bonomo and includes jockey John Velasquez, retired rider Ramon Dominguez, Jockey Club staff member Nancy Kelly and attorney Alan Foreman, who represents a variety of horsemen's groups, including the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association ("NYTA").

Disclosure: I've been a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors since 2002. I also have some knowledge of health care issues at the track, through my involvement as a Director since 2009 of the BEST Backstretch health care program, which provides basic health care and substance-abuse services for backstretch workers at NYRA Tracks.

I've been told that a major item of discussion at the Task Force meetings has been: who should pay for health insurance for jockeys and their families? As I understand the Jockeys Guild position, it's that either the race tracks or the owners and trainers should bear this cost, and not the jockeys themselves, except perhaps to the extent of a very limited contribution.

Seems reasonable, right? After all, owners, trainers and track executives aren't the ones taking the risk of riding a 1,200-pound animal at 40 miles an hour in close company and under sometimes less than perfect conditions. Jockeys literally put their lives on the line every time they ride, so shouldn't they get our help?

But a closer look at the situation, at least in New York, raises some questions. Is financing health insurance for jockeys and their families really the best use of money from tracks' budgets, when many needed repairs are still waiting on limited budget funds? Is taking yet another slice off the top of owners' purses to pay for that insurance wise at a time when, despite slots-enhanced purses, most race horse owners still lose money? Why provide health insurance for jockeys when trainers, many of whom earn less than jockeys, have no insurance plan from the track and have to buy their own personal or family coverage?

In some racing jurisdictions, where purses are low, jockeys don't have coverage for on-the-job injuries, and jockey income flirts with the poverty line, perhaps there's an argument to be made for assisting jocks with health insurance premiums. But in New York at least, that argument doesn't apply. Here's why:

First, jockeys in New York already have two forms of insurance coverage for work-related injuries. The Jockey Injury Compensation Fund provides workers compensation coverage, including ongoing medical care, for on-the-job injuries to jockeys and exercise riders. The Fund is financed by owners, through a deduction from purses, and by trainers, through a per-stall fee that is probably usually passed along to owners as part of the trainer's day rate. In addition, NYRA pays for an accidental death and injury policy that pays those jockeys who sign a waiver (agreeing not to sue NYRA) 10 times their annual earnings, up to a maximum of $1.3 million, if the jockey is paralyzed and up to $956,000 if the jockey is permanently impaired. Those payments are on top of the workers compensation payments through the Jockey Injury Compensation Fund.

Second, jockeys in New York make a pretty good living. Using statistics available from Equibase, it's possible to calculate the gross earnings of most regular New York riders. In New York, jockeys generally get 9.17% of a win purse, 5% of second-place money, and 7.5% of third-place money. Because win purses are the major element in any jockey's income, this works out to a blended rate of about 8% of total purse money won.

Using those parameters, and using the Equibase data for 2012, the first full year of slots-enhanced purses in New York, one can calculate that 22 jockeys made over $100,000, just from their rides in New York, not counting anything they earned out of state. For example, the now-retired Ramon Dominguez had purse earnings of over $19 million in New York, of which his share was in excess of $1.5 million. Other jockeys who earned over $400,000 just in New York include Cornelio Velasquez, Junior Alvarado, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz Jr., Jose Lezcano, David Cohen, Eddie Castro, Alan Garcia, John Velazquez, Rajiv Maragh, Joel Rosario, and Rosie Napravnik. Using the same methodology, we can conclude that the following riders made between $100,000 and $400,000 just in New York in 2012: Jose Ortiz, Wilmer Garcia, Mike Luzzi, Samuel Camacho Jr., Edgar Prado, C C Lopez, Jose Espinoza and Corey Nakatani. Adding in jockeys who earned less than $100,000 in New York but who had earnings elsewhere that would lift them above the $100,000 threshold would add the following to the list: Jose Rodriguez, Kent Desormeaux, Dennis Carr, Joe Bravo, Shaun Bridgmohan, Pablo Morales, Luis Perez, Jose Valdivia Jr., Chris DeCarlo, Pablo Fragoso, Alex Solis, Jaime Rodriguez, Mike Smith and Kevin Navarro.

Update (1/16/2014): I just ran the 2013 numbers, using the same methodology. They show that 24 riders likely earned over $100,000 just in New Yoerk. In order: (a) over $400,000 -- Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz Jr., Junior Alvarado, Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez, Cornelio Velasquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano, Luis Saez, Rajiv Maragh; (b) $100,000-$400,000 -- David Cohen, Edgar Prado, Alex Solis, Mike Smith, Manuel Franco, Eddie Castro, Rosie Napravnik, Mike Luzzi, Joe Rocco Jr., Guillermo Rodriguez, Keiber Coa, Abel Lezcano and Angel Arroyo.

That's a lot of riders with incomes that many racegoers wouldn't mind having. True, jocks generally pay their agents 15-25% of their earnings, and their valets get 5-10%, but still, these are solid, middle-class incomes, and well above the national average.

Moreover, jockeys in New York have received a substantial pay raise as a result of the increase in purses since 2011 fueled by slot-machimne revenue. Still using our 8% methodology, we can calculate that aggregate jockey earnings at NYRA tracks increased by some 40% from 2011 to 2012, right in line with the increase in purses in that period.

In the past, jockeys had a strong argument for having the tracks and/or owners supply health insurance, because most riders would have "pre-existing conditions" that insurance companies would cite in order to deny coverage. But, under the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), insurance companies can no longer use that excuse; they must make standard policies available, regardless of pre-existing conditions.

Jockeys are independent contractors. With rare exceptions, they are not employees of a particular trainer or owner (for a taste of the bad old days, when they were, listen to Slaid Cleaves' song "Quick as Dreams," about Jockeys Guild founder Tommy Luther.) Like solo practice lawyers, free-lance writers or, for that matter, horse trainers, they're responsible for themselves. Unlike those other categories, though, at least jockeys have pretty good insurance coverage for work-related injuries.

Given that on-the-job coverage, given that insurance companies can no longer deny them and their families routine health insurance, and given their level of income, at least in New York, it's hard to make a case that jockeys should be treated differently from other independent contractors and sole proprietors. Those that have high incomes -- and I was surprised by how many there were in that category in New York -- can buy comprehensive health insurance for themselves and their families in the market. Those with lower incomes can use the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges to obtain very acceptable policies and, if their incomes are low enough, can get tax credits and subsidies to cover part of the premium cost.

The New York Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety can do a lot of good things. Improving vests, helmets and other protective equipment would help. So would stiffer standards for licensing riders, to make sure they're up to the level of competition in New York, and ongoing continuing education programs. So would providing nutrition advice so riders can keep their weight down without destroying their bodies. So would tougher penalties for dangerous riding. Health insurance for jocks and their families? Not at the top of the list.

If you feel the same way, you might want to let Anthony Bonomo, chair of the Jockey Safety and Health Task Force, know. You can reach hiom at A.Bonomo@medmal.com.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Taking Care of Our Horses: Make the Pledge

Thanks for all the comments on my recent post about saving thoroughbreds from the kill auctions. It's clear that there's a huge community of horse owners and racing fans who believe, as I do, that we have an obligation to take care of the horses that give us so many thrills on the track.

Much of the discussion in the past few days, here and on Facebook, has been directed in particular at public racing partnerships -- groups that own horses and that seek funds and partners from the public at large. These partnerships differ from those like Sackatoga Stable, the owner of NY-bred Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, that are formed by a group of friends and that don't solicit widely for new members.

Since Dogwood's Cot Campbell invented the public partnership concept way back in 1969, partnerships have become an important force in the industry. From the high-end groups like Dogwood, Team Valor, Centennial or West Point, where the minimum partnership share is $25,000, $50,000 or more, down to the blue-collar groups that focus primarily on claiming horses, like Drawing Away Stable and my own Castle Village Farm, where a minimum share may be $1,000 or less, these partnerships have filled a gap caused by the falling-away of other, more traditional forms of individual and family ownership.

To give some sense of the importance of these partnerships, here are the partnership groups that have run at least two horses in New York since the start of the Aqueduct fall meet at the beginning of November, 2013:

In a class by itself, with 119 starts: Drawing Away Stables.

10-19 starts: West Point, Epona and Final Furlong (often as co-owners), Nassau CC, Parting Glass and Funky Munky Stables.

2-9 starts: Castle Village Farm, Hibiscus, Magdalena, Little Red Rooster, Winter Park, Starlight, Eclipse, Dogwood and Team Valor.

Many of these groups, especially the more expensive ones, are active all over the US and internationally, and so their New York starts are only a small piece of the picture. And many other groups are active in other regions. So the New York statistics are only a part of the whole, but they're the part I know and feel able to comment on.

Individual horse owners often commit to take care of their retired horses or find them safe retirement homes. Because racing partnerships are so visible, it would be an important advance if all partnerships would commit to a code of conduct with respect to their horses. Here are the elements of a code that, based on my experience, I believe to be affordable and fair, both to partners and to or horses:

FIRST, set aside a portion of the partnership's funds for equine retirement. (At Castle Village Farm, we set aside 3% of each partnership's initial capital and 1% of purse money.)

SECOND, if a horse owned by the partnership needs to be retired, commit to finding that horse a safe, secure placement -- don't just "give it away to a friend."

THIRD, if a horse is claimed away from the partnership, let the new owner know that you're always available to take the horse back if it needs to be retired.

FOURTH, follow your former horses' careers and, if they look like they're in trouble, take the initiative and go rescue them.

It can be done; I've gone to Finger Lakes with $4,000 in cash to get a horse away from the track before he broke down, and both Castle Village Farm and the horse's breeder, Meg Carrothers, followed our old warrior No Bad Habits as he reached the lower claiming levels, with Meg eventually claiming him for $4,000 at River Downs. And here he is just last week, enjoying retirement in Florida at age 20:

Most partnership web sites don't talk much about thoroughbred retirement. That doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have a policy, but it's discouraging that the issue isn't mentioned. 

So, if you're a partner in any of these public racing partnerships, or if you know someone who is, let's step up the pressure and get all those partnerships to commit to decent retirement policies. If other partnerships will join us in to the four points listed above, I'd be delighted to do whatever I can to make their good works known.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Some Thoughts on the End of the Road

Hmmm, it's been a long time between blog posts. Guess that's what an overdose of Twitter can do to you. New Year's resolution for 2014: don't try to do in 140 characters what takes 800 or more words to get right.

Hence, this piece on how to prevent the thoroughbreds we love and who run their hearts out for us from ending up dead on the race track or in the "kill pen" at auctions for horses bound for the slaughterhouse. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated band of volunteers, many thoroughbreds have been rescued from the auction pens at New Holland, PA,  and throughout the country. The horses that aren't rescued, though, go through some pretty hellish ordeals. A good description of the process is available from the Humane Society of the US, an organization that I disagree with on many issues, but am in total agreement on this one.

On the way to slaughter

For those of us in the thoroughbred racing world, perhaps the most abhorrent aspect of horse slaughter is the way that so many hard-working, previously successful race horses eventually make their way down the racing ladder, in some cases from Grade 1 stakes to $4,000 claiming races. These horses have more than earned the right to a second career, or just to a comfortable retirement. Whether we pay $5,000 or $5 million for them initially, we all have an obligation to see that they are decently cared for.

Horse slaughter for older horses that can no longer pay their way on the race track is only part of the problem. When horses die on the track, or are vanned off and put down out of public sight, that also reflects on all of us in the business. Sometimes, the death of a horse on the track is just an accident, but sometimes, it's the result of pushing a horse too hard, trying to get just one more race out of him.

So, how to get a handle on dealing with these two separate but related issues? Let me start by telling a story.

Last August, my little partnership, Castle Village Farm, claimed a five-year-old chestnut NY-bred gelding, East of Danzig, at Saratoga. We took him for $20,000 out of a turf race for horses that, among other conditions, hadn't won on the turf in the past six months. East of Danzig still had his NY-bred N2X allowance condition available, but hadn't run quite fast enough to be competitive at that level, which is why he was in for a claiming tag. We, like all owners eternally optimistic, were hoping we could get that allowance win. But in fact, East of Danzig was exactly what he looked like on paper -- a solid, hard-trying horse that ran ultra-consistent speed figures and tried every time, but that was just a step too slow to move up. So we entered him back at the same $20,000 level three times, earning a third, a second and, on October 13th at Belmont, a win. But in that October 13 race, he was claimed by trainer David Jacobson, who in the past few years has come to dominate the New York claiming scene. Seemed to me to be a not-so-smart claim, since East of Danzig is a pure turf horse and the turf season was winding down, and since his speed figures clearly showed that it was unlikely he'd get faster at age 6 and get that NY-bred allowance win. But Jacobson has made what seemed to be pretty silly claims from us before, taking Castle Village Farm's stakes winner Introspect for $50,000 (we later retrieved him and raised $10,000 so we could retire him) and taking our stakes-placed sprinter Southern Missile for an absurd $75,000, both in 2008.

In any event, after Jacobson claimed him, East of Danzig disappeared from the workout tab for over a month, only to appear in the entries at Laurel in a $5,000 claiming race on the dirt on December 11th. Our partners were ready to claim him back out of that race and either rest him over the winter for the 2014 turf season or, if necessary, retire him. As it turned out, he was claimed by Maryland-based trainer Mary Eppler, who appears to understand that for $5,000 she got a pretty good and always hard-trying grass horse. I expect to see East of Danzig in the entries, on turf, this coming spring, at a level that more accurately reflects his value.

East of Danzig at Belmont

So what's the point of that story?

First, it illustrates a well-documented pattern in which Jacobson and other claiming trainers ship horses out of New York to lesser tracks, where it's harder for the horses' former owners to keep track of, and, if needed, rescue them. For Jacobson, these dumping grounds are Laurel and Suffolk. For other trainers, they may be PARX, near Philadelphia, Finger Lakes in upstate New York, or Charles Town and Mountaineer in West Virginia. Once, we even found one of our former horses running for $2,500 at a place called Mount Pleasant Meadows in Michigan (fortunately, a rescue was arranged there as well). Many of the horror stories of stakes-quality horses falling from grace and ending up breaking down on the track come from these lesser ovals, where perhaps veterinary supervision is less stringent than, say, at NYRA, or where purses are so small that trainers feel compelled to run their horses every 10 or 14 days, even if the horse in't sound enough to stand that workload.

Second, it illustrates a pattern of perverse incentives that can reward a trainer for dropping horses in class, even as the drop penalizes the owner. To my knowledge, Jacobson's arrangement with his principal owner, Drawing Away Stable, has these perverse incentives. Here's how I'm told it works: Drawing Away partners provide the funds to claim horses, but pay no ongoing training bills. In return for taking care of the horse, Jacobson gets something like 65% of the purse (I'm not sure of the exact percentage; Drawing Away partners should feel free to correct me with accurate figures.) In contrast, the more normal arrangement, at least on major-league racing circuits like New York, is for the owner to pay the training bills (in New York, $90-125 per day, plus at least several hundred dollars per month in vet bills), and for the trainer to get 10% of the purse. Thus, because Jacobson, and those like him who make similar deals with their owners, bear the cost of feeding and caring for the horse, but bear none of the capital loss if the horse is claimed away for less that its purchase price, and because Jacobson and similar trainers keep a large percentage of the purse, there's every incentive to drop a horse to a level where it's (relatively) sure to get a big chunk of the purse. And there's an incentive, again based on the cost of caring for the horse vis-a-vis the purse, to run a horse as often as possible. So, most of the time, that's how Jacobson and similar trainers play the game, often to the detriment of the horses in their care.

I'm not trying to limit this problem to Jacobson; other trainers have similar deals and therefore face similar perverse incentives. But Jacobson has the most horses, and the most reported problems, so he is the face of the issue. Two of his horses, in particular, have produced a firestorm of comment, some rational, some not, on Facebook and Twitter in the past few days.

First, well-know horse owner and lawyer Maggi Moss raised questions about Toque, a horse claimed by Jacobson last March for $25,000, then raced at Monmouth for $5,000 in May and Suffolk for $4,000 in June and then vanished from sight. Ms. Moss's tenacity uncovered the fact that Toque then appeared at the New Holland kill auction in September, only to be "bailed out" by the rescue broker AC4H, but subsequently died.

Second, the 7-year-old gelding Uncle Smokey, a horse with a history of unsoundness,  broke down and was euthanized on the track at Aqueduct on January 2, after making his third start in 15 days and sixth in 61 days.According to some who were at the track that day, Uncle Smokey was definitely sending signals that he didn't want to race.

Most trainers don't race horses that often, but the drop in claiming price and/or a series of races in rapid succession is a familiar pattern for Jacobson. Just looking at the Aqueduct cards for today and tomorrow, he entered three that fit the pattern: (1) Rift, entered in today's 7th race for $12,500, but scratched by the NYRA vet, was dropped from the $25,000 that Jacobson paid for him last month; (2) El Oh El, entered in Friday's 3rd race for $20,000, was claimed by Jacobson for $35,000 at Saratoga, has raced as low as $12,500, and will be making his 8th start in 12 weks; and (3) Force Multiplier, in the same $20,000 race, was claimed for $25,000 at Saratoga, eventually dropped to $12,500, where he won, and now has to run at the higher $20,000 N3L condition.

Other trainers send out horses that probably shouldn't be racing, and other trainers have had horses die on the race track. But when a trainer who has just set a new record for wins at NYRA in a calendar year, and whose horse fill more spots in NYRA starting gates than any other starts seeing horses die or end up at the killers, it's appropriate that the spotlight shines in his direction. The same thing happened to Bob Baffert when his barn experienced a spate of cardiac arrest deaths. Leading trainers are big boys; they should be able to bear public scrutiny.

Jacobson, like virtually all other trainers, has lost horses to accidents that probably couldn't have been avoided. The stakes winner and crowd favorite Saginaw took a bad step at Saratoga and was euthanized after breaking down on the track on August 20th last year. There's no hint that he was over-raced, or that Jacobson gave this high-performing horse anything but the best of care. Similarly, the lightly raced 4-year-old colt Coronate threw his rider at Aqueduct on December 26th and fatally injured himself trying to jump a fence. Bad things happen in racing. Not all of them are a trainer's fault. 

For those of us who love horses, it's beyond upsetting when a race horse dies on the track, or when a thoroughbred that has given years of effort to its owners ends up in the kill pen at New Holland. So what can we, as owners and fans, do to mitigate the problem?

First, we can all support the burgeoning efforts within the industry to provide second careers or dignified retirement for horses that are no longer on the track. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is an industry-wide group, whose Board includes important owners, breeders and trainers, devoted to funding thoroughbred retirement and ensuring that retirement facilities meet basic standards. Numerous groups already exist to provide retirement options, including CANTER, New Vocations and New York's own TAKE2 program (disclosure: I'm a member of the Board of Directors of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA), which sponsors the TAKE2 program, and NYTHA President Rick Violette is on the Board of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.)

Second, if one owns horses, even as a partner in a large group, it's important to do whatever one can to protect their welfare. Don't let them slip out of sight.

Third, put pressure on race tracks and regulators to enforce existing rules. NYRA and other tracks have rules that bar trainers who let their horses go to the slaughter auctions. But those rules seem rarely to be enforced. Writing to track executives and state regulators urging quicker, more consistent enforcement of the rules will certainly help move the issues up on those folks' agendas.

My apologies for the length of this, and for the unusually personal tone, but the spate of bad news about horses over the past few weeks just struck a nerve.