The horses running in the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby this weekend are under enhanced scrutiny in an effort to ensure the safety and integrity of horse racing. These efforts are nothing new – Breeders’ Cup has implemented extra security for its participants and the New York Racing Association has complied with previous directives of the New York Gaming Commission (formerly Racing and Wagering Board). The goal is admirable. I just think this implementation sends the wrong message.
In announcing the measures for the Wood Memorial, New York Gaming Commission Acting Executive Director Rob Williams declared that “...everyone invested in horse racing – from the trainers to the equine health experts to the betting public – deserves to know that equine athletes are being well cared for and competing on an even playing field.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
But let’s see... the Wood Memorial is one of approximately 45,000 Thoroughbred races each year. Add the Belmont Stakes and the Travers in New York, and you get three out of 45,000, or less than 0.007 percent of the total number of races. Then there’s the Breeders’ Cup races, and maybe a few others if the trend continues. So let’s be generous and say that 25 races are treated this way in 2013 – that’s a whopping 0.05 percent of all races, give or take. What about the other 99.95 percent of races? Is the industry saying that it doesn’t matter if all those other equine athletes are being well cared for and that horseplayers don’t care about integrity for the vast majority of races on which they are betting?
From my perspective, these measures for the top-tier races simply tell the public that there are things wrong with racing, so much so that they have to add security for the biggest races. I would submit that the biggest races are the ones much less likely to “need” these measures because they are already clearly in the public eye. And I dare say that the horses in those types of races get consistently better care and attention than many of those making up the lower echelon of the claiming ranks. If we really care about our sport, why focus only on the elite?
The industry is still struggling to create a public response in the wake of high-profile injuries in high-profile events (think Barbaro and Eight Belles), and rightly so. But there’s virtually no chance that these extra safety and security measures would have prevented those tragedies. They might catch trainers trying to gain a competitive edge by using illegal drugs, but in only 0.05 percent of races? And what trainer in his or her right mind would try to tamper with a horse under that much scrutiny when there are opportunities to do so in almost every other race?
On his website, my old friend Ray Paulick compared the extra measures to enhanced security and passenger screenings in U.S. airports by the TSA, bringing both confidence and peace of mind. I disagree. This would be a valid comparison only if every horse in every race were subject to the same scrutiny. Not just the biggest races. Imagine if only 0.05 percent of your fellow airline passengers were screened by TSA, and they were announced ahead of time so people know who would and wouldn’t be screened. Would you feel safer and more comfortable about traveling in that case? I think not.