John Clay

If horse racing keeps messing around, it might not be around

Has the Kentucky Derby controversy hurt the sport?

Elliott Walden, CEO and Racing Manager of WinStar Farm, weighs in on the Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security. WinStar Farms owns Improbable, the Morning Line favorite for the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18, 2019.
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Elliott Walden, CEO and Racing Manager of WinStar Farm, weighs in on the Kentucky Derby disqualification of Maximum Security. WinStar Farms owns Improbable, the Morning Line favorite for the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18, 2019.

The 2018 Triple Crown series was pure magic. In a span of 111 days, Justify went from debut to immortality. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont all fell under Justify’s meteoric spell. Just 13 horses have accomplished that feat. None quite like Justify. Ah, those were the days.

The 2019 Triple Crown series was pure chaos. Included was a first-ever Derby disqualification, lawsuits and three different winners in three different races. Actually four, if you count Maximum Security, first across the wire at Churchill Downs before the DQ. Trainer Mark Casse won the Preakness and Belmont with two different horses. Magic, this was not.

Worse still, all this came against the backdrop of the calamity in California. Santa Anita suffered 22 equine fatalities between Dec. 26 and March 9 forcing a temporary closing of the track. Seven more have died since it re-opened March 29. Two died last weekend, prompting the California Horse Racing Board to call for another track closure. Santa Anita refused.

Then there was this from PETA on Monday:

“What’s happening at Santa Anita right now is a microcosm of what’s happening in racing nationally: broken bones, death, and public outrage. Horses aren’t dying only in California. Their bodies litter tracks in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Texas, and many other states. PETA recently called for tracks nationwide to suspend racing until they can implement long-needed significant changes that will help end the cruelty and protect the horses. We renew this call. Shut down until you get synthetic surfaces, CT scan equipment in place, the drugs out, the whips banished, and the trainers with multiple violations banned permanently.”

Could horse racing go the way of the circus?

I doubt it. But there’s little doubt horse racing needs to get its act together. Now.

Surely the unusually wet winter in Southern California played a large role in the Santa Anita deaths. But the national crisis didn’t happen overnight. To much of the public at large, there’s always been a sordid aspect to horse racing, from the gambling, to the drugs, to suspicions about the way the animals are actually treated.

Example: A couple of years ago, a friend from Georgia attended Keeneland for the first time. Her family enjoyed the experience. One thing bothered them, my friend told me. The whips. Why did the jockeys have to hit the horses with those whips?

That might seem minor for those of us who grew up with the sport. It’s an accepted practice. We barely notice it. (“Riding crop” is the preferred term.) But in a society less Agrarian and more urban, using a whip to hit a defenseless animal stands out. People might not be able to see the drugs, or what goes on in the barns, but they can sure see those whips.

Problem is no one in racing ever agrees on much of anything. New York has its rules. Kentucky has its rules. California has its rules. Florida has its rules. Heaven forbid jurisdictions join together for the good of all. But that’s exactly what needs to happen.

Racing doesn’t need a California Horse Racing Board as much as it needs a National Horse Racing Board. One with true power. And a commissioner. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all have commissioners. Horse racing should have one, too, primarily as a spokesman for the sport, publicize the good, tackle the bad. One voice.

Instead, we have committees. The Breeders’ Cup committee meets June 27 to discuss whether Santa Anita, as scheduled, should be host to the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1-2. No way, I say. Not this year. The risk is too great. A move to Churchill Downs makes the most sense. Trouble is, horse racing rarely does what makes the most sense.

It better start, especially in California where PETA owns a powerful presence. Horse racing might never die in Kentucky, but the same can not be said of the Golden State. For an industry already on thin ice, losing California would be catastrophic.

Meanwhile, remember when horse racing believed a Triple Crown winner would fix its problems? After a 37-year drought, the sport has produced two in the last five years. And it is closer to going away than it has ever been before.

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