In this weekend’s news we learn that an organization that was harshly condemned by its oversight authority has fought back, accusing the oversight authority of “unsubstantiated accusations,” and a ”flawed process” in which there was ”minimal contact” with the organization. Was this the Board of the New York Racing Association contesting the actions of the Cuomo administration? Actually no; rather, it is the statement of the organization representing Catholic nuns in the United States questioning the Pope’s decision to begin an inquisition of the nuns, as reported by The New York Times.
But New York’s own authoritarian and out-of-touch hierarchy was not to be outdone. John Sabini, Chair of New York’s Racing and Wagering Board, has issued decrees that will, as he put it, “underscore the symbolism of the world-class racing held in New York State.” While I would agree that “symbolism” is the operative phrase here, judge for yourself if Sabini’s protocols are those of a world-class racing jurisdiction: All horses entered in the Belmont Stakes must be moved to a special barn by Wednesday; the barn will be guarded and have a single point of entry; entry and exit logs will be maintained to record any entry to a stall, including by the horse’s trainer; there will be searches and checks of any equipment, food, hay or bales of straw; best of all, no beverages or food for human consumption will be permitted near a stall.
Are these changes - in effect only for one race, the Belmont Stakes - ones necessitated by threats, evidence of wrongdoing, or perhaps something questionable about the running of the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes? If so, such reasons were not disclosed by Sabini, nor were there any media reports to that effect. Rather, we should be viewing these steps in the lens of the takeover of New York racing by Governor Cuomo on May 22. Cuomo’s action followed an Interim Audit by the Racing and Wagering Board that concluded that NYRA had improperly withheld 26% from exotic wagers instead of the permitted 25% for over a year, with the incorrect amount known by senior NYRA officials. The Governor’s solution to improving the quality and integrity of New York racing is to put state government in charge.
While I have been questioning both the wisdom and likely effectiveness of such a move (see blogs here and here), Cuomo’s action has not been met with the level of scrutiny one would expect from New York’s media. I view the Belmont Stakes protocols as motivated less by a desire to ensure the integrity of the race than a need to show that the takeover was more than a naked power grab. If integrity is the true motivation, why are these procedures in place for just one of the thousands of races run in New York each year? Is a race that could produce the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years more susceptible to abuse than, say, a $7,500 claiming event at Aqueduct during February? If the integrity of the race is the true concern, what does it say about those state officials now controlling racing that this is the only race that warrants this level of protections? If you believe racing is that prone to corruption, why not apply the same protocols to every race?
I think I’ll Have Another is a very good horse who has an excellent shot at becoming that elusive Triple Crown winner. But other horses of recent years about whom one could make the same statement have failed in their bid - Big Brown, Smarty Jones and Silver Charm come to mind - and some outstanding horses have not done it - Spectacular Bid and Sunday Silence. Should I’ll Have Another come up short, the critics will be legion in arguing it was because there were no illegal steps taken by his connections. Should he win, we can expect the New York officials who now rule racing to be gloating because it was a clean result. So, which one of these results is going to further the interests of racing in the United States? In either case the focus will be on shenanigans and not the horse.
I believe firmly that racing should be clean, fair and free of drugs to the extent reasonable. What New York officials have done, however, is focus the spotlight on the unsavory aspects of the sport even though there is no reason to do so. In their zeal to put their stamp on the unwise takeover of racing, they have again demonstrated - in a remarkably short time span - they are on a par with the Vatican when it comes to authoritarian mindlessness.