The storied Blue Ribbon Kentucky Derby Analysis has returned and is up on the Horse Racing page.
In a sport facing multiple important issues, the marriage of jockeys Katie Davis and Trevor McCarthy would be unlikely to hit anyone’s radar screen. But when the newly married couple decided to ride in New York on January 1, they were probably as surprised as the rest of us to learn of an antiquated rule: state regulations provide that when both are entered in a race, they must be a coupled entry regardless of common ownership of the horses simply because they are married to one another.
For those not fully conversant with the arcana of horse racing, a “coupled entry” means that two (or more) horses will run as a single betting interest to avoid possible collusion. It has been most often employed when separate horses have a common ownership interest. It used to be that a trainer with two or more horses had to run as an entry even if there were no common ownership. But it is a rule that has been loosened over the years, so that most stake races no longer couple horses even when owned by the same individual and trained by the same trainer.
The regulation of the New York State Gaming Commission provides:
All horses trained or ridden by a spouse, parent, issue or member of a jockey’s household shall be coupled in the betting with any horse ridden by such jockey.
Davis is the daughter of a trainer, sister to another, and sister of a jockey. When riding against a sibling or a horse trained by her father or brother, there is no coupled entry. It is only marriage that has affected her business (as well as that of McCarthy).
The rule is ludicrous on its face. If prior to marrying, McCarthy and Davis had – forgive me while I blush – cohabited, they would have been required to be a coupled entry on the track if not in the eyes of the law. While their relationship may have been widely known on the backstretch or in the racing office – and I neither know nor care if it were – there was no pari-mutuel implication.
Racing has enough issues that warrant further investigation. Every time I see the name of trainer Wayne Potts in the entries I wonder why New York allows him to train at its tracks when he has been banned elsewhere for falsifying his claim to be actually training the horse. Need I mention drugs? When a trainer with multiple violations (including 58 in Saratoga in one year) is elected to the Hall of Fame, and this year’s ballot includes a trainer recently suspended for a drug violation following close to four dozen other violations, one may think it is only trivial matters that attract the attention of regulators.
Racing does not need to be involved in the legitimate, personal lives of its participants. If they actually believe that a married couple may collude during a race, some one should point out that there are stewards who observe the actual running of a race and can take enforcement action if they suspect collusion. Even if the stewards fail to pay attention, there is an army of losing bettors who will raise the issue.
The racing world is a collection of close knit communities around the country. Its insularity means that a lot is known about the personal behavior of its participants, by both those on the backstretch and in the offices. Do we really want a world where jockeys are called into the racing office and asked if they have been living together in recent weeks? Or should it be treated like other behavior (illegal drugging) that folks prefer it to go unmentioned. It is beyond absurd that a public and legally sanctioned relationship is punished, while private ones that, nonetheless, violate the rule are not punished. Indeed, the regulation is simply unenforceable – until that cohabiting couple marries.
I think there can be little doubt that one of the riders in the marriage has been punished. Katie Davis has said that NYRA’s Racing Office has discouraged trainers from selecting Davis because the race might not go because of insufficient entries, according to a Bill Finley piece in the February 7 Thoroughbred Daily News. After what must have been an exhaustive investigation, Pat McKenna, NYRA’s spokesperson said her accusations “are completely false and without merit” according to Finley’s reporting. McKenna added that “NYRA has consistently advocated for modernized rules regarding coupled entries….”
Trevor McCarthy has been the more accomplished jockey and is going to get his share of mounts. Katie Davis has the same issue other less-experienced riders have in attracting mounts. In what has to be a supreme irony, Finley reported that she lost her first win on a disqualification – after her brother Dylan claimed foul against her.
Finley also observed that enforcement of the antiquated rule may be costing NYRA in its handle, calculating that for every reduced betting interest because of the coupling rule it may be losing $90,000 per race. We know that field size is an important consideration for every track since larger fields increase the betting handle and the track’s revenue. It is why NYRA instituted reforms following a spike in catastrophic injuries, preventing the Racing Office from having a say in whether a vet could scratch a horse in a pre-race exam. (Unfortunately, it went in the other direction when it increased the purse-to-claiming ratio that its Medical Examiner acknowledged heightened the risk for horses.)
Despite NYRA’s spokesperson claiming the organization’s vigorous interest in updating coupling policies, it is New York’s Gaming Commission that has the responsibility for regulations. Expecting that body to act promptly on anything is a fool’s errand. As one example, it has been considering revisions to the rule regarding the usage of the whip. You know, the same topic that has been addressed by other major racing organizations is recent months. The Commission’s Chairperson actually said at its December, 2019 meeting that it has been considering this matter since 2015 — seriously.
This is a body that redefines soporific. It has had just two meetings this year and has yet to even raise this matter. Joe Biden signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on day 51 of his administration. It is now 117 days since this ridiculous rule has been adversely affecting two jockeys, trainers, owners and bettors.
So Katie Davis will just have to suffer her potential loss of income until the NYRA and the Commission decide whether they really care about this injustice and take simple steps to correct it.
The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce is advocating that Broadway be closed on Travers Day and Whitney Day to allow for a street festival. In their new house organ, Saratoga Report, they boast of pressuring the City Council to close Henry Street, a small street two blocks away so the bars and restaurants there could have expanded outdoor seating.
I think there are good reasons why closing Broadway for weekend days in warm weather so there could be outdoor dining makes a lot of sense. What does not make sense, however, is promoting a “festival” where crowds will throng downtown for “dining,” and bars with takeout service, on track days that typically attract large crowds.
If you think the crowds will not come because the track is closed to spectators, consider the “Chowder Fest.” This annual event, on the first Saturday in February, features long lines outside restaurants and bars to get a two-ounce cup of their chowder made especially for this occasion. I am not making this up; it’s actually one of my favorite days. But temperatures can be below zero and/or it can be snowing. Still the crowds come. The last time I went, the crowds on the sidewalks of Broadway were so packed it was nearly impossible to walk down them.
So, bump the thermometer by 80 degrees, make it a sunny day, and add the hype that always accompanies these race days. Do you think Broadway will be jammed, despite the Chamber’s suggestion that “crowds are limited to ensure safe distancing?” Right.
Crowds will not be limited, but rather attracted by the prospect of a big outdoor party. The experience in the numerous hot spots around the country is that it is the fun events that attract the big crowds that inevitably have a lot of irresponsible conduct. Will Chamber members be taking temperatures at the many access points to Broadway and then monitoring compliance with social distancing and mask wearing? No, I did not think so.
Tracks that have “re-opened” have quickly experienced their own issues. Lone Star Park in Texas celebrated their resumption with a photograph of spectators standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the rail. They have now closed again because of an “abundance of caution.” While I have not seen a specific reason from the track, we can assume that positives showed up among either track workers or racing folks.
Monmouth Park on the Jersey shore obtained permission from the state government to admit spectators. The track thought that meant 15,000 people. The state responded with a “not so fast,” so the actual number was south of 3,000. While masks were required for spectators, Bill Finley reports in Thoroughbred Daily News that he saw few masks by the end of the day, and there was no apparent effort to enforce the requirement. For the Haskell, the track’s big day, there will only be 500 general admissions sold.
Saratoga Springs has been fortunate in not having a major problem with fatalities and Covid-19 positives. This is in large part attributable to the leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo and his constant calls for responsible behavior. There is no national leadership apart from Dr. Fauci (whose name sake horse just won at Keeneland). Inexplicably, common sense safety measures have become a politicized matter.
But it is foolhardy to think that Saratoga Springs is immune from the terrifying spike in cases (and deaths) from around the country. This is not the time to relax our guard, particularly with events likely to attract people from around the country. The Chamber of Commerce should promote long-tern economic recovery and not leap at the first shiny object that presents itself.
We are approaching the completion of a full year of debate, concern and apprehension over the future of racing in the United States sparked by the fatalities at Santa Anita in the early part of 2019. A common trope among industry insiders to deflect public skepticism is that “we love our horses.” As with any generality, there are elements of truth in that sentiment but, as with any generality, it is not universally true.
Recent developments from New York will cause outside observers to question that commitment when top level figures in the sport do not even treat humans with respect and dignity — let alone meet legal obligations. The state’s Department of Labor has announced that it recovered almost $1 million in “stolen wages, damages and penalties” from, among others, trainers Chad Brown, Kiaran McLaughlin, Linda Rice and Jimmy Jerkens.
Among the allegations against Brown is that he violated federal and state laws by “knowingly” charging workers from other countries who need special visas $1,500 in cash per worker. It is not Brown’s first brush with wage or immigration violations. It was announced during the summer that the United States had reached a settlement in which he agreed to pay $1.6 million in lost wages, penalties and immigration violations.
Brown, of course, is one of the top trainers in the United States. He has won almost $30 million in purses this year alone, and led the nation the past two years with purse winnings of $27.5 million and $26.2 million. In the same summer he was assessed that $1.5 million by the United States, he was nonetheless able to scrape together enough coin to pay $1.5 million for a premier property in Saratoga that borders the track. He could walk to work if he decides to live there.
Below is where stable hands live while at Saratoga. They can also walk to work since they live in the stable area.
In fairness to the New York Racing Association, they have done a great job in recent years to upgrade the dormitory facilities such as the one depicted above.
Just to be clear: the almost $90 million in purses that Brown’s horses have earned in the past three years is not what is used to pay his employees. That is the amount that his owners and Brown get over their expenses. Brown’s owners pay a daily rate that goes to the employees, so they also are benefitting from Brown’s cheating or — to use New York’s language — stealing from the workers.
The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has released a statement in which they assert that “no small business is perfectly run” and are subject to an array of “confusing” rules and a “challenging timekeeping environment.” It is an organization that represents trainers and owners in New York.
Their argument is ludicrous. Chad Brown is not a “small businessman” in any sense of the word. On a sunny day in August, I stood at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and counted 16 of Brown’s horses coming out for a workout. That’s 16 exercise riders on horses in what are typically multiple sets during morning training. I would be willing to wager that the vast majority of New York’s trainers do not have 16 horses, let alone have the money to pay that number of exercise riders for a multiple sets.
If someone with hundreds of million dollars in revenue cannot keep track of his employees, he or she is not going to survive for long. As much as his competitors may hope otherwise, Brown is not going anywhere soon — unless it is to the winner’s circle. Brown may simply view law violations as a cost of business after you get caught.
And it is those competitors – many of whom are legitimately running small businesses, who are going out of business because they cannot compete with the behemoths such as Brown and the other “super-trainers.” One of those super-trainers is Steve Asmussen. He has been found liable for his third violation of cheating his workers, even though he has been running second to Brown in purse earnings in recent years, having won purses totaling over $70 million in the last three years.
If NYTHA is truly concerned about the small trainers, they should welcome the crackdown on the cheats and frauds in the business.
Just as important, however, is that it is yet another black eye for a sport that desperately needs positive attention. Much has been made of NHL hockey star Erik Johnson’s paying the medical bills to save one of his horses who recently broke down at Del Mar. His efforts are, of course, commendable, but the fact that the racing media views it as noteworthy means that it is not typical.
What would be even more newsworthy would be if Chad Brown’s or Steve Asmussen’s owners publicly denounced either for not treating their human employees in accordance with the law, and with respect and dignity. We are speaking of businessmen who have made enough money that they can spend millions on horses that either Brown or Asmussen would agree to train. Regrettably, they may not be interested in paying more on their daily rate to ensure fair treatment of those who care for the horses.
But, at least for now, can we stop pretending that powerful figures in racing love their horses when they do not have the same attitude for our fellow humans?
A horse was euthanized on the racetrack at Saratoga on Sunday after it collapsed during the running of the sixth race. The race was for $25,000 claimers in which the purse had been increased as a result of the New York Gaming Commission’s weakening of a rule intended to protect the safety of horses (and riders).
The rule in question is referred to as the “purse-to-price ratio.” It refers to the purse value of a claiming race in comparison to the claiming price for a horse in that race. In a race for $25,000 claimers, a 1.8 ratio means that the purse could not be greater than $45,000. The purse in this race, however, was $52,000.
While this may appear to be an esoteric matter of little consequence, it became a major matter in 2012 when Aqueduct experienced a significant increase in fatalities. The deaths resulted in a Task Force being appointed to investigate the causes and make recommendations. A potential cause of fatalities identified by the Task Force’s Report was horses being entered in claiming races in which the total purse value of a race far exceeded the claiming price assigned to the horse. The Task Force concluded that
“this imbalance contributed to perceptions that horses were being entered in claiming races beyond their level of competition and forced to perform to the point of serious injury or death…. Accordingly, the Task Force believes that the purse to claim price ratio should be no greater than 1.6, in which the value of the horse is approximately equal to the winner’s share of the purse, and that the Rule should be amended accordingly.”
Governor Cuomo agreed with the Task Force’s determination on the 1.6 ratio, explicitly citing it when he issued a statement ordering implementation of the Report’s recommendations in September, 2012.
Dr. Scott Palmer, DVM, who chaired the Task Force, however, had a different perspective. Three days after the Governor’s order, he wrote a memo to justify supporting a higher ratio of 2.0. His statement at that time is indicative of his thinking – both then and now – on the relative balance between equine safety and the economic considerations for racetracks, stating that “the Task Force did not consider the business model of Aqueduct in a competitive environment for racehorses.”
The ratio remained at 2.0 until this year when the Gaming Commission – at the urging of Dr. Palmer, now New York’s Equine Medical Director – weakened the rule and permitted ratios greater than 2.0. They did this even though Dr. Palmer said at a Commission meeting in July:
“… there’s some very good research that’s shown that there’s an increased amount of risk of catastrophic injury for horses in claiming races where the purse to price ratio is greater than 1.8 to one. This is a very sound piece of scientific information….”
Despite what he recognized as an increased risk to horses and jockeys, Palmer believed his proposed rule change would cause more horsemen to remain in New York rather than ship to a mid-Atlantic track, thereby increasing field size – for the economic benefit of the track. That this justification is identical to the one rejected by the Task Force, however, apparently did not factor into Palmer’s advocacy for the change in the ratio.
I am not suggesting that the increase in the purse for this race is what caused the horse’s death – even if the rule had not been relaxed, he could have run for a $50,000 purse. But a fatal breakdown in an event with an increased purse level was inevitable from the moment the Gaming Commission approved the weakening of the rule.
At a time when racing is facing increased scrutiny following the rise in fatalities at Santa Anita, a change that increases the risk to horses and jockeys is not only short-sighted but foolhardy. I am not the one who connected increased risk to purse levels. It was Dr. Palmer who despite saying it was a “very sound piece of scientific evidence” nonetheless advocated forcefully for a change he believed would inure to the economic benefit of a racetrack.
Dr. Rick Arthur, California’s Equine Medical Director, was interviewed on NPR during the Santa Anita crisis and said, “if we don’t make racing safer, I don’t think the public’s going to allow us to continue the sport.” New York’s Gaming Commission and its Equine Medical Director have shown they are oblivious to the worsening perception of the sport and placed horses and jockey at greater risk.
The Belmont Stakes Blue Ribbon Analysis is up on the Horse Racing Page.
The famed Blue Ribbon Analysis is up on the Horse Racing page.
The Blue Ribbon Derby Analysis is up on the Horse Racing page.
President Donald Trump on April 9, 2018:
“It’s an attack on our country….It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
Trump is talking about:
a) A hostile nation interfering in the 2016 election for President; or
b) A search warrant approved by a federal judge allowing law enforcement to continue an investigation into possible criminal conduct by a member of Trump’s inner circle?
L’etat c’est moi.