There may not be many silver linings to a once-prominent trainer being sentenced to five years in a federal prison for doping violations or to the ongoing saga of Bob Baffert and Medina Spirit. But one salutary aspect appears to be a growing sense that it is not just trainers and veterinarians who bear sole responsibility for drug violations but owners as well. While that may obvious, so far there have been no legal consequences for owners other than losing a purse following a medication violation.
That may finally be changing. Last week two prominent racing media sites have singled out one owner for using a trainer with a history of multiple drug violations. I have a great deal of respect for The Paulick Report and Thoroughbred Daily News for their coverage of horse welfare issues, particularly when it comes to medication matters. The owner referenced is Joe Appelbaum who used Jose C. Vazquez as a trainer. Appelbaum is a significant figure in horse racing as the President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. But he is not even remotely in the same league as the more prominent owners who time and again entrust their horses with questionable trainers.
Appelbaum was pilloried for his racing operation, Off The Hook, using Vazquez as its trainer. I do not know either Appelbaum or Vazquez personally, and was frankly not aware of Vazquez’ reputation. So I went to the database thoroughbredrulings.com to ascertain his record. I only looked at the past four years and learned that Vazquez was listed in multiple rulings by state racing authorities, many of which can be categorized as minor or paperwork infractions. Five, however, were for medication positives over that period of time. He was also denied a license by the New York State Gaming Commission on April 18, 2018, without a detailed explanation for the reason. Since he is now racing in New York, the license was subsequently granted, again without any stated reason, vague or otherwise.
I asked NYTHA for a response to the Paulick and TDN reports and received an answer from Appelbaum directly. (It is not clear to me that either Paulick or TDN sought a comment from him.) While recognizing that the criticism of him could be valid for giving Vazquez a “second chance,” he also acknowledges that he is held to a higher standard. He has now transferred their horse to a new trainer, following an “independent veterinary screening (including blood work).”
As I said, I know nothing of Vazquez. I am leery of ascribing negative connotations to anyone based on rumors or reputation. Since 2018, while Vazquez has been cited for five medication violations, there have been none since February 27, 2020. Coincidentally, Bob Baffert has had five violations in the one year commencing May 1, 2020, working for some of the most prominent owners in the business.
In his statement to me, Joe Appelbaum accepted responsibility for retaining Vazquez. He also responded to my query promptly (within hours on a Friday afternoon) and exhibited the transparency that is so rare in racing. Would that New York’s State Gaming Commission had the same level of accountability. After all, they granted Vazquez a license after denying him with no meaningful explanation in early 2018.
Racing has plenty of room for examining the accountability of owners as I argued in this post about owners much more prominent than Joe Appelbaum. And it must be done with transparency.
As Appelbaum concluded in his response to me, “[M]aybe we should each ask ourselves; What have I done for the welfare of our horses?”