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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Snap Out of It

- A couple of items from a couple of conferences going on this week. At first glance, I got depressed when I saw the headline of Matt Hegarty's story Study: Racing boosts track slots, regarding a panel at the Symposium on Racing at the University of Arizona. Not only, would it seem, are slots not helping business at the parimutuel windows, but it's the other way around, at least according to this report. And it is sobering for sure to think that there are any dollars being diverted from the handle and going to slot machines instead. I think that's the kind of money that you and I would like to see remain in the pools.

However, as Hegarty points out:

The study could be used by racetracks and horsemen's groups as a lobbying tool for protecting slot-machine subsidies for the racing industry. Those subsidies could easily be targeted for a reduction by many states during the current economic downturn, which is putting pressure on states to raise revenues from rapidly contracting budgets. [Daily Racing Form]
It's been my fear all along that those subsidies would eventually be targeted, not for a reduction, but for elimination altogether, along with the requirement that slots be attached to a racetrack in the first place. But if this study, based solely on a study at Prairie Meadows (which, it would seem to me, is a potentially fatal flaw) is corroborated in other states, then racing would be seen as a boon rather than a burden. Perhaps the tracks and horsemen could even gain some leverage with the states in negotiating its share of the profits.

At the convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners in San Diego, Craig Dado, the VP of marketing at Del Mar, moderated a panel regarding a study showing that 42 percent of core fans "say performance-enhancing drugs are a serious problem."
"We can't talk our way out of the problem," Dado said. "We have zero credibility right now."

Dado said racing could go the way of Tylenol, which responded prudently to a product tampering case years ago, or boxing, which Dado said "ignored warning signs over integrity."

Dado said that "unless there is meaningful, swift, decisive, and transparent action," then "a significant portion of fans will abandon the sport." [DRF]
Alex Waldrop was supposed to moderate this panel, but was absent due to a death in the family. A couple of comments on things Dado said:

For one thing, this idea that a "significant" number of fans are massing by the exit doors because of drugs is, in my opinion, pure poppycock. There has been cheating in the sport for as long as it exists; why now would devoted (and degenerate) horseplayers suddenly pull the plug? It didn't take long for me to find an article in the NY Times archive to support that point. The report is from May of 1903.
With the race horse Dr. Riddle dead from an excessive dose of "dope," as the drugs used
to stimulate horses to their extreme of speed are designated technically, and the
stable connections of the horse in question under suspension pending final action by
the stewards of The Jockey Club, the most flagrant scandal in the use
of drugs
that has been brought to lights since racing officials prohibited the employment of "dope"
was brought into notice at the Morris Park racecourse yesterday. Dr. Riddle raced in the name of J. Gardner and was a starter in the second event of yesterday's programme, a selling race at seven furlongs over the Withers Mile, in which fourteen horses ran. The horse was ridden by the light-weight jockey Sailing, and was backed for a "killing" by the stable connection, but attracted attention in the paddock by his peculiar actions, as he required two men to handle him when he was saddled and seemed then to be almost uncontrollable.
The horse died a few hours later, and trainer William Howell took the rap.
The charge of "doping" was regarded as practically proved against Howell before the death of Dr. Riddle. Under the recent rule adopted by The Jockey Club, the penalty is expulsion from the turf. It is intimated, also, that the Sociey for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also will be called to act in the matter.
If "expulsion from the turf" didn't do the trick, 30 day "suspensions" in which an assistant takes over sure won't!

As always, I'm not saying that drugs are not a problem that needs to be addressed. But I think that Dado's rather extreme comments are symptomatic of the paralyzing funk that the industry has been thrown into by Eight Belles' death and, to some extent, the flap over steroids soon after. I don't sense any thrust toward marketing, just this constant hand-wringing, stemming in part by what I see as an irrational fear of punitive actions by a Congress with far, far more important items on the agenda. It's been a frenzy of self-contrition, studies, and committees being fueled I believe by a racing press and blogosphere that's turned as bleak in mood as a December home crowd at a Jets game.

I mean, are you telling me that someone is actually spending valuable time on a study showing that 42% think that drugs are a serious problem?? Yeah, so, duh? Been to a racetrack lately and listened to those around you? C'mon man, these are gamblers, hello! For one thing, at least 42% of those people absolutely love the cheating - it gives them something to bitch about! They'd probably quit the sport if they couldn't complain about the juice - then they'd have to blame themselves for being losers! And what percentage of football gamblers do you think would say that performance-enhancing drugs are a problem in their sport? Or baseball fans? Or ask some basketball bettors and fans if they think the refs are on the up-and-up. But I don't see those league executives holding their heads in their hands; they address the problem - adequately or not as the case may be - while continuing to market their sports.

And secondly with respect to Dado's remarks, seven people were randomly murdered in the 1982 Tylenol poisonings to which he refers. That's hardly an appropriate comparison, and many people would classify Johnson and Johnson's response more as PR than prudence.

Hmmm, perhaps racing should take a look at that after all..


o_crunk said...

The Eight Belles and steroids controversies of the past year probably did not swing many who were core fans to begin with.

It's the endless articles about the Jayne Vaders' of the game who are ruled off tracks and then, a short time later, allowed back in for whatever nonsense reason, continuing their shady business as if nothing had happened.

The further away you get from the Derby Trail, out of the mainstream blog and press coverage, the more blatant the violators. Some of these ho-hum podunk tracks have trainers winning at close to 50% clips with large swaths of starters.

It's a mockery - just the same as Barry Bonds hitting 70 something home runs was a mockery. Baseball black balled him for that, going outside the rules, and started coming up with punishments that fit the crime for those who were dumb enough to be caught.

The game, as it stands today, gives the appearance of welcome those Barry Bonds types.

El Angelo said...

In terms of racing's perception amongst the masses, the problem isn't drug use, it's that plenty of people think races are fixed. That's a much tougher one to solve, and it's what's killed harness racing, I think.

Nick said...

Over the past year or so the idea of taking away subsidies, or simply shutting down racing at Prairie Meadows altogether, has been floated more than a few times. Nevermind that the casino would never have been there without the track.

The comments on the online version of these articles have been overwhelmingly in favor of getting rid of the racing. Since Prairie Meadows is the only track within driving distance for me, it sure makes me uneasy.

Anonymous said...

I see the ship sinking on account of the industry ignorance. Drug use, and yes race fixing, are not perception but reality. How can we get evryone to just play fair? If all the cheaters say it is not possible, because they won't believe the other guy has stopped, then just shut it down.

TurfRuler said...

Being a racing fan since 1978 I did know that drugs were being used to dope horses, but not in 1903. I wondered if they spoonzed the horses nostrils in 1903, that is take towels and placed them in the animals nose values.

I have read the largest circulation newspaper daily, have researched horse racing, and I have even joined many web sites exclusively related to horse racing, reading their message boards and blogs. Your quote from the 1903 article surprised me.

Even in contemporary culture I have found little about drugs being used on horse racing or cheating by owners, trainers and jockeys. Of course popular television programs and movies have shown fiction account of cheating. Jockeys have been banned for life for using batteries and not riding to win, even betting against the horse they are riding, but this has not filtered down to me the average Joe who attends racing events. Those frat fellows who programmed the win bet at the Breeders Cup a couple of years ago, hacking into a main computer to produce winning tickets does not enter into your way of thinking I suppose.

Your attempt to trivialize a serious issue in racing does not do credit to the journalist profession. I guess you are not aware of the mutual odds swing on race track tote boards.

Of course you are not a journalist, you only tell true stories that are from your point of view. No I've already snapped. You sir, Snap Out of It and stop denying that there is a problem in racing that has to be fixed, especially the bilking of the racing fans, gamblers or just the occasional player or hobbyist by trainers that juice their charges.

alan said...

TurfRuler - Fair points, though I don't believe I've trivialized the problem (though I admittedly don't take this all quite as seriously as some). My points were that drug use is nothing new, and that the gentleman from Del Mar was over dramatizing its potential short term consequences; and that the industry needs to be able to juggle the issue with other ones, and not become bogged down with guilt and shame over a single over-publicized breakdown. Thanks much for stopping by and for the thoughtful comment.

Steve Zorn said...

I've lost the reference, but I recall that early 20th-century American trainer John(?) Keane was banned in Russia after a saliva sample was taken from his horse, injected into a frog (that was the test lab of the day), and the frog evidenced what the stewards called "most unfroglike behavior." Yes, the problem has been around for a while.

Meanwhile, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation is peddling "Hay, Oats and Water" t-shirts. Maybe I should wear one to the next NY Thoroughbred Horsemen's Ass'n meeting and see if I survive the trainers' wrath. :)

Anonymous said...


You'll survive wearing the shirt, it's those without that will be stripped naked soon enough.