A friend writes from Saratoga: "It's great to be here but also sort of depressing, given the endless
stream of bad news. Between Joe Drape and the State of New York, my love
for racing is hard to maintain these days."
And it's true, it's tough times for the morale of us horseplayers around here, with the impending state takeover of the NYRA Board, and the steady drumbeat of speculative and repetitive NY Times articles absurdly elevated to front page status. (Except of course the article on the Senate hearing on doping, which was unprominently placed on the front page of the sports section. What should have been the holy grail in the Times' campaign to eradicate drugs and medication was clearly not sensational enough for the front page, lacking in horse deaths and trainer intrigue and shenanigans as it was. Besides, had it been on the front page, Joe Drape probably would have had to report that only one Senator attended the hearing in its entirety with a handful of others drifting in briefly. And that would surely put a damper on the urgency that the Times has been trying to manufacture. This is quite obviously not the hot-button issue in Washington that the Times has tried to make it out to be, and it's surely questionable as to whether any federal intervention will ever occur. And besides, wouldn't the Republicans in the House decry this as excessive government regulation of business?)
But man, it's time for the boutique meetings at Saratoga and Del Mar, my favorite time of the year....and, if everything works out, I'll be lucky enough to make an appearance at both. So you gotta try and look on the bright side. Or, at least, try not to dwell too much on the bad side. With that in mind, let's try the following:
While the Times' series has surely cast a pall on the proceedings, it's my guess that, as far as illegal drugs and medication goes, the sport is no more or less fucked up than it ever has been. In fact, I would hope it's probably not quite as lawless as in the past. That may or may not be of any consolation to many of you. Personally though, and as I've mentioned more than once here (while acknowledging that I don't bet as much nor take it all as seriously as some), when I wager my hard-earned money on dumb animals owned and controlled by human beings (who we know as a highly corrupt species), I have no expectations whatsoever that everything is on the up and up. And nor is that, obviously, a condition for me to participate. This is a game that has always featured scamps and scoundrels, many of whom have been described throughout the years as 'characters' or 'colorful'; and, I dunno, isn't that all part of the fun? From my earliest days on the apron at Roosevelt, we were always attempting to figure who's "trying" or not; and it was with a smile that we would yell "JUUUUUICE" as the latest Oscar Barrera. claim would come roaring down the stretch after moving up several levels off the claim. Even if every drug magically disappeared tomorrow, trainers would still cheat. Should they be banned for life for running a horse in conditions in which he/she knows it will fail in order to score a big price next time out?
Of course however, if medications, legal or illegal, are causing horses to break down, then that's a different story. Joe Drape tells us that "many" of the horses who died in the spate of injuries at the Big A over the winter "had been injected repeatedly with pain medication in the days and weeks before their breakdowns." But that's just another "stat" (though the number is unspecified here) without context, and longtime readers know how I feel about that. The context is this: Tell me also how many horses who did not break down in those same races in which the deceased animals participated were also receiving the same or similar treatments. At the low level that many of the deaths took place, my educated guess is that the percentages would be similar. If that number is significantly less for the surviving horses however, then come and tell me about it. Before then though, keep your meaningless drivel to yourself. And off the front page of my favorite newspaper, please!
As far as the NYRA Board members who will be appointed after the Saratoga meet goes, it was highly disturbing to read, in Paul Post's Saratogian piece of July 3, names like Jeff Perlee, who was deeply involved in the Friends of New York Racing/Empire Racing scam, and Sandy Frucher, so highly effective in his stint at NYCOTB. However, other prospective board members mentioned were solid racing people who would have the best interests of the sport at heart. Too early to jump to any dire conclusions thus far.
Of course though, with politicians in control, we can expect bad things to happen no matter what the board ultimately looks like. I'd think there's a decent chance that, after the three years, racing in New York will take place at Saratoga from July 4 through Labor Day and at Belmont the rest of the year. That would suck, but it's probably inevitable anyway.
But by far the biggest threat to the sport in New York is the reduction or elimination of slots money turned over the tracks and horsemen. Ominously, we saw some Chris Christie-ian language in a report issued by the Franchise Oversight Board a few weeks ago.
The board said NYRA must devise a strategy "to end its reliance on VLT subsidies and immediately develop plans on how it will meet this goal." [Bloodhorse]However, the composition of the NYRA Board will have nothing to do with this, nor with actions on takeout. Those matters are written into state law, and would have to be changed by the legislature. That's a complex matter, with many lawmakers representing districts with racetracks and/or horsemen to consider. Cuomo can introduce a change in the law, but it's surely unclear how it would play out.
Whatsmore, I think that the change at NYRA will alter the dynamics of the debate. No longer will NYRA be viewed as a symbol of dysfunction and corruption, everything wrong about racetracks in the state. It will be the state's creation, presumably completely above board. No longer will it serve as a whipping boy for politicians and newspaper editorial boards. With that element removed from the equation, perhaps, and hopefully, the focus can shift to any attempt to reduce VLT revenue as the job-killing measure it would be, and put a more human face on the horsemen and women who would be affected. Maybe.
We can only hope. In the meantime, we should enjoy the great racing in beautiful settings, and try not to worry about that which we cannot yet, or possibly ever, control. So, as Joe Mantegna said in David Mamet's overlooked gem Things Change, "Let's gamble!"