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TrackNotes

By Thomas Chambers

In baseball or football or basketball, it's easy.

We see those guys, many obscenely overpaid, dog it and style it and then try to explain it and we know they're just mooks. We know who they are and what they are.

But in Thoroughbred horse racing, you have the supreme intangible, the more than half-a-ton beast that has served man for millennia. Who knows which came first? The race, or the idea of betting on it.

And there's one more thing we know. Thoroughbred racing in America has nearly lost site of the very essence of its own sport. The bedrock, the basics. A good, healthy horse; a fearless and crafty rider. And later, a pari-mutuel betting system built primarily on integrity.

It is the best and most thrilling game, when played properly. But it's like the throes of divorce: you still love her, but nothing gets through. There are so many missteps, so many lost opportunities, and so much selfishness, that trust is paper-thin and communication is lost. We horseplayers stick around, hoping for reconciliation, often blinded by the gamble, the wager.

But we all know Thoroughbred horse racing in America is not listening. And we know we're probably fooling ourselves to think that it ever will. These two things, we know.

The rants are as long as your arm. Here are just a few:

Take the Drug Laws
You might argue that the problem in American racing is that there are so many variations from state to state of raceday and non-raceday medication for horses that it's almost impossible for any trainer to keep them straight and abide by the law. But it's really another smokescreen, and the U.S.A. is great at smokescreens. The problem is that there are no efforts or discussions to achieve a drug-free game. No drugs should be allowed in racing, as is practiced in virtually every other racing country on earth. Yet megatons of energy are being wasted on how to streamline the drug system.

In no particular chronological order, you've got the trainers, many of which, including the biggest names, have either been suspected of or suspended for drugs. If there is a drug minimalist among trainers out there, do we know who it is? Do we really believe it?

We have Marty Wolfson. He's one of those guys you've heard ad nauseam about "He's on the up-and-up, a real horse whisperer." Well it seems his It's a Bird was on Aleve (!) when he ran in the Oaklawn Handicap in April. Got caught. $500 fine.

In the report on the inevitable appeal, the lawyers are having more fun with the law than naked Twister.

"The basis (of the appeal) is going to be they did not establish a violation of the regulation and that entire enforcement of the regulation is arbitrary and capricious because it is prosecuting someone who, everyone agreed, did not affect the outcome of the race," [Lexington attorney Mike] Meuser said. "His vet tells him what the longest withdrawal time in the country is [for naproxen] and he turns up positive and it is a level everyone agrees had no effect on the outcome of the race."

And, "The rule has to have some relationship to what is being regulated," Meuser said. "If it doesn't have anything to do with protecting the integrity of the sport, then it is arbitrary."

Apparently, it is agreed that the levels of naproxen found probably would not enhance the performance of the horse, so therefore, the action by the Racing Commission is "arbitrary." But the point is, naproxen is flat out banned in Arkansas. Can't be half married or half pregnant when it comes to naproxen in Arkansas.

We have Steve Asmussen, recent Eclipse Award winner as trainer of the year and trainer currently of Rachel Alexandra and previously Curlin. Oh, and winner in 2008 of more races in a year than any trainer ever. He's fighting the folks in Texas over a race at Lone Star Park after they found a metabolite of lidocaine in Timber Trick in May 2008. But on this one, it really appears he might not have had due process. Again, lidocaine is strictly prohibited in Texas. But it seems you need proof of two metabolites to prove a positive, and they only found one. Asmussen reportedly wanted to submit a blood test to be sure, but was turned down. The commission figured if there's one, there's lidocaine.

I figure he's gonna beat it. Penalty: six months suspension (where his assistant becomes the trainer of record and he still profits) and $1,500. On hold pending the appeals.

We have Richard Dutrow. He's fighting a 30-day suspension over Clenbuterol in his horse Salute the Count, who won the Grade III Aegon Turf Sprint the day before Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby in 2008. You remember Big Brown. Kent Desormeaux bizarrely pulled him up in that year's Belmont Stakes, but much more about that later.

But you know what got Dutrow in trouble with racing authorities more than the drugs? The fact he bragged about milking the appeals process while continuing to train and rake in the dough. So they upped his sentence from 15 days to 30 days.

We have Jeff Mullins, notorious for performing "miracles" with horses he trains for the first time. He thumbed his nose at the game yet again on April 4, giving a breathing aid to Gato Go Win, and then playing dumb. That was the day before his miracle horse I Want Revenge won the Wood Memorial impressively.

I Want Revenge was scratched with an injury from the Kentucky Derby, as the favorite, and has not been seen on the race track since. Some say he'll never run again. His past and current owners are fighting it out about who knew what when. Oh, Mullins' penalty in just that one incident? Seven days, to start the Sunday after the Derby, and $2,500.

We have Patrick Biancone, working now to get back on his feet after completing a suspension after cobra (yeah, the snake) venom was apparently found in one of his barns. Cobra venom is especially bad because it deadens a local area on the horse, who then may hurt himself without even knowing it.

My point is that it's apparent the racing industry does not think it can continue without drugs. They say there's so much racing (too much racing, but that's another topic), drugs are necessary to fill fields. That is debatable. And the racing press, instead of calling for a flat ban on drugs, mires itself in the bickering about testing or the right drugs that can be used. Or waxes nostaglic.

Ban drugs. Now. A 3-year phase-in should be plenty of time.

Take the Stewards, And Then the Jockeys
I can hear Ralphie Wiggum saying it: "Officials in horse racing are called stewards; they're supposed to take care of us."

Seems veteran rider Joe Bravo pulled a fast one, according to New York Post columnist Ray Kerrison and pulled up his horse at a recent race at Monmouth Park. Remember Desormeaux doing the same thing with Big Brown at the 2008 Belmont?

Kerrison makes a good point. Are they saying that, basically, the jockeys never do anything wrong?

I am also convinced that there is an individual jockey at Arlington who either doesn't care to win, is the worst jockey who ever lived, or is trying to influence the final payouts. This winner of a few big races appears to put his horses so out of synch that they become confused. To me, it looks like he'll then make it look good to the wire, with no chance of winning and maybe a good-looking second, of course. Actually, I think he's a good rider, good enough to get away with this. I do not bet him or the races he's in anymore.

Back to the stewards, I'm tired of a horse getting cut off with the offender going scot-free. Once, recently, they declared a winner in what was a certain dead heat. You saw the nonsense if you watched Jockeys, where young Joe Talamo should have been sat down a week for both a bad riding infraction and also to teach the young guy a lesson. What kind of lesson will he take from it?

Let me put it this way. In every other racing jurisdiction in the world, jockeys are held completely accountable for their actions. In Australia, as Kerrison noted, a jockey was recently disciplined because he didn't do his best on a 20-1 shot that finished third. Imagine! We often see jockeys have to answer for their rides when we watch the festival from Dubai each March.

There has been so much inaction and lip service toward race riding in this country that jockeys must only feel as if they can do nothing wrong. The same stupid mistake by Calvin Borel or Stewart Elliott in the Belmont is one thing, but are most jockeys perfect most of the time?

These are the rants du jour. You've also got odds dropping during a race, high takeout, bad breeding, running half the Breeders Cup on a day I can't watch it, the irritating same-color saddle blankets in big races, and artificial surfaces. But the bottom line in the game is that betting handle is going down and it's not just because of the economy.

Civilians are upset about breakdowns and drugs in racing. Anecdotally, you hear of guys who play the game just to gamble, but are moving away from racing because they sense the ineptitude and the cards stacked against them. They're going to poker or something else. Anyone who wants a well-rounded knowledge of the game as a whole, like me, can only be alarmed at the way things are going and the lack of leadership. It's as if racing needs an individual who is so charismatic, they'll all listen to him. A commissioner.

In my own approach, I do not bet nearly as many races as I used to, preferring to bet more on bigger stakes races or competitive races where I know the runners. That eliminates half of each track's race card for me. They're not getting much churn out of me.

That's fine. But I wonder just how much longer the game is going to survive.

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Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021