By Margaret Ransom
He has seen the sport of Thoroughbred racing change drastically in the past few decades. Here, he discusses some of the important issues facing his fellow trainers both in his home state and across the country.
In Thoroughbred racing, the name Neil Drysdale is first and foremost synonymous with the concepts of integrity, honor and patience. Secondly, and only a shade shy of those personal standards, are his accolades as being a member of the sport’s elite Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2000, and his guidance of such superstars of the game as Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, champions Princess Rooney, Hollywood Wildcat, Fusaichi Pegasus, and dozens of other standout stakes winners. He’s tightened the girths on the winners of million-dollar races in countries around the world, but has called California his home since taking out his own trainer’s license in 1975.
Drysdale, who began his own storied 32-year training career under the tutelage of the legendary Charlie Whittingham in 1970, is recognized among his peers as a true lover of horses and someone who always puts the well-being of the animal first.
You’ve been training Thoroughbreds for the better part of three decades. How do you think the game has changed most between when you started and now?
Well, off-track wagering and simulcast wagering has certainly increased. But there seems to be a change in marketing the sport correctly. It appears to me that on huge days, there’s big handle, bug crowds and the people come out. It’s what’s in between those days that seem to be the problem.
It doesn’t help that year-round racing has diluted the situation and effectively decreased the fan base. I’m not sure how best to go about reducing racing, but it is a diluted system today.
What are the biggest hurdles facing trainers today?
I don’t know whether there are significant hurdles, but I sincerely believe that synthetic surfaces are a huge leap forward. Now we just need marketing to complete the puzzle. If it’s not addressed there won’t be a whole lot of racing for trainers at all.
What do you think of the “supertrainer” concept? Can a trainer effectively maintain a stable of a couple hundred horses spread out over the U.S.?
In the old days it was impossible because you were limited by the number of stalls you received from the tracks. Now many trainers have different ways of approaching the sport and I don’t think any way is the wrong way. What I enjoy myself is having the horses with me and watching them personally, the old-fashioned way. At one stage I did have divisions and finished, I think, fourth in the country. But despite the outcome I didn’t enjoy it much.
What do you think of the current “bicarbonate” controversy and the testing procedures many states have adopted, including your home state of California?
The one major problem I see is dollars and sense. Is it necessary to test every horse in every race? The answer is no. It’s just not cost-effective the way things are done at this moment. There are more important things that money can be used for.
Obviously we all want a level-playing field and it’s my feeling that we, in this country, need to adopt international standards and we can start with no Lasix. I’ve raced in places where there’s no Lasix and it wasn’t a problem. But everything needs to be equal regardless of what’s eliminated.
And presumably the tests (for any illegal substances) would be more sophisticated which is a big issue that also needs to be addressed.
Do you believe that all racing jurisdictions in the U.S. should adopt uniform medication rules and regulations?
I don’t think it’s all that difficult, it’s just a matter of wanting to do it. So yes, I think so.
Do find steroids are acceptable therapeutic medications?
Yes, but it’s not necessary to race on them. They do have therapeutic value and do treat some horses with anemia or horses that have some weaknesses, but they’re not to be abused. And now we’re going back to international standards and uniform rules. In order to keep up in today’s climate where athletes in other sports are prohibited from using steroids, racing needs to catch up and that means also to abolish any racing on steroids.
All abolishing steroids will do is improve the sport’s perception in the public and the public’s acceptance of the game (as being fair.)
In your opinion, then, has medication clouded the public’s perception of the game?
I do believe all these medication issues and the fact they’re repeatedly brought up in the press are completely meaningless and does nothing but give racing a black eye. It all circles back around. It’s a simple concept; adopt uniform medication rules and international standards.
You’re at Hollywood Park where they’ve installed the state’s first synthetic surface, Cushion Track. Have your horses benefited from the new surface? And are new surfaces a positive step toward the long-term well-being and soundness of horse sin general?
Yes and in California it took a new racing commissioner, Richard Shapiro, to step up and say if tracks didn’t do it then they’d lose their license. I believe (synthetic surfaces) only increase and lengthen horses’ racing careers and in the long term it helps the sport. It may sound trite, but it’s about protecting the beauty and noblesse of the Thoroughbred. Because when you work with these animals every day you realize how unique the Thoroughbred racehorse, protecting them is obviously a very good thing.
Do you think the “Powers That Be” are doing enough to promote the sport and expand interest? Where do you see things in 10 years if things don’t improve? Will racing survive?
Obviously the sport is marketed much better in Australasia and Asia. There they market racing the way they market everything else – in a big way. If things aren’t improved here, the sport will be reduced to just a gambling vehicle and we’ll lose the pageantry and glory of Thoroughbred racing. I have no way of predicting the future, but if we can learn from tracks like Del Mar then that would be a good thing. That track is well-marketed and you’ve seen how it is there – it’s always packed with people. Keeneland is another one that does an exceptional job of marketing and has an excellent marketing team. The people go there as well. So something’s being done right there.
Both facilities run short meetings. Del Mar is seven weeks and Keeneland is six (three in the spring and three in the fall.) So you would think that following their example and reducing racing dates then interest in the sport could only increase.
Also the social aspects of the sport need to be reintroduced, which leads me back to the attendance problem. It’s a very social game and that needs to be promoted as well.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming trainers? Will racing survive?
Racing has survived for more than four centuries. I believe that there will always be Thoroughbred racing in some context or another around the world. I don’t have any advice, but I will say I thoroughly enjoy what I do and I enjoy getting up in the mornings knowing that I get to do what I enjoy the most. And as long as I’m doing it I feel that I’m a very fortunate man.