By Giles Anderson
I can’t quite believe that it’s just over six years since Sid Fernando first wrote his quarterly column for North American Trainer. The Triple Crown 2018 issue (number 49) was his last with us, and his regular thoughts can now be found in a bi-monthly column in the excellent Thoroughbred Daily News.
But, before we unveil our new columnist in our “Breeders’ Cup” / Fall issue later this year, I thought it would be interesting to read through the Sid’s old columns here and pick out two to revisit. With 25 to choose from, narrowing the list down has certainly proven to be a tough choice!
Sid’s first column was published in our Triple Crown 2012 issue (24) under the headline of “Scratching beneath the surface of the injury debate.” This was at the time when the New York Times and writer Joe Drape were at their most vociferous about racing, drug issues, and a correlation between breakdowns on track. In the column, The Jockey Club’s president and CEO James L. Gagliano was quoted (New York Times) as saying that “The Jockey Club continues to believe that horses should run only when they are free from the influence of medication and that there should be no place in this sport for those who repeatedly violate medication rules.”
I’m sure that the powers that be will continue to beat the same drum, and they are right to do so. But six years on, it would be fair to say that we’ve become far more aware of those who violate rules on multiple occasions, and perhaps the industry as a whole isn’t as tolerant as it was six years ago towards the minority of trainers who do flout the rules.
But in all this time, have we made up enough ground to educate the wider public on what is acceptable for the purpose of medicating animals as opposed to drugs with the intent of enhancing performance?
Sid’s article also included analysis from studies conducted by the now defunct Thoroughbred Times, which clearly showed how the risk to injury / “incident” rate was greatly reduced when horses ran on a synthetic surface compared to a conventional dirt surface.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen an updated variation of the same analysis, and indeed the trend is still there. It’s just a shame that synthetic surfaces seem to have fallen somewhat out of fashion.
Fast forward to the August -- October 2015 issue (37), where Sid came up with what, for me, was one of his most thought provoking columns. It first appeared in 2015, just after we had our first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. In his column, Sid compared the state of the wagering industry in Affirmed’s Triple Crown-winning year of 1978 against 2015, American Pharoah’s year.
The key points of the column are succinctly covered in the following four paragraphs:
If 1978 was a watershed year until American Pharoah in 2015, consider this about the 1970s: It was also a time when racetrack handle funded purses and the pari-mutuel tax was the major gambling revenue generator for state governments. In stark contrast, this isn't the case today.
Truth be told, under the nostalgic gold-plating of the 1970s, there were chinks in its armor that are gaping holes now. It was, for instance, the era when Lasix was legally introduced, and what a lightning rod for controversy that's become now. More significantly, though, it was the era of the Interstate Horse Racing Act (IHA) of 1978, a piece of federal legislation enacted to address on-track pari-mutuel declines -- big signs of future trouble -- as technology spawned the growing phenomenon of simulcast wagering and the growth of Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) platforms across state lines.
Between 1978 and 2015, a Trojan horse -- the racino -- entered the game as state governments looked for other opportunities to boost coffers. And like a "pusher" in a 1970s playground, the racino hooked racing, already weakened through years of neglect and relegated to the fringe from the mainstream as a "niche" game, by giving it a taste of huge purses from gaming monies. Horsemen got sky high, but at what price? The deal was done in party with state governments in exchange for expanded gaming that competes with racing's core product, gambling. And that gaming money is now funding purses at racinos, and racing is as dependent on it as a junkie on dope.
Ultimately, the only way to organically grow the game is through an increase in pari-mutuel wagering, and one way to do that is to make betting on horses as attractive as other forms of gaming. At present, the takeout is too high to compete, and this is an issue that racing's leaders must address with the same zeal they address Lasix and other matters. There's still some $10 billion bet on racing per year, but this game doesn't have the legs to last another 37 years in its current state.
With the coming of age for sports betting in 2018, the sentiment of this piece perhaps rings more true today than it did three years ago.
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August - October 2018, issue 49 (PRINT)
August - October 2018, issue 49 (DOWNLOAD)