Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Saratoga Springs, NY, July 29, 2008--I must admit to a certain amount of skepticism, borderline delusional paranoia, when I first heard that the New York Task Force on Retired Race Horses was conducting a fact-finding symposium on the efficacy of installing synthetic surfaces at New York State racetracks.
What does a retired race horses panel have to do with surfaces, anyway?
When I saw how heavily the deck was stacked in favor of the Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, Pro Ride folks, I was convinced that that was the case. But since it was a dark day after six days of thoroughbreds, I figured that dogs and ponies might make for a pleasant diversion.
And so I went, wearing cynicism on one sleeve and a heart on the other, and must report I see some progress in addressing issues that have driven the sport of thoroughbred racing to the edge of an abyss. To paraphrase Lou Mannheim, a fictional broker in Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street,” it’s time for the industry to look into that abyss, find its character, and that’s what will keep it out of the abyss:
It’s called communication. What a concept.
The eight-hour session ran to its past performances when Patrick Hooker, NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner, repeated the platitudes that first appeared in a press release, attributed to Task Force Co-Chairman and NYS Racing & Wagering Board Chairman, Daniel P. Hogan. To wit:
“Safety is now at the forefront of issues affecting the racing industry and it’s incumbent upon this task force to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to help determine if these artificial surfaces are the best and safest route for our horses and the jockeys who ride them.”
My cynicism might have been assuaged if installing synthetic surfaces didn’t also make good politics. The sporting public doesn’t understand all the issue and nuances involved. And with 30 percent of the general population wanting to see horse racing abolished, and with a recent House subcommittee chomping at the bit to take aggressive action, some good public relations needs to happen now.
The New York session was open to the public, as opposed to a secret meeting of a few industry leaders some weeks ago in Lexington, Ky., according to the website http://www.paulickreport.com. The leaders apparently have a plan to stave off federal regulation, a rider, with benchmarks, to the Interstate Horseracing Act that permits simulcasting.
Without simulcasting, now accounting for more than four of every five dollars wagered on U.S. horse racing, it’s game over.
Unlike the House subcommittee hearing, which seemed less about fact-finding than political posturing, there was real dialoguing going on at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion between the Task Force and the five panels, representing track management; veterinarians; trainers; jockeys and researchers. The panels alternated between informing and answering Task Force questions.
As racetrackers say, it was a good visit. The reason we originally thought it possible for leashes and bridles to be given away as door prizes was because the panels were mostly representatives from pro-synthetic jurisdictions. Either that or they were people known to be synthetic friendly or had an economic interest in the companies manufacturing the artificial tracks. NYRA president Charlie Hayward said, among other things, he had concerns because some of the best companies seemed to be “thinly financed.” But he listened, then he gave testimony.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
NYRA President, Charlie Hayward
Hayward had one of the day’s best lines when he eluded a loaded question from moderator Bennett Liebman, Esq., one of racing best and trusted legal minds, Acting Director of the government law center at Albany Law School, who said: “Charlie, I guess you would have liked to have one of those racetracks here last week.”
“I would have liked not to get any rain,” Hayward said to an appreciative audience.
Like everyone who spoke on the topic, Hayward was cautious, had questions about the maintenance of synthetic surfaces, its cost--a recurring theme throughout the session-- and the need for more research. He conceded that while decisions will be based on data, there was an anecdotal component, then offered: “Last year there were fewer breakdowns at Saratoga than there were at Keeneland and Del Mar.”
When asked whether he thought the state should pay for the research, or even the installation of an artificial track, he said, “I just hope that the state finally renews the NYRA franchise and I’d be happy to pay for it myself.”
No one should be surprised that Todd Pletcher came up with a well reasoned compromise that addresses all of it. “We can have all three; turf, dirt and synthetic.”
Pletcher’s far-flung operation has two years of experience with artificial surfaces, having a division at the Hollywood Park Cushion Track and Arlington Park’s Polytrack the last two years. Three of the four sorties were successful, including the preparation of Belmont Stakes winning filly Rags To Riches, but that more study was needed. He thinks it could take 10 years.
“Build a synthetic track inside the two turf courses at Belmont Park,” where the main track takes a beating from the relentless sealing of sloppy tracks during training hours so that the surface would be fast for racing. “Sealing tracks over and over is taking a toll on training in the mornings. Constant sealing damages [the surface], weakens it.”
Pletcher’s thinking is that a synthetic track could be used for training in winter and for washed off turf races, cutting down precipitously on the number of scratches. It also could be used for training year-round, eliminating the need for compacting the main track. “With synthetics you don’t have to worry about rain.”
Everyone in racing acknowledges the positive relationship between turf and synthetic-track form even if all synthetics are not created equal. Pletcher’s suggestion means that NYRA could study the issue first hand, potentially keeping costs down while learning how to maintain the surface and, significantly, see if it really cuts down on catastrophic injuries.
Johnny Velazquez admits he’s more comfortable riding on synthetic tracks when weather conditions are foul, the rain and mud making it extremely difficult to see, the wet reins making steering problematical. Acknowledging all that, Velazquez is calling for better communication between jockeys, trainers and the tracks.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Leading rider, John Velazquez, listens to Richard Migliore's comments
“Some people don’t want to be told that a track is too fast, be told what to do. We can put our attention into the tracks we do have as opposed to something we don’t know about.” His colleagues and all the trainers agreed on the need for much better maintenance, “a watchdog.” Current track superintendent John Passaro says NYRA doesn’t give him the tools he needs. NYRA, in bankruptcy, says it doesn’t have the money.
Both groups acknowledged each other’s differences and the need to cooperate for the greater good, but there was a glaring contradiction. To a man trainers Mark Casse, Dale Romans, Pletcher and Nick Zito said they’ve never seen any evidence of horses suffering respiratory problems from the surface.
Said Richard Migliore: “I thought I was having an allergic reaction to Pro-Ride. My eyes were getting irritated. There were discussions on and off, where some of the jockeys were talking about wheezing. We talked about it,” was about as far as it went. “When it was hot at Keeneland I was getting nosebleeds,” Velazquez said.
In New York, the jury is still out, but well meaning people were engaged in dialogue, hopefully productive. And that’s all anyone was hoping on a dark Tuesday following a rough first week in Saratoga where attendance and handle figures were a match for the bad weather and poor economy.
But the racing was good. Everyone seemed to want to keep it that way.