Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Problem? Industry Will Learn Nothing From 2019 Ky. Derby

The 2019 Kentucky Derby outcome only feeds into credibility issues that the U.S. thoroughbred racing industry needs to resolve sooner than next year's Run for the Roses.

There's no better time to enact sweeping changes that give it a puncher's chance of survival in the gaming market favoring short attention spans, and to regain the faith of loyalists and show some semblance of integrity after Maximum Security's controversial DQ.

All that stakeholders want is a fair shake. Churchill Downs' stewards may have properly applied Kentucky's racing rules to the letter, but in the process made a subjective decision in the only "sport" I'm aware of that polls its participants to reach an outcome.

Unless mistaken, I don't recall New Orleans wide receiver Tommylee Lewis or coach Sean Payton being asked for input from NFL officials who missed a blatant interference call that kept the Saints from the Super Bowl. Presumed impartial bodies, the officials made a decision on their own after a video review without lobbying, as it should be.

Thoroughbred racing needs a national governing body ASAP. Enough with state-by-state regulation where what's OK in one jurisdiction isn't cool in another. We saw why yesterday, but unfortunately it's never going to happen, with dozens of state fiefdoms in a territorial war for survival of the fittest and really no one caring for the national welfare of the game or those that pump money through the betting windows and really are what keep it alive. Without bettors you have no sport.

Ah, The "Sport" of Kings 

It's almost impossible to offer unbiased perspective on the 2019 Kentucky Derby outcome, since thoroughbred racing really is not a sport.

Rather, it's a couture-driven gambling vehicle that spins an upper-crust persona, but with more variables than other forms of wagering and that is generally a losing proposition. Why?

  • The house keeps 15-25 cents of every dollar wagered. 
  • Trainers can teach expensive animals with minds of their own to run fast in circles but not always avoid natural tendencies to herd once the race gate opens. 
  • Tiny, oft-undernourished humans control equine vehicles 10x their weight at 35 MPH on sharp turns and with dirt kicked in their faces.
  • Consumers are in the dark on veterinary care. 
  • Owners, trainers and other insiders can wager, influencing outcomes. 
  • Racing has on old-boy network vs. outsiders feel -- the latter what I think came into play with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott playing clean vs. the guy who broke in at Charles Town and wins at skeptically high rates at Monmouth Park and Gulfstream.

Sunday-morning quarterbacking the 2019 Derby and whether Maximum Spirit deserved to be disqualified the 17th place is useless, since those like me who saw a 150% return on investment go poof and have no recourse, even if the DQ'd connections appeal a stewards' decision that owner Gary West deemed "egregious." It all comes across as mere chest thumping or bitching.

Where Do We Go Now?

Twitter pissing matches or whining about spilled milk get us nowhere as a fan base. It definitely won't advance the industry's deep need for credibility.

Debate has some use, but what should come from Saturday's debacle is a move to a nationwide governing body that removes individuals states' biases and does what's good for the product, the human and equine athletes and the industry's shrinking base of wagering customers.

Every other professional "sport" that uses official reviews removes the participants' voice. NBA and NCAA basketball coaches and players don't look over the shoulder of referees reviewing the video of a play in question. Same goes for the NFL, NHL and MLB. Premier League coaches can't spend a few minutes lobbying an official to reverse a red-card decision.

Yet, in thoroughbred racing the biases are obvious -- jockeys get to weigh in on the proceedings, and stewards may have preconceived views of the backgrounds and reputations of a horse's trainer -- with a wagering public's money in the balance.

I've written about this before, focusing on California, which -- like all states -- has its own stewards' guidelines and rules' applications are highly inconsistent. Watch the 2018 Wicker Stakes vs. other rulings and you'll see. 

At the core, racing is gambling, nothing more. 

To be more credible, it needs a national set of rules that are transparent and applied consistently across U.S. race tracks. I'm calling on Churchill Downs to initiate the discussion, and for federal legislators and the NTRA to step in, working toward a national set of rules and enforcement.

At the least, it's a better proposition for bettors than leaving multi-million-dollar decisions (from wagering, earnings and horse-breeding perspectives to name a few) in the hands of a few state appointees.

Wounds of Saturday will heal, and most stakeholders in the game will move forward (e.g. Jason Service and Bill Mott were back in their stables bright and early getting back to business), though I have my doubts that those running the industry every will.

Sure, the game has advanced beyond the days of Kentucky Derby patrons raising their julep cups to jockeys whipping each other in the stretch as "boys being boys", to paraphrase the legendary Jerry Izenberg, but certainly this day smells nothing like roses for this horseplayer.

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