Vision Obscura: A Critique of The Jockey Club’s View

Vision Obscura: A Critique of The Jockey Club’s View

As the sport of horse racing could be in line for “comprehensive reform,” The Jockey Club’s latest release on the topic can be assessed in depth.

Updated: April 6, 2019 • 11:55 AM ET

Horse racing in America may be at a crossroads.

Our vision for the future of American horse racing is obscured.

Amid the debate about the causes of horse fatalities in Arcadia, Calif., the closing of the Stronach-owned Portland Meadows and the East Coast regarding bisphosphonates, the Jockey Club of America has issued what they believe to be a comprehensive call to reform the state of horse racing.

That’s quite a proclamation — tall buildings in a single-bound for sure.

Understand, this is an organization with a complex past that witnessed some of the most controversial moments in the history of the sport. Founded in the late 19th century by a powerful group of white “turf men,” some members proceeded into the next century and assisted in banishing African-American trainers and jockeys from the barns, paddock and the track — a sad part of our history that we are still paying for.

Initially, the well-intentioned Jockey Club focused its attention on breeding and the registry associated with a horse’s bloodlines. Over time, unlike in other nations that oversaw all administration aspects from the front office, the American Jockey Club has acted only in a limited capacity, currying favor and making connections in states where racing was strongest (i.e. New York and Kentucky). Thus, they’ve silently stood by at times, as a decentralized American system’s evolution muddles on among the 38 states that have allowed the sport to exist.

It’s an odd arc; history is never linear.

More recently, they’ve skillfully developed a series of for-profit relationships with media outlets like Equibase and BloodHorse magazine to survive economic hardships that the sport has endured through the 1970s and ‘80s. For the most part, their family tree seems only tangentially associated with the qualities that are necessary for a sport that has been and will continue to be under siege from so many directions.

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That’s what is so perplexing about the March 28 release of their Vision 2025: To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reform, also called in some online promotions, a “white paper.”

For the record, I think deeming something a “white paper” is a cultural red herring. It was once associated with policy papers by Churchill or the manifestos of Mao; but today, it’s more marketing than anything else, which makes one suspicious from the beginning.

This position paper, a much more appropriate attribution, is about 11 pages and covers a bevy of topics that are outlined in major sections, entitled: Introduction, The Current System Does Not Work, Key Reforms, The Bottom Line and finally, a bibliographic set of citations under the rather innocuous heading, Studies and Articles Cited (I found this bibliography woefully disorganized). Mind you, there are some good intentions and notions here, even if the title is somewhat misleading.

It’s never clearly stated what exactly is supposed to occur by the year 2025, which I found perplexing. Some of the phrasing seems full of platitudes like “the science is clear,” or “catching cheaters.”

I’m always wary of something that doesn’t have a listing of attributed author(s). Why don’t we know who penned this?

Pertaining to substance, I’m not opposed to some of the data that is presented inside.

Does the industry need to “aggressively pursue a series of changes to how it is regulated?” Absolutely. We shouldn’t require a “white paper” to state that.

Does this sport need broad oversight when it comes to doping/medication issues? For sure.

Can the recent deaths at Santa Anita be prevented? Well, that’s less clear.

International numbers seem to tell us that they can, especially since they operate sans Lasix. According to the Jockey Club though, their singular solution (they use the italicized word “only,” p. 1) is to back the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, or H.R. 1754. This is the bill currently floating around on Capitol Hill that would create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority (HADA) responsible for developing and administering a nationwide control program for horse racing.

Now, let me be clear; I’m not against the idea of this bill. It makes sense, because its centerpiece is addressing the lack of standardization of anti-doping rules. The issue for me is, does it go far enough?

The impression one gets from the Jockey Club is that the tentacles established by this would-be law will reach into all aspects of racing — hence, a panacea. Reform as an idea is good, but horse racing needs a revolution that goes beyond the scope of H.R. 1754. Those two ideas are fundamentally different.

There is something else niggling here. Anytime the United States government is actioned to create a regulatory agency, alarms bells sound in my mind. We’ve seen this before, starting in America’s Gilded Age and Progressive Era around the turn of the 20th century, when cities and the national government attempted to remake their raucous environments.

Hitching our wagons to congressional oversight and more bureaucracy doesn’t sound like creating something independent. It reeks of more red tape and less control by the industry when it comes to centralization. And, for that matter, I don’t know if citing the International Olympic Committee and their track record concerning an anti-doping strategy makes good sense. I’d rather look to the efforts of the British Horse Racing Authority, or the Hong Kong Jockey Club instead.

That’s why I think this call for reform borders on misconception. Two questions arise from this appraisal. First, why is the Jockey Club choosing to express itself in this way? And second (a two-parter), are they taking advantage of this moment to advance a specific agenda concerning this H.R. bill; and furthermore, is there something else at work here?

I’m not sure of their motives.

What we do know is that The Jockey Club is tied historically to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, an organization that employs a lobbyist group and uses PAC money to advance its agenda. They are one of the loudest voices in the room right now for not only H.R. 1754, but a host of other issues.

I’m not sure of those motives either, but I am ambivalent concerning lobbyists — they might be deemed as a truly necessary evil.

Here’s what I do know. This situation seems analogous to the political one in America during the 1780s. The Articles government was porous; it couldn’t raise revenue, an army, nor enforce any laws, just to name a few. Squabbling and backstabbing were rampant.

In the end, it took numerous key events, including an armed uprising in Massachusetts and the mind of James Madison, to create the moment when a convention of delegates made the decision to not reform, but craft a government we could keep, as Benjamin Franklin said. It wasn’t a perfect document by any means, but it tried to instill the idea that is endemic in America — compromise. Thus, 12 disparate entities (Rhode Island abstained from attending) came together.

Similarly, horse racing in America needs to reset.

First, though let’s pull a Madison. When he prepared for Philadelphia, he sequestered himself among his books and took copious notes during the Convention. Today, we need viable research that isn’t crafted by a marketing team. A works cited/bibliographic guide does not an informed and insightful research paper make. What would assist is the calling of a national horse racing industry convention that has sound evidence at its disposal.

How about employing Pat Cummings and his Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF)? One of their recent studies does an excellent job of pointing out how websites, like Equibase, control vast amounts of data, using it to charge customers exorbitant fees for something that should be made open for sharing.

Once enough sound research is accrued, delegates from each state could be nominated to attend in secret, as it was back in 1787. After open debate, votes would be straight-forward, members sequestered during the process, and all would be unencumbered by outside influences or social media.

Moreover, besides representation, this entity requires something that was essential during the Constitutional Convention. It needs a George Washington-type personality who can bring the three P’s — prestige, presence and promise. Without someone of this stature (a Bob Baffert, a Brereton C. Jones, a Gary Stevens, etc.), this convention risks its own credibility.

Perhaps this idea of a group of delegates is pure fantasy — a historical canard. This is, after all, a complex industry. Maybe that’s the problem, though; we have a paradigm that’s just too multifaceted.

They call for dynamic and effective change by 2025? Can we wait that long for a strong centralized authority to emerge?

I’m reminded of the observation by Franklin, when he peered at the crest on the chair where Washington was seated during the Convention in Philadelphia. It depicted a half sun that he mused, could be rising or setting. The 81-year-old asked whether that was reflective of the future for the United States.

Could the same be said concerning horse racing in America? For now, our vision is obscured; check back in 2025.

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