Back to the Future - by Dan Liebman

Trainer Jack Van Berg is a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, as is his late father, Marion Van Berg.

If there were a section of the Hall of Fame for breeders, Arthur B. Hancock III would be a member, as would his father, the late A.B. “Bull” Hancock Jr.

These two men from prominent racing families have been outspoken critics of the current state of the Thoroughbred industry, so they were easy selections to be among those chosen to testify before Congress June 19.

Just look at the title of the session held by The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection: “Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse.”

Van Berg’s sound bite from his testimony was this: racing is “chemical warfare.” Hancock’s best line was that the industry is a “rudderless ship.”

Though some testified progress has been made, it really was impossible for any of the witnesses to completely defend the sport.

Now everyone knows what the industry’s participants have known: Thoroughbred racing is like a dysfunctional family. Just a few of our family’s problems are we allow the use of too many drugs, too many corrective surgeries on young foals, and too much leakage of our handle.
There are dozens of groups with a vested interest, and Hancock was right when he said what often gets in the way of progress or consensus is “ego.”

It has been said that if the leaders of racing were selected to conduct a firing squad, they would get in a circle and start shooting. True, that may also apply to Congress, but the fact a House subcommittee has racing on its radar screen should serve as a wake-up call to everyone connected to racing and breeding.

Even the threat of federal intervention should be enough to make racing’s various organizations agree to sit around a table and discuss what must be done. Some groups expressed displeasure with not being invited to testify before Congress, so it will take a very large table and those in attendance must be willing to check, as Hancock might say, “their egos at the door.”

Congress has only one real bargaining chip to hold over racing’s head, but it is a huge chip—the Interstate Horseracing Act. The last Triple Crown winner is not the only thing that happened in 1978. That year, racing asked for, and received from Congress, the law that governs the simulcast of races across state lines.

Thirty years ago, simulcasting accounted for a small percentage of the dollars wagered on horse races. And account wagering did not exist. Today, it is estimated that 90% of dollars are wagered through such means.

If Congress decides to tinker with the legislation, then horse racing hangs in the balance. Going back to the days of wagering only on track is not going to happen.

But racing can go back to the days of using fewer medications. Racing can go back to the days of breeding more for racing than for selling. Racing can go back to the days of letting nature and genetics decide the conformation of a horse.

To do so, racing will need to present a plan and timeline to Congress for making such things happen. It will take the cooperation of owners, breeders, consignors, buyers, trainers, jockeys, and veterinarians. It will require the buy-in of racetracks, horsemen’s groups, racing commissions, and state agencies.

It will not happen overnight, but it can happen over many years. It can happen to save a vital industry.

This is not the same industry as when Marion Van Berg and Bull Hancock were alive. We’re not returning to that era.

But together, we can can create a new era. 

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