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. 

27 Comments

Leave a Comment:

MikeM

I think what Jess Jackson is doing for racing is good for the sport.

However, I find it a little hypocritical for him to preach whats wrong with the game while he employs a trainer with a questionable reputation at best.

24 Jun 2008 11:25 AM
STEVE STONE

Dan..Whats so sad and regrettable regarding your commentary is that if it wasn't for the Eight Belles tragedy and the enigmatic performance of Big Brown in The Belmont Stakes and his trainers ribald drug use comments..none of this dialog would have even surfaced..Particularly the Senate hearings where their impact on all of this "dysfunctionalism" will be stemmed..much to the chagrin of the racing establishment..What is happening now is undoubtedly long overdue in the sport..An long overdue wakeup call..Sadly we live in an reactive society--vis-a-vis-proactive..and racing is certainly the poster child for it..They definitely resisit change....They have no one to put the onus on except themselves...If those elected officials inside the beltway should decide to exercise their own "egos" and authority..especially in an national election year..whether its for the correct or incorrect reasons..and for the betterment of racing or just to satisfy their own political agendas..racing could be dealt and irreperable blow..one in which it may never recover from and yes..racing will return to the era of yesterday...when horses ran on just hay..oats and water....and life was so much simpler...Thanx always for the window...Steve Stone..East Hanover..New Jersey

24 Jun 2008 12:23 PM
Jeff M

It would be very nice to see the industry rise up and agree to make some changes for the protection of the horse and of course by extension, the very sport itself.  Getting drugs out the game and reforming policies relating to whip usage would be a good start.  As a former trainer, I do not believe the industry is going to be capable of the needed reforms without federal intervention.  As Mr. Liebman notes in his article, there are just so many parties with vested interests and competing points of view.  The lack of a centralized horse racing authority means that federal intervention is the only force that can motivate the industry to get moving.  The unfortunate part of this reality is the ignorance congress brings to the table.  Did anyone watch the testimony?  The questions posed by the various members of the subcommittee spoke volumes as to exactly how much better it would be if the industry could reform itself.  With regard to breeding, it would be impossible to impose standards relating to soundness.  Who is to say what the definition of soundness is precisely?  Who would decide which racehorses would be ineligible for breeding?  How many owners would leave the game because potential breeding revenues from their horses would be jeopardized due to arbitrary soundness standards?  No, that sort of regulation is not workable.  What would be workable, however, would be some restrictions with regard to inbreeding.  We all know that the origins of the thoroughbred are narrow so they're all "inbred" but we're begging for trouble by repeating close inbreeding cycles generation after generation.  The natural result is the degredation of the breed and that has to stop soon.  I am a purist - I love the horses and I love the sport.  I hate the fact that our horses have been turned into overly-medicated, steroid freak shows.  Let's get back to basics and think about what's best for the horse and the sport.  

24 Jun 2008 1:23 PM
christina

There is alot wrong with the industry. we breed for profit only (((SIRE HAS HIGHEST YEARLING AVE!!)))...what does that say about the quality of his yearlings??? nothing.  We make 2 year olds run 10 second furlongs. yea thats fast but we need more    1 1/2 milers.

Why do we need a stallion to cover 150 mares a season?? MONEY. that means more and more unwanted racehorses.

We run horses on painkillers... enough said.

We put unsound sires to stud, and command ridiculous fees for unproven sires. the fees should be no higher then $50k for a first year sire. Books should be limited to know more then 75 mares.

24 Jun 2008 2:31 PM
normajean81258

Superb article as always Dan!!! I'm hoping and praying for reforms to begin ASAP, from the Industry itself!!

24 Jun 2008 3:50 PM
ASSISTANT HOTWALKER

HAY, OATS, AND WATER. TAKE THE DRUGS OUT OF RACING NOW!!!

24 Jun 2008 3:54 PM
Patrick

I'd like less govt oversite please.  I mean I thought all these old guys from Ky were Republican, now they are hat in hand looking for a govt hand out.  There are simple fixes to make racing self sufficient, why doesn't anyone try them?

handride.blogspot.com/.../how-id-do-it.html

24 Jun 2008 4:13 PM
Jen

you've got to love Van berg and Hancock.  they aren't afraid to speak their minds, and say what other people wont say "on the record"  They better straighten this game out, or its going to die.  I frankly am sick of watching races, knowing that half of those horses will be on a slaughter truck at the drop of a hat.  

24 Jun 2008 4:53 PM
Deb

Mike M - totally agree with you.  I was an outspoken critic of Dutrow.  But truth be told he took the hit for other big time trainers with equally shady pasts (Asmussen, Pletcher, Biancone.  A long list).  And today we saw an important reason why a governing body would go along way towards making penalties count.  Jeremy Rose was suspended 6 months from riding in Delaware for whipping his horse in the face, causing the horse to hemorrhage around her eyes.  Now he can pack up his tack and move on to another state.  Kudos to Delaware but once again, these penalties have no teeth to them.

24 Jun 2008 7:01 PM
Garrett Redmond

Arthur Hancock, an astute horseman, says we are a rudderless ship.  The man from NTRA, a lobbying organization, says we are NOT rudderless.  Who is correct?

I believe the NTRA guy is right.

The fact is we have at least a dozen rudders, but the problem is: Not one of the guys with hands on the rudders knows anything about steering and piloting!  That causes the "ship" to drift forever in a sea of rhetoric.

Which means that for all practical purposes, Arthur Hancock is correct.

I believe the man capable of correctly identifying a problem is usually best equipped to solve it.  How do we persuade Arthur Hancock to accept the role of leader.  Let the Feds give him the necessary power and we will be on our way to fixing things that are now broken.

24 Jun 2008 10:54 PM
jeff

Jackson and Hancock should practice what they preach. Why didn't anyone from inside the beltway think to ask good ole boy Jess why he ran Curlin on Lasix in the Stephen Foster if it was clear he didn't need it in Dubai?

Say what you want about IEAH, they showed more desire to make things right with their new "drug free" policy than the good old boys from KY.

25 Jun 2008 6:19 AM
MikeM

The secret to becoming a big time trainer is; Win at all cost by taking every edge both legal and illegal.This results in winning at a 25+% clip.Then sit back and watch all the like minded owners

come calling.This cycle will not be broken untill there are penalties with teeth for both the offending trainers and owners.

25 Jun 2008 7:24 AM
Tom V. David, DVM

There appears to be three major issues that need to be considered when evaluating the current problems facing the racing industry. Breeding, track surfaces and medication are on everyone’s agenda of issues that must be addressed if our sport is to survive, much less prosper. We can no longer sit ideally by and assume that public perception is not reality. Breeding for the auction market rather than for soundness, buying for speed rather than longevity and medicating up to race time to alleviate problems brought on by this rationale has our industry on a downward spiral that must be reversed. Was it the breeder of the unsound horse or the veterinarian who tried to keep the horse racing sound with the use of medication? I can’t answer the chicken or the egg question but I do feel that the first and easiest solution is to address the medication.

Changes in breeding and research on the optimum track surface will take years to accomplish the desired end result. Medication can be changed overnight. I  practiced on the race track for over thirty years and have administered much more than my share of anabolic, non-steroidal and corticosteroid medications. I practiced before permissive medication and have seen controlled medication reach the point of uncontrolled. Horses are racing today on more medication than any time in the past and are having shorter careers, higher vet bills and more dissatisfied owners.

Illegal drugs are not the problem, it’s the so called legal therapeutic medications that are over used and abused. Our allowable levels of therapeutic medications on race day make it extremely difficult to determine the health and soundness of the animal when a pre-race exam is conducted. Inflamed joints, muscles and mild lameness are masked by medication and therefore undetectable to the examining veterinarian. These problems may be minor until the horse leaves the starting gate but become major by the time they reach the turn for home and down the stretch, putting both horse and rider at risk.

We keep many horses racing under the influence of medication that should be retired prior to their career ending injuries. How can the breeder judge the potential of a sire or dam when performance was influenced with medication?

How does track surface research factor in medication? Having raced with so called therapeutic medication for some thirty years, I now believe we have developed a culture and a breed that is medication dependent. Anabolics need a forty five day withdrawal. Intra-articular injections should not be made within 10-14 days minimum prior to racing and non-steroidal and corticosteroids should not be administered within a minimum of 48-72 hours prior to racing. More time and research is needed to resolve the bleeder issue but other medication issues can be changed overnight. If the veterinary profession were to endorse these changes, we would give the breeder and the track superintendant a purer model upon which to base their decision. Also, the veterinary profession would be looked upon as part of the solution and not part of the problem.  

I do not believe for one minute that medication abuse contributed to the tragic death of Eight Belles but I do know that it is a problem in racing and the only one that can be changed immediately. We must do everything possible to protect the rider, the welfare of the horse and the integrity of the sport.

Tom V. David, DVM                                                                                                                                                                                                    Equine Medical Director                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Louisiana State Racing Comm

25 Jun 2008 11:11 AM
needler in Virginia

What's so amazing to me is the way the racing industry continues to shoot itself in all four feet. Never mind, Eight Belles (and PLEASE don't yell at me until you read further), we have a stable that declares a "no drug" policy, but they're going to "keep the Lasix". If a horse bleeds, it shouldn't be racing.

We have a jockey who was the passenger in one of the most astounding bits of talent and heart any of us can remember...Afleet Alex's recovery in the Preakness...that same jockey has seen fit to hit a horse around the eyes. If you hit ANY animal the way Jeremy Rose hit his mount you SHOULD NOT BE RACING...full stop. Rose should go; sorry about the livelihood but, Buster, you're hired to take care of the mount and make certain you don't do anything to make it lose.....NOT beat it bloody.

AND NOW we have Dutrow's suspension by the Kentucky board for a positive for clenbuterol the day before Big Brown ran in the Belmont....well, maybe that's a bit of a stretch (NO PUN INTENDED). That wasn't really a run; it was more like a controlled train wreck. Messrs Desormeaux and Dutrow need to be looked at very closely, 'cause what we saw on Belmont day raises far more questions than answers, and was a blot on what might have the best day racing has seen in 30 years.

WHAT THE HELL ARE WE THINKING? Maybe the operative word here is "thinking". We obviously are NOT thinking. The face racing has shown the general public this year has been a horror mask, and Art Hancock is absolutely correct....racing cannot control itself and SOMEONE better, or there will be no racing. The public will have the tracks shut down as quickly as we lost Eight Belles, and racing will be no more. How much of this crap can folks tolerate before the call to arms is heard. And when you speak of animal cruelty, the call to arms will be HUGE!

Guys, we have about 30 seconds to get this together, and address issues that have been in the dark for too long. The people who have skeletons in the closet should be drummed off the tracks and out of the training barns; those who know WHO has the skeletons and where they're hidden need to step up to the plate and open those doors. Let's get some light in the dark corners, 'cause if racing doesn't take care of it's blindness, the general public and the feds WILL.

The clock ticks on, but it appears to running down fast!

25 Jun 2008 11:26 AM
Ryan

Jeremy Rose made a great living from the wonderful horses and horsemen and women he rides for.  What he did at Delaware Park is inexcusable.  It was no accident Jeremy...Don't insult our intelligence.  Leave the sport!  That is an innocent animal cared for 23 hours and 58 minutes a day by someone who deeply cares for it and supports it financially.  Your two minutes with it once every three weeks or so gives you no right to display that kind of abuse!

25 Jun 2008 5:00 PM
Michael Nikolic

The problem with dysfunction is that it is pervasive as is evidenced by the public outcry.

We are all focusing on too many issues and trying to solve them all at once.  Contrary to what politicians would make us believe, we cannot have SEVERAL priorities.

Jeremy Rose is not the problem, neither are Dutrow or Asmussen.  Why are we trying to figure out how to market this sport when even the faithful are sickened by it?

Racing needs to close ranks.  Forget about the bird in the bush (wider fan base) and fix the problems in order.

1) Install a commissioner.

2) Ban ALL racing medication. Period.

3) Create one set of racing rules and one jurisdiction.  Everyone on the same page.

4) Do this right for some time and THEN try and show people the peotic beauty of an honestly run horse.

But what the hell do I know?

Michael Nikolic

Racing manager Blackwatch Stables LLC

26 Jun 2008 10:40 AM
Lory Phillips Gm KCRT/KBKZ Radio

Excellent article you are Dan the man. Great comments. One thing never hit upon is how miserable of a job the track (almost every one of them) managers do in promoting racing. They do not have a clue on how to get new fans through the doors.

26 Jun 2008 12:54 PM
needler in Virginia

Michael,

Well said, and about as spot on as anyone could be. It's really NOT that complicated, is it?? The simpler the better seems to work the best... at least when proposing solutions to very old problems. HOWEVER, you did leave out one proviso......right after your "install a commissioner", you forgot to include AND GIVE THAT COMMISSIONER THE POWER TO ENFORCE THE RULES.

THANKS!

26 Jun 2008 3:10 PM
Johnny

Dan,  

You mentioned two things in your commentary that jumped out at me:

"racing commissions" and "new era".

To me "racing commissions" implies business as usual. However, "new era" implies hope.

How about ushering into this "new era" a 'National Racing Commission'. That's singular, not plural. Or perhaps better yet, a 'National Racing Commissioner,' who will have real teeth and authority to mandate reforms.

There are just too many cooks in the kitchen.

26 Jun 2008 6:40 PM
Julie L.

Maybe we can't truly go back to the "golden era" of horseracing when it was really about which family bred the better racehorse not which family bred the highest priced yearling that tanked at the track. I believe that it all started turning in the early 80's when some rather rich families from other countries began buying up the best bred yearlings which drove prices sky high. I know this is a business but I think the "heart" of this business dried up along time ago. We need people who love the breed to come to the tracks, to invest in buying horses and not lose heart if the first purchase isn't the next Kentucky Derby winner but maybe a nice allowance horse or even a good claimer. That is the backbone of this industry and we had better begin remembering that fact.

26 Jun 2008 7:15 PM
Capridogs

Thank you Julie L.  There are very few of the "old time" family farms left now.  The Bluegrass of Kentucky looks just like the phony sands of Dubai and Saudi Arabia where there is more money than hay to feed the horses.  Can you just imagine an average person going to the sales and purchasing a two-year old colt who has never been on the track and the price - just a mear $16 plus million.  And, to date and forever more this same horse will never hit the track again even though he did start I believe 3 times.  What we have now are "pin-hookers"and "corporations" paying huge amounts for animals that should not be on the track, but afterall, the almighty dollar does have a voice.  There was an interesting interview on www.bloodhorse.com with Bernie Sams about Boundary (sire of Big Brown).  Bernie was asked if a "miracle drug" were to be discovered that could bring Boundary back to being a fertile stallion would the farm consider this.  The answer was "let's see about the miracle drug first" and "probably not".  That was an honest answer from the stallion manager where Boundary was standing and they have decided that even if there was such a drug it was unlikely the horse would be brought back anyway.  It's the farms like this one and the other "old timers" who will keep this game afloat, not the ones with the huge bucks that can come in a buy anything they want and put it with anyone who will make it run and win, just to say they had a winner.  The real of achievement is not in buying the best but in your ability to breed the best. Let's remember those breeders who care enough to even bring their old horses back from foreign countries to keep them from slaughterhouses, etc.  You won't find those people sitting in the corporate board rooms pretending they know which end is which on the horse.

26 Jun 2008 9:24 PM
jerry burly

Here's another thing that needs to be fixed.  Before computers and ADW's, it really couldn't be done.  When a trainer has a horse dq'd for violations, racing makes the money right by redistributing the purse money to reflect the new order of finish.  But the bettor is ignored.  Trainers should be bonded so that if they have a horse dq'd, they have to pay the bettors for what are now winning bets with the new order of finish.  That's only fair, if the owners, trainers, and jocks are going to get their money, you for damned sure better make sure your audience gets fair treatment.  

27 Jun 2008 11:23 AM
Bill

I agree with Steve Stone, if it wasn't for the death of Eight Belles, and the performance of Big Brown, these discussions with Congress or otherwise would not be taking place and the industry would just go on and on and fall into oblivion and eventually die out.

Hopefully the horse industry, given this big opportunity can help itself and not just give lip service.  It will take more then just one owner group, IEAH, declaring a drug free stable though.

27 Jun 2008 11:46 AM
needler in Virginia

Bill.....I agree; the death of Eight Belles has drawn reporters to the track and breeding sheds....and these reporters only know that one end of a horse kicks and the other bites. Sadly, country-wide race reporting has gone the way of the DoDo and we probably will never again see the coverage of a Seabiscuit or a Citation or a Secretariat. Most dailies don't even have racing columns anymore, and the only time anyone pays attention is when we get a TC winner, or a Barbaro.

AND TO THE EDITORS AND WRITERS AT B-H, DRF, TDN, ETC: I AM NOT SPEAKING OF RACING REPORTERS OR COVERAGE; I AM SPEAKING OF THE BLOOD-IN-THE-WATER REPORTERS WHO WRITE  AND REPORT IN SOUND BYTES. SO, APOLOGIES AND CLARIFICATION MADE IN ADVANCE.....HERE GOES.

HOWEVER, now that the reporters are here, the news about racing has been all bad. Could it be because the news was bad before, but no one reported it....outside, that is, of the racing community? Certainly possible. What is not possible is that the racing was all good for years, and then the dam broke and everything bad spilled out! Now the spotlight has been turned full on racing, a LOT of bad stuff is showing up, and if racing intends to survive, the house had better be gotten in order and fast.

With all the money and personalities in the mix, though, an independent racing commissioner with some clout and cojones seems to be the best answer...nope, not best, but ONLY answer. The good guys have tried over the years and ended up forgotten, scorned and ridiculed. We need a good guy again, and he needs to have the power to do what should have been done years ago. If not, you are absolutely correct......the industry will "fall into oblivion and eventually die out", and I, for one, don't want to see that happen.

27 Jun 2008 1:59 PM
Greg Robertson

I really doubt Jeremy intenitionally hit that horse in the eye, if you watch the replay I think you'll agree, he is a seasoned rider. I'm sure he fully understands how serious the outcome could be if he hit her there on purpose. And as you can see she was on the rail and nearly crossed over to the outside.

I don't think he had any business though whipping her up on the shoulder that close to the face.

27 Jun 2008 9:43 PM
C Bea

Add my feelings to the chorus of people suggesting that a National Racing Commission is the only way things will get better.

I don't know if others found it as humorous (sad really) as I did that all of these clown national leaders sit there and say. blah, blah, blah yes things are bad but my organization is making positive changes and you should allow me us to continue the great progress and stewardship that we've shown. What a joke!! There are few, very few national leaders currently in place that should retain their posts.

28 Jun 2008 6:02 PM
tbtrackstar

It is great to see you here Dr. David!  Finally someone with knowledge and experience to add something to this conversation.  Until one has spent years on the backside, they have no idea what happens there.  Dr. David is one of the most respected equine vets I know his opinion should be taken to heart! Medications are not bad, and legal administrations of winstrol, equipoise, clenbuterol, phenylbutazone, banamine and the like are not "doping."

29 Jun 2008 1:32 AM

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