Progress and Prudence - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the February 18, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Thoroughbred racing associations and commissions get their fair share of criticisms for either moving too fast or not being responsive enough. Last week the industry should be lauded for applying the appropriate tack on two separate issues.

The industry cannot move fast enough in the area of improving Thoroughbreds’ care after they’ve retired from racing, so the formation of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and its broad range of support is an important milestone. With any endeavor of this scope, many details regarding how the program will function need to be hammered out, but that does not detract from the significance of the alliance’s creation.

Many well-intentioned owners have been burned by entrusting their retired horses to someone who promised to find them a good home, only to have the horses either put on a trailer bound for a slaughterhouse or left to languish in neglect at an underfunded, ill-equipped facility. Scrutinizing retirement farms and requiring them to meet a minimum standard will go a long way toward solving two problems. One, it recognizes and rewards caring facilities that are running first-class operations while providing owners credible options when their horses need new homes. Second, the program is a strong public statement the industry truly cares and is committed to bettering the treatment of these animals that are the centerpiece of our sport.

Hopefully, the accreditation program won’t target only farms/facilities and will extend the influence of its accreditation program to brokers and organizations.

On the flip side, the brakes have been wisely applied in California regarding the implementation of exchange wagering.

No one disputes that Thoroughbred racing needs to reach new markets. Exchange wagering would certainly offer a new product and is likely to attract new bettors who will enjoy gambling on racing in a way similar to day-trading on stocks.

But concerns still linger. It certainly didn’t help the backers of exchange wagering to have four jockeys and two owners in Great Britain convicted in December of fixing 10 races over a period of seven months in 2009. A point was made during the reporting of the British scandal that exchange wagering operators help maintain the system’s integrity by looking for suspicious wagering activity. In this case, however, more than a year passed between when the fixed races were run and the criminals convicted. It does not give bettors faith in the sport to say, “A race today may be fixed, but we’ll catch them eventually.”

Being able to bet on a horse to lose is the barrier most people cannot comfortably cross when weighing exchange wagering’s adoption. Jeff Platt of the Horseplayers Association of North America spoke at a California Horse Racing Board committee meeting Feb. 9 in support of exchange wagering. He said horseplayers are already betting on horses to lose every day by betting against the favorites. We understand the point he is trying to make, but it’s not the same. Platt and others are not getting paid because the favorite lost; he is getting paid because another horse he backed won. It’s been said before: It is a lot tougher to get a horse to win a race than it is make it lose.

Resolving this issue will be tough because with head-to-head exchange wagering one plays to win and one plays to lose. It’s the nature of the beast. What is clear now, however, is that a lot more questions need answers before we unleash this new form of wagering in the U.S.
The Gang’s All Here

It’s been more than a decade since the winners of the three Triple Crown races came back to race at 4, so we’re excited Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Ruler On Ice are mixing it up in this year’s handicap division.

The last time it happened was in 1999 when Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) winner Real Quiet and the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victor Victory Gallop both made their presence felt in the handicap division. Victory Gallop was named champion older male of 1999 while Real Quiet won the Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup (both gr. I).

The last time three different winners of the Triple Crown series raced at 4 was 1991 when the economic climate for stallions was much the same as it is today. Derby winner Unbridled, Preakness winner Summer Squall, and Belmont winner Go and Go all returned to the track.

Despite Shackleford’s and Ruler On Ice’s unplaced finishes Feb. 11 in Gulfstream Park’s Donn Handicap (gr. I), we must remember the season is long and plenty of opportunity lies ahead. Derby winner Animal Kingdom is slated to make his return at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 25.

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