Restoring customer confidence has to be a leading driver for American racing in the present day. The sport and its regulators must act in the best interests of its customers – the horseplayers – at every opportunity.
Improved customer confidence will help increase participation, drive revenue, grow purses and industry benevolence.
Several recent actions, or lack thereof, undermine the confidence of horseplayers.
Jockey Mychel Sanchez wagered over $129,000 on dozens of races in the span of 11 days. Amongst those, he won thousands on wagers in races where he rode, but bet on other horses.
Stewards banned Sanchez for 60 days as a result of the bets he made on racing at Parx.
That ban ends on March 21..
As far as comparable suspensions for jockeys found to be betting, let alone against their own horses, it is one of the least punitive the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation could find.
ONLY 60 DAYS
Australian rider Damien Oliver was banned for eight months after it was learned in 2012, two years after the fact, that Oliver had placed a single bet on a rival horse via a third party. He copped another two months for using a mobile device in the jockeys’ room.
One bet – eight months. One use of a phone in violation of the rules – two months.
Michael Duffy, then chairman of Racing Victoria, the governing body for the sport in the Australian state, qualified the impact of the suspension.
“The result of today’s stewards’ inquiry has sent a powerful message to the jockey profession that there is zero tolerance of any breaches of the prohibition on betting.”
Mandatory minimum penalties were introduced across Australia in subsequent years, with jockey betting now carrying a two-year disqualification. Jockey James Mc Donald was banned for 18 months having received a six-month reduction for pleading guilty and cooperating, after a $1,000 bet in New South Wales, Australia in 2016.
In November 2021, British apprentice Finley Marsh was given a six-month ban after having been found to have placed 119 bets on racing over a 16-month period, though never on other horses in races he rode.
A British Horseracing Authority (BHA) judicial panel acknowledged the “appropriate period of disqualification would be 12-18 months,” and as Marsh had already been sitting out of racing since November 2020, the six-month ban was deemed acceptable. The report also noted that Marsh’s bets “were the product of his addiction” to gambling.
Alan Pincus, attorney for Mychel Sanchez, explained his client was suffering from “some type of depression” in this story from Paulick Report.
FOLLOW THE RULES
The rules in non-American jurisdictions vary, but generally make it clear – jockeys either cannot bet, or if they do, it must be only to win and through the owner or trainer of the horse.
“A jockey shall only be allowed to wager on a race in which he/she is riding. A jockey shall only be allowed to wager if: (1) the owner or trainer of the horse which the jockey is riding makes the wager for the jockey; (2) the jockey only wagers on his/her own mount to win or finish first in combination with other horses in multiple type wagers; and (3) records of such wagers are kept and available for presentation upon request by the stewards.”
Maryland’s rule is as follows:
“On a day that a jockey is scheduled to ride, the jockey may not bet on any race except: (1) To win on a horse which the jockey is scheduled to ride; and (2) Through the owner or trainer of that horse.”
Public records obtained by TIF from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, via open records requests, confirmed that Sanchez made two bets on races at Laurel, one on December 26, 2021 and one on January 2, 2022, in which he won $14,346 betting on horses that he did not ride, but were competing against him.
The bets were almost assuredly made from the jockeys’ room at Laurel Park, minutes before Sanchez got a leg up on horses that finished last and fourth, collecting a basic mount fee.
Despite Sanchez’s repeated violations over that short period for betting, the sanction from the stewards on behalf of the Maryland Racing Commission merely runs concurrent to Pennsylvania’s 60-day ban.
[After some initial confusion between the Commission and TIF when the betting details were first obtained, executive director Mike Hopkins since confirmed Sanchez was suspended 60 days to run concurrent to the Pennsylvania suspension, while also successfully completing a gambling addiction course.]
Sanchez is banned indefinitely at the properties of 1/ST, which owns Laurel Park.
A statement from 1/ST, published shortly after the case came to light, said the following:
“1/ST RACING stands on the principles of integrity and accountability, and we believe there is no place in our sport for this kind of unethical and illegal activity.”
While 1/ST has maintained a strong position on barring Sanchez, he will be free to ride elsewhere in the very near future.
SUSPENSIONS AIM FOR DETERRENCE
A strong penalty when betting rules are violated aims to deter such activity from the wider community of jockeys, not just the individual rule violator.
This week, the National Football League suspended Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons for at least the entirety of the 2022-23 season after an investigation revealed he bet on NFL games, though not on games he was personally playing or when he was with the team. In a tweet, Ridley claimed his bets totaled $1,500.
The NFL rules on the matter were clearly outlined in 2018.
“All NFL Personnel are prohibited from placing, soliciting, or facilitating any bet, whether directly or indirectly through a third-party, on any NFL game, practice e or other event. This includes betting on game outcome, statistics, score, performance of any individual participant, or any other kind of “proposition bet” on which wagering is offered.”
The suspension serves as a monumental deterrent to anyone that might consider breaking the rules.
Sanchez’s 60-day stint on the sidelines when combined with few public details from stewards and commissions, does little to instill confidence amongst horseplayers.
Former jockey, current NBC broadcaster and entrepreneur Donna Brothers, a member of TIF’s Board of Directors, believes the penalty is remarkably short, particularly without any additional context.
“In my time, riding from 1987 to 1998, I would have expected this to be something between a 10-year suspension and a lifetime ban.
“It just wasn’t anything that most riders would consider. There was far too much risk for a reward that is, by definition, a gamble.
“At that time, betting on a horse race that you were riding in was akin to race fixing. I’m not saying they are the same thing, but they were treated the same. The only way that a jockey could be associated with a wager was if the owner or trainer bet for the jockey and bet only to win.
“Even an across-the-board bet would’ve been considered betting against yourself, even if the owner made the bet for you.
“I do not understand how the penalty can be so insignificant, not just for the jockey involved but the impact the small suspension can have across all of the jocks in the room.”
Without a detailed report from the stewards or commissions in Pennsylvania or Maryland, everyone on the outside, including other jockeys, are left to ponder questions they have left unanswered.
That is insufficient for racing’s customers – the bettors – and it is grossly unfair for Sanchez.
CONTROLLING MOBILE DEVICE USAGE
Sanchez’s betting may have been prevented, at least in part, if basic rules prohibiting or controlling mobile device usage in the jockeys’ room were enacted.
Texas is one state that strictly limits jockey communications during a race day.
“A jockey reporting to the jockeys’ room must remain there until the jockey has fulfilled all of that day’s riding engagements. While in the jockeys’ room, the jockey may have no contact or communication with any person outside the jockeys’ room other than with an owner or trainer for whom the jockey is riding that day, or with the stewards or other personnel authorized by the stewards.”
Delaware allows mobile device usage, but includes the following provision:
“[A} Jockey's use of a mobile electronic device in the Jockey room signifies the Jockey's consent to a search of the mobile electronic device by or on behalf of the Commission.”
The world has changed, and Brothers believes the rules need to evolve for the protection of all parties.
“For decades, it was basically not permitted for jockeys to make or receive calls in the jocks room.
“To not have rules in place today, in a time of ‘personal mobile devices’ where you can do far more communicating than just talking to someone, is utterly inexplicable.
“If your agent was at the track, sometimes you would talk to them between races but even this was rare. There is no emergency situation where a jockey needs to talk to his/her agent. And if there is an emergency situation where an agent (or loved one) needs to speak with one of the jockeys, that call should still go through the stewards, to the clerk of scales desk, and the conversation should take place in this setting — in front of other people.”
In many overseas jurisdictions, jockeys are limited from access to communications devices during the race day. Rules from three jurisdictions are reprinted below.
In New South Wales, Australia:
“Without the permission of the Stewards, a person (including but not limited to a jockey) must not: (a) bring into the jockeys’ room; (b) have in that person’s possession in the jockeys’ room; (c) use in the jockeys’ room, any mobile telephone, tablet, radio transmitter, radio transceiver or any other appliance, apparatus, instrument or equipment capable of receiving or transmitting information.”
In Hong Kong:
“No person shall…Within the Jockeys’ Room or its precincts, without the permission of the Stewards, use or have in his possession any portable telephone, radio transmitter, radio receiver or any other appliance, apparatus, instrument or equipment capable of receiving or transmitting information.”
In Great Britain:
“A Restricted Person [a Jockey or Valet who attends a Race Meeting in their capacity as a Licensed Person] may not use or switch on a Communication Device during the Restricted Period [30 minutes before first race until after the last race has started], unless they are in the Phone Zone [an area in weighing room dedicated to communication device usage] and: the Communication Device is registered with the BHA; or the BHA gives permission to do so. The BHA shall only register a Communication Device if a Restricted Person consents to providing, on request from the BHA, fully itemised billing accounts for the Restricted Period.”
These jurisdictions have all dealt with issues related to the integrity of racing. These rules exist for those reasons and enable those jurisdictions to have a clearer path to protecting the public.
North American states and provinces should be adopting similar and, importantly, enforcing them.
Such rules protect the jockeys, too.
INSUFFICIENT MEASURES OF TRANSPARENCY
State and provincial racing commissions must recognize that a concerted effort to improve transparency is a necessity in the present day, particularly for a sport that is grounded in gambling.
However unfair it may seem to the well-intentioned, a lack of transparency can easily be perceived by some as an attempt to hide or deceive. In other words, if you are not providing customers with a transparent approach to racing’s business, you are against progress.
Recent examples in California, Arizona and Kentucky offer diverse examples in handling transparency.
In a report released last week, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) indicated a compounding factor which led to Modern Games being erroneously scratched from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf was a failure of telecommunications devices between officials to function properly.
Modern Games - Alex Evers Photo
The incident led to millions in customer losses as well as millions in refunds on a horse that eventually won.
The CHRB report was just a “summary.”
“While the CHRB does not typically release an investigation report, especially when it does not result in a complaint, given the widespread public interest, a summary of the investigation is provided.”
The summary provides very few precise details of decisions made by named individuals, as opposed to generalities. Decision-makers and witnesses are merely grouped as a whole: “the veterinarians,” “the tote room,” “various witnesses.” The usefulness of the report is limited, particularly for others in the sport to understand ways to avoid such incidents again.
It leaves many questions unanswered.
The discouraging story of Creative Plan, a gelding humanely euthanized in Arizona after seemingly being allowed to race with serious injuries, highlights another angle of the need for improved rules and enhanced transparency when dealing with troubling racing incidents.
The Paulick Report’s Natalie Voss covered that story.
Less than two weeks after the story came to light, the case was packed away without much detail. An Arizona Racing Commission spokesperson told Voss: “The stewards interviewed multiple individuals regarding Creative Plan and determined no rule was broken surrounding this case.”
While the regulatory body committed to seek ways to improve the rules, the lack of detail to the public, let alone other commissions seeking to improve outcomes, is remarkably disconcerting.
Once again, many obvious questions are left unanswered.
In the case of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC), at least some effort is being made to improve its measures of transparency.
Several recent examples have highlighted the antiquated regulation in the state which prohibits the KHRC from being transparent about ongoing cases, particularly prior to stewards’ issuing final rulings.
Chairman Jonathan Rabinowitz explained in a recent meeting, streamed live on YouTube, that changes are coming.
“This commission is committed to transparency, as well as the best interest of the horsemen, associations, and the racing industry as a whole. As a result, we've begun the process of making significant changes to 810 KAR 9:010 in order to ensure that this commission remains an industry leader in transparent government. It is of the utmost importance to this commission that we get this [regulation] changed.”
One quick act exemplifying a new approach was the airing of the appeal hearing in the Kentucky Derby overage case involving Medina Spirit. It has well over 1,000 views in less than a week.
Still, conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, are routine across racing, and the KHRC was reminded of that in advance of the hearing in this piece from Ray Paulick.
The more open and transparent proceedings can be, both before, during and after, the greater the likelihood customers, and all racing stakeholders, will be more confident in the adjudication of the sport.
That’s good for racing.
The missteps of the past cannot be undone. Improvements are sorely needed.
Penalties for egregious rules violations must serve not only as punitive for the guilty party, but deterrents for all. When customer confidence is crushed, meaningful steps to change must be adopted to begin the laborious process of rebuilding it.
Examples of improved rules and an uplifting of North American racing’s integrity infrastructure, as well as adopting best practices in transparent reporting about all incidents, but particularly controversial ones, are easy to find from the rest of the developed racing world.
Wheel reinvention is not required.
Marginal improvements to racing’s approach to transparency will benefit marginally. Radical improvements will benefit radically.
With change can come some discomfort for those accustomed to an engrained method. But decisions that improve the confidence of horseplayers and the well-intentioned in our sport will benefit all.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.