Our sport can, and should, always seek continuous improvement.
When it comes to the amount and quality of information racing provides for customers, North America’s place in the greater racing world is a mixed bag.
In Great Britain, in-race positions do not appear in the running lines and what happens in the morning is a mystery to nearly everyone – two features which are regulars in American racing information. But if a horse had a “wind surgery,” be it a “tie back (prosthetic laryngoplasty), hobday (ventriculetomy / cordectomy), epiglottic surgery, tie forward (dorsal displacement soft palate surgery), [or] soft palate cautery,” it must be declared to the British Horseracing Authority and is identified in race cards with a “WS” designation.
In terms of data totality, Hong Kong ticks most of the boxes, presenting intricate detail on a daily basis – a horse’s appearance on any of their training tracks is recorded and accumulates over a horse’s career, times are posted if the work was at any meaningful speed, video of barrier trials (multi-purpose, group gate works) are available, timed and charted. Edited videos of each trainer’s daily works, with the last three weeks of training available, are posted to the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s website. Extraordinary veterinary details – elements beyond normal veterinary care – are posted and also maintained throughout a career.
Upon announcing the required declarations for wind surgeries amongst horses racing in Great Britain beginning in 2018, Jamie Stier, Chief Regulatory Officer of the BHA, said:
“The sport’s betting customers, and potential customers, are at the heart of this development. It is simply essential that the sport is seen to be open, fair and transparent. In a modern world, information which may have an impact on a horse’s performance should be available to all, not only those who are close to the horse in question.
“The more data that is available to the betting customer serves to make the sport a more attractive betting product. It is vital that we keep up with other sports if we are going to continue to compete in an increasingly crowded betting marketplace.”
Racing Post outlined the impact of the wind surgery information in 2019, one year after the BHA launched the program.
KENTUCKY WORKOUT RULES AND DATA FALL SHORT
While America provides far more information, overall, than British racing, there are significant flaws which should be rectified.
Take last Saturday’s (May 23) first race at Churchill Downs as an example.
Trainer Thomas Drury Jr. had two starters in the race – Step Ten, making his career debut and Baby White Sox, who would make his first start for Drury, but his third start overall, having run twice for Joe Sharp in 2019, the last of those starts coming in mid-September.
While Step Ten is shown as having five published works, one most recently at Churchill and four at the Skylight Training Center, Baby White Sox’s lines displayed just one work in his eight months away from the races, a half-mile breeze two weeks prior to the race. Without question, in the information provided to the public, Step Ten looks far more prepared for the race, and the public wagered accordingly.
Step Ten was sent off at 11-1 while Baby White Sox was ignored at 64-1.
The result was quite different than the public’s expectations, however.
Baby White Sox sped away from the gate and led the field through strong fractions and faded slightly late, finishing third beaten only a length. Step Ten was never involved.
At best, Baby White Sox has blossomed into an improved horse given time and some class relief. At worst, it appears meaningful information about his preparation did not, for whatever reason, reach wagering customers who staked more than $1.6 million on bets involving the race. Now, there is nothing necessarily nefarious afoot in this situation – but even a casual observer would agree that it defies logic a 64-1 chance would run as well as Baby White Sox did off a single half-mile work over eight months. Watch the race below.
The administrative rules in Kentucky require a horse off more than 45 days to record at least one workout – and that’s it.
“A horse that has not started in the past forty-five (45) days shall not be permitted to start unless it has at least one (1) published workout within twenty (20) days of entry at a distance satisfactory to the stewards. If a horse has performed the requisite workout, but the workout does not appear in the past performances, the horse shall be permitted to start if the stewards determine that the workout failed to be published through no fault of the trainer.
(b) A horse starting for the first time shall not be permitted to start unless it has three (3) workouts, one (1) of which is from the starting gate, one (1) of which is within twenty (20) days of entry, and at least one (1) of which is published.”
The rule needs to be revised.
Consider some of the other possibilities.
If Baby White Sox runs ninth in this race, beaten 14 lengths, most people don’t notice a 64-1 shot finishing down the field.
If Baby White Sox wins, such a performance off just a single published workout is eye-opening and an affront to all wagering customers. There would be plenty of outrage.
But worse – what if Baby White Sox suffered a serious injury during the race? This would have been a textbook example used by racing’s critics to demonize the sport and we would deserve it. Racing has endured problems for decades, but we shouldn’t be walking into these traps in 2020.
A revision to the Kentucky Administrative Rules was proposed in February 2020, which would require that a veterinarian must certify that a horse entered to run “has been examined by an attending veterinarian licensed by the regulatory body in the jurisdiction where the examination occurs no more than three (3) days prior to entry; the attending veterinarian certifies in writing that the horse is in serviceable, sound racing condition…[and] shall include watching the horse jog in hand.”
Marc Guilfoil, Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC), responded to tweets about this incident on May 23, as well as one highlighted by Ray Paulick from a similar situation (and another Thomas Drury trainee) on May 21. In that instance, maiden filly Beauty Day returned to make her second career start following a debut on March 5, showing just a single half-mile work at Skylight on May 9. She won by a neck at 5-1 having shown a single published workout.
Is that enough? Even if Beauty Day was working regularly at Skylight – a facility that does not have a clocker and relies on trainers to submit such information – should our sport want this filly to run with such an incomplete workout history?
While no rule was violated, something which Director Guilfoil noted in both examples, the rule is clearly insufficient for racing in 2020. American racing needs to evolve. Continuing to accept a rule which would allow a single published workout from eight months away from the races is more indicative of a sport that is actually devolving. It seems like we don’t care as much as we should – about our horses, about our betting customers and about those who are competing against Baby White Sox.
Director Guilfoil suggested we “get involved and propose a rule change.”
And we will.
The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation is drafting a letter to the KHRC which will suggest a revision to the rule referenced above which is much closer to the rules applied in California regarding the requirements of multiple workouts for horses returning off layoffs of more than 60 days (two works) and 90 days (three works). Tackling methods to develop more proper reporting will also be suggested.
Change isn’t easy. There will be issues with such a rule that need to be addressed – particularly, ensuring that works are appropriately recorded by independent outlets, not trainers themselves and “phoned-in.” There will be inconveniences that some horsemen will not like. These need to be managed and overcome.
If horse racing in America is going to publish workout information adjacent to factual information about past races, and if states require such information for a variety of reasons – notably welfare issues and public transparency due to wagering – then the information must be more complete and with as much accuracy as can be reasonably attained.
(And for now, yes, we are ignoring the incredibly salient argument that this sort of information should be automated with mandatory tracking devices).
Who would have thought a single half-mile workout at the Skylight Training Center could be so energizing?
You never know where you are going to find inspiration to improve a sport which not only needs it, but employs tens of thousands – across Kentucky and America – and has a massive economic impact. We all need to find these failings, highlight them and correct them. It won’t be easy. We hope the KHRC will act on our letter upon its receipt and do so in the best interest of all.
For our horses. For our customers. For all our sport’s stakeholders.