This is Part 12 of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation’s (TIF) series “Wagering Insecurity.”
Faced with remarkable competitive pressure from the rise of legal sports betting, horse racing is at a crossroads.
Confidence amongst horseplayers and horse owners is essential to the future sustainability of the sport. Efforts to improve the greater North American Thoroughbred industry will fall flat if its stakeholders fail to secure a foundation of integrity, along with increased transparency of the wagering business and its participants over time. Achieving this is growing increasingly difficult after the sport has neglected its core base - horseplayers – for decades.
“Wagering Insecurity” details some of that neglect, and the need to embrace serious reform. Fortunately, there are examples across the racing world to follow.
PART 12 – PRAVDA
In this final installment of “Wagering Insecurity,” we make four observations which have become clear. These are the product of input from many individuals, both named and anonymous, whose support throughout this series and whose assistance made it possible. .
The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation supports the growth of the North American Thoroughbred racing industry. We want more horseplayers and more horse owners. That sort of future is impossible without beginning the process of adopting the recommendations offered previously and considering the observations below.
Medication use has dominated public discourse on North American racing integrity over the last three decades. The history is long and contentious.
For context, the 2021 Kentucky Derby was the first run since 1985 where the entire field ran without Lasix. Five years after that, the topic was front and center on Derby Day as exemplified in this video below, of the 1990 Kentucky Derby broadcast, where Al Michaels and Dave Johnson spoke of a Jockey Club study about the potential impact of Lasix use.
Michaels said it would be a story to follow throughout that summer. Regardless of the study's specifics, it took more than three decades for action.
Anti-doping control programs are a necessary component of a broader suite of integrity measures. But balance is needed; progress must be shown in other areas of the integrity arena, too.
There are many factors which have contributed to North American racing’s issues with doping, including a weak regulatory structure, a laissez-faire culture about drugs and a general failure to be active overseers of the sport, protecting the betting public.
One area where racing has gotten it right is in constantly improving thresholds of testing. A wealth of well-educated experts has ensured that as science and testing improve, racing’s approach to testing evolves as well.
But the contrast with other forms of racing’s integrity infrastructure should not be lost.
In one corner, one-trillionth of a gram can be measured. Penalties may be assessed because of that microscopic finding. In another corner, jockeys and trainers go unquestioned about in-race decisions or tactics, state veterinarians are not required to report publicly any episodes of bleeding or lameness noticed after a race or provide reasons for scratches and voided claims, thrown shoes, or other measures which are standard across the rest of the racing world.
That gap needs to be closed.
North American stewards fall short of those in the rest of the developed racing world. The blame resides with the regulators and track operators (yes, sometimes stewards are hired directly by the tracks) who have allowed these roles to degrade over time.
They have less training, are paid less and have not been given responsibilities commensurate with the worldwide expectations for such positions. As many veterans of the stewards’ stand and other officials have retired, their replacements are often even less prepared.
A positive development in this space came in August 2019 when the Jockey Club and Racing Officials Accreditation Program announced the launch of a global exchange program which would give North American stewards the opportunity to learn and practice in other countries. The pandemic delayed implementation, but the program should be embraced as the world reopens.
The Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority (HISA) presents a vehicle for uplifting these standards.
TIF founder Craig Bernick is hopeful HISA evolves to tackle these issues, and the opportunities raised in Part 11 of this series.
“This time, it actually feels different. HISA offers racing a unique opportunity because it has superseding power over existing industry organizations.
“Past efforts to reform our sport have failed because of two main reasons – either the groups or organizations involved were not empowered to effect change or those involved were too focused on their own bottom line or retaining some semblance of control.”
While many horse and racetrack owners may have enjoyed slot-supplemented revenues and purses over more than the last two decades, additional funding has not found its way to racing’s integrity infrastructure and the neglect shows.
Several stewards and racing officials consulted during TIF’s research for the “Wagering Insecurity” series, who all requested anonymity to speak forthrightly, shared examples of poor working conditions, obsolete technology and general concerns over their ability to do their job well at present.
Uplifting standards will not be cheap, but the cost of not improving will be far greater for everyone who makes their living in racing.
A troublesome factor which belies all of the detail shared in this series is the absence of a robust, independent racing media in North America.
While racing has several influential trade publications and broadcasts with some very talented, knowledgable staff which contribute significantly to the sport, mainstream, independent coverage is practically non-existent.
Steve Crist, former publisher of the Daily Racing Form, lamented the state of racing coverage in March 2021 remarks to TIF for this series.
“Anyone from the outside who has seen the evolution of coverage of the sport can say that the kind of journalism which existed, even 10 years ago, is just not being done.
“This is a huge issue. It’s nearly impossible to hold anyone accountable for anything.”
Crist recalled a time when he was a young reporter for the New York Times in the early 1980s, covering the ongoing hearings and legal wranglings around race-fixing from the 1970s. The coverage was endless, Crist recalls.
“I was working for the Times and there were three other racing beat reporters from each of the tabloids doing the same. Everyone wanted to be first.”
His work included eye-popping ledes, like the following from a 1981 piece:
“A former New York-based trainer has identified Jacinto Vasquez, a leading rider who has twice won the Kentucky Derby, as the man who offered the jockey Mike Hole a $5,000 bribe to hold back a horse at Saratoga in 1974, according to a deposition given to the State Racing and Wagering Board.”
Adjusting for inflation, a $5,000 bribe in 1974 would be about $26,000 today, the equivalent jockey’s cut for winning a race with a purse of more than $400,000.
Most public racing coverage is restrained because advertising dollars come from within the industry itself. Mainstream coverage, when it happens, is often fleeting.
Crist thinks this is dangerous for a sport whose foundation is grounded in wagering.
“A media outlet in racing should not be compared to a propaganda machine like Pravda from the old Soviet Union, but in at least one case, that’s what we now have.”
The line between journalism and publicity has been increasingly blurred.
Industry publications are hard-pressed to hold tracks, tote companies, ADWs and other-related organizations accountable for the degradation of the sport’s integrity infrastructure when those same entities are their primary source of income through advertising. Years ago when he was with the New York Times, Crist and his mainstream media colleagues were in those roles. Today, coverage is mostly limited to the trades.
Several racing writers and broadcasters questioned by TIF acknowledged these issues are ever-present in their daily work. They all asked to remain anonymous because of a fear of reprisal from their employers and contacts within the industry. Staffing within industry media has contracted substantially in recent years, reducing the opportunity for deep coverage. Those in place are doing the best they can with what they have, but it is a delicate balance. One said the situation has devolved to such a degree that they know instinctively what topics are off-limits.
Criticism about the industry’s integrity failings and other myriad issues could come at significant cost to racing media.
Those with substantial investments in horses, farms, associated agribusiness and other economic drivers of the sport should recognize that racing media must be given the freedom to hold the business to a higher standard than at present.
In the long run, the truth benefits the greatest number of stakeholders.
The overall wagering space is changing rapidly. Fixed odds betting for racing in North America is a necessity for one key reason – all new betting customers expect to know what price they are getting on their bets. While pari-mutuel betting still has a future, particularly in exotic wagers, the tote monopoly which has existed for generations on U.S. racing is coming to an end, as it should.
The tote protocol in use now, relying on a decades-old approach known in the industry as ITSP, is likely on its way out. Global commingling is more important than ever and TIF has learned from several major players in the pari-mutuel wagering technology space that a much-revised modern system of bet processing and information sharing will be needed. Support for antiquated tote technology is fading fast.
Customers must still be protected in the interim, and whatever new systems are developed should have proper oversight measures at its core.
The “Wagering Insecurity” series is unlike anything we have researched and published at the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation. We hope lessons can be learned from it.
“TIF was created to improve the prospects of horse owners and horseplayers, whose participation fuels racing’s sustainability,” said Bernick.
“We have focused on issues related to pricing, transparency, technology and access to data. Racing has huge obligations too – now more than ever: aftercare, backstretch programs, jockey health and equine research. The best way to meet these obligations and sustain the business is to grow revenue through wagering. Doing so will be impossible without the greater industry accepting the serious issues raised and recommendations provided by this series.”
Ensuring integrity in horse racing takes a team effort. It’s hard work. And it requires drive and support from horse owners, breeders, racing fans and most especially, the customers who need the most significant protection – the horseplayers.
It will take significant capital from the greater industry, investing in the appropriate resources to build an acceptable standard of integrity oversight. That does not go unnoticed. Under no circumstances should the costs for such programs come from increasing takeout – the cost of betting. There would be no more counterproductive effort than that.
The long-term costs to racing and its stakeholders’ investments, if we do not upgrade racing’s integrity infrastructure, will be far more substantial than the short-term costs of filling those needs.
We must restore and build confidence in existing horseplayers and horse owners, which will help us attract future customers. Little that racing in North America is doing now will accomplish that, particularly given our general embrace of opaque practices.
Racing must be operated more sustainably than it is now and we need to adopt the measures recommended here, and others, to bring the industry forward.
The path to better securing racing’s wagering business is challenging and getting there will require exposing some long-standing failings.
For sports and racing integrity expert Jack Anderson, there is no choice.
“In the immediate, U.S. racing needs to look within. It needs to consult and review its own stakeholders and undertake a clear-eyed, hard-headed analysis of the state of the sport.
“That process may be a painful one. It may shock the racing public. It may, in the short term, undermine the reputation of the sport even amongst the most sympathetic of its supporters in the wider American sporting public.”
These improvements are needed to make North American racing better, to sustain the interest of bettors and secure the substantial investments of owners and breeders, as well as the reach of racing’s economic impact.
The role of the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority offers a tremendous opportunity for ALL parties in the sport going forward and should be leveraged in every capacity to yield much-needed, uniform control over the integrity of U.S. racing. As previously outlined, HISA is required to report to the Federal Trade Commission.
Outside the FTC’s Washington D.C. headquarters are a pair of sculptures created by Michael Lantz in 1942 entitled “Man Controlling Trade.” Each sculpture depicts a man holding a horse.
Our collective opportunity for improvement is real. There are countless examples for North American racing to follow.
"Man Controlling Trade" - FTC Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Thoroughbred Idea Foundation Photo
Miss a previous installment? Click on the links to read more.
Part 1 – Expectations
Part 2 – Intertwined
Part 3 – Volponi
Part 4 – Confidence
Part 5 – Bingo
Part 6 – Proof
Part 7 - Z
Part 8 - Damage
Part 9 - Alerts
Part 10 - Grey
Part 11 - Recommendations
Want to share your insights with TIF? Email us here.