Derby Details 2021 Edition 11
When You Can’t Pass the “Eye Test”, the Sport’s Decline Begins
by Tom Carley
March 17, 2021
This by far will be the toughest column I will ever write. It comes with great reflection that I write the words that follow. This column will be based on facts, published articles by leading industry sources, as well as comments I have been hearing with increasing frequency over the last few years at racetracks, OTB’s and other racing forums. This wound to the sport of thoroughbred racing has been self-inflicted. And while it can be corrected, the window to take action is closing each week. This problem has now travelled from lower level racetracks to the highest level of racing. Remember, this sport is 100% reliant on the fans to wager their hard earned money to fund not only the purses paid to the winners, but also all of the expenses incurred by those stakeholders of the sport.
The day that this sport loses the trust of the bettors is the day it begins its downward slide into the abyss. Horse racing is already dealing with severe challenges. The number of betters is shrinking as the older population that grew up going to racetracks is passing away and not being replaced with new younger fans. People are choosing to spend their gambling dollars at casinos, bingos, lotteries, and other games of chance.
Over the years, other sports have also been affected by gambling scandals. The NBA had a referee last decade who was making certain calls in order to affect the outcome of games. College basketball point shaving scandals rocked New York in the 1950’s. Baseball as well had numerous gambling scandals at the turn of the 20th century.
Unlike baseball, horse racing does not have a Babe Ruth that will allow the sport to draw back the fans once they leave. For those who may not know the history, the Chicago White Sox accepted money to “throw” the 1919 World Series. As attendance declined dramatically, teams folded and the sport neared extinction. Babe Ruth began his career and his home run hitting changed the game and drew fans back to the sport. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Secretariat or Man O’ War is not walking through that door to save this sport.
Last year the sport was rocked by the indictments against trainer Jason Servis, Jorge Navarro and 25 others involved in allegedly providing illegal drugs to horses. While the investigation and court proceedings have been slowed due to Covid, this event has caused more people to begin to question the integrity of the sport. An article published last week by Bloodhorse Magazine in its online edition has quotes from Jockey Club Chairman Stuart Janney III. His comments not only opened my eyes, but also drove me to write this column.
You can read that article here: https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/246565/one-year-after-the-indictments-cheaters-still-prosper
This article and recent 3-year-old prep races have led to me applying what one gambler I know has referred to as “the eye test” to certain things that have been “seen” in the sport.
Let’s look at more details from the Bloodhorse expose…
In March of 2020, the thoroughbred world was focused on the Kentucky Derby prep races. Covid had not yet shutdown sporting events. When tracks finally had to close to the public, the sport of horse racing was hit with a punch to the gut. Arrests were made on March 9, 2020 of trainers Jason Servis (known most for training Maximum Security of 2019 Kentucky Derby fame) and Jorge Navarro (a fixture on the east coast). They and 25 other individuals were charged for participating in the conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and give illegal substances to racehorses.
Both trainers arrested boasted remarkably high win percentages and had been the subject of rumors for years. The Bloodhorse supported its title: “One Year After the Indictments, Cheaters Still Prosper”. That article stated, “the cheating and high win percentages continue to be a blight on racing’s landscape”. So, we can say that an abnormally high win percentage is an “eye test” that can be used.
These arrests will be an ongoing program for the sport:
- The trial is not expected to take place until 2022. The sport will have to endure ongoing discussion about this matter until then.
- The “Cheaters Still Prosper” article cited a source close to the case and stated that last year’s indictments will not be the last.
- Jockey Club Chairman Stuart Janney III said, “unfortunately we continue to see things that look to be suspicious to us” and later said “we have been communicating with 5 Stones intelligence (a leading private investigation firm hired by the Jockey Club) and they are not indicating that we’ve gotten to the bottom of the bucket.”
Most disturbing was the following statement:
“Cheating has become more prevalent at the highest levels, which has a lot of implications with the stud book and the integrity of the breed”.
These leads me to three thoughts:
- The Jockey Club realizes the danger this “cheating” is to the sport.
- While I will not mention specific trainers that are being investigated, you can bet they are not looking at guys whose horses are running up the track and losing by 20 lengths in these “highest levels” races. Whether that be a guy who won 4 Breeder’s Cup races last year or 3 of the last 6 Kentucky Derbies, or a trainer who is winning at a 30% clip, all trainers need to be prepared for increased scrutiny.
- While it has been thought of that cheating always existed at lower level tracks, the problem now has migrated to the “highest level” races. These races effect not only breeding and future horses, but also the public’s perception of the sport. These “highest level races” are the only exposure a large percentage of people get to the sport.
I would recommend you read this article yourselves. It goes into specifics about certain drugs, but due to space limitations, I will not address them in this column.
I would hope that all involved in the sport would take whatever steps necessary to show they are adhering not only to the rules of the sport, but also acting in the highest integrity.
The “Eye Test”
Horses have been on the Earth for millions of years. One could say horses have played a big role in the evolution of the world. Horses have been used by people for transportation, to haul goods and products, and to assist with farming. Almost as long as horses have been in existence, people have raced horses in contests of speed and stamina.
While fans have been watching the sport for many years, access to racing has never been greater than it is now. The major races have always been covered on network television. National cable networks such as FS1 are now showing races from up to 3 tracks daily on its program America’s Day at the Races. The races from the other tracks are accessible on TVG as well as streaming on the Advance Deposit Wagering platforms that viewers can watch on their phone and tablet. No longer are fans relegated to viewing only the Triple Crown races. Now can watch every race run in the country.
This increased access has definitely increased viewership of the races. And, what these viewers have “seen” for years is that races evolve in certain patterns. Quarter horses are bred to run at high speeds for a short period of time. These races are usually no longer than a quarter of a mile. Thoroughbreds are bred to run farther albeit at a slower pace and fall into 1 of 3 running styles:
Horses that use their energy early in a race running near the front end and run quickly until they expend their energy and tire and are usually overtaken by other horses. These type of horses have the best results when left alone in the lead.
Horses that like to lay 1 to 5 lengths off of the leader, and as the horses enter the far turn make one long run to try to pass the leader.
Horses that start slow, saving their energy until the horses enter the stretch and then expand their energy in a furious sprint trying to pass the tiring horses ahead of them.
Obviously, speed horses are more effective at shorter 1-turn races and distances under 1 mile. This is due to the fact they only have to “sprint” at a shorter distance. Speed horses on grass do better when the rails are moved off of the rail.
Veteran race watchers have seen enough races to realize a certain pattern exists of how races will evolve. If no horse challenges a speed horse, then the speed horse will have more energy left to hold off challengers in the stretch. If there are challengers to a speed horse, then the race can be expected to “fall apart” and the speed horses will lose energy allowing a closer to catch the front running horses and most likely win the race.
When the pattern of a race does not match what we have become accustomed to “see”-ing, it establishes a degree of doubt. Recent races I have observed, have not passed this “eye test”: certain speed horses are able to continue to run fast for much longer distances than previously thought possible. I will point out a few noteworthy examples:
The 2018 Kentucky Derby featured Justify, the first contender to enter without having competed as a 2-year-old in over 100 years. He lacked the foundation of races to build up his stamina. He was a front runner that liked to be on the lead. On Derby Day he was on the front end of the field, always within a length of the lead throughout the race. The first half mile was run in “a brutal” (quoting track announcer Travis Stone) 453/5 seconds. Justify eventually took the lead as the horses entered the far turn. At the top of the stretch, the Chad Brown trained Good Magic pulled alongside Justify. Horse watchers would expect the front runner to tire and the tactical horse to continue the move he started at the quarter pole to run past the tiring Justify. However, Justify never showed one sign of tiring and continued running quickly to eventually win the race.
The 2020 Kentucky Derby field featured Tiz The Law, an undefeated 3-year-old winning high quality races such as the Florida Derby and Saratoga’s Travers Stakes. At the beginning of the race, Authentic took the lead. He was lightly pressed but ran the first half mile in a “Fast” 462/5 seconds. Tiz the Law made a strong move as the horses entered the far turn, eventually taking the lead near the 3/16th pole. However, even after setting amazing fast fractions, Authentic still had enough energy to retake the lead and win the race.
This performance was in sharp contrast to Authentic’s previous 2 races. Authentic had tired in the 9-furlong Santa Anita Derby in April with a front running style and was overtaken by a rival. In the Haskell Stakes, also at 9 furlongs, Authentic appeared to tire in the stretch and barely held off a much inferior horse.
Fast forward to Derby prep races of 2021. There is a trend of horses from a barn winning prep races in virtually identical manner. Horses with a small foundation (some never having run around two turns) of racing are taking the lead early in races, running very rapidly in the first 3/8 of a mile and holding this fast form throughout the race. These horses do not show any signs of fatigue. I will omit Life Is Good from this study (his races were run identical), however he seems far superior to his rivals, but I will note the lack of loss of energy. However, I will use as examples the recent performances of Concert Tour in the Rebel Stakes and Medina Spirit in the Robert Lewis Stakes. I was going to include a Brad Cox trained horse in this part of the story, but last week he was defeated in an effort by Concert Tour that did not pass the “eye test”.
Both of these races seems to follow the same script. Medina Spirit went to the lead in the Robert Lewis, a race at 11/16 miles. He fought off two sprinter foes using a tremendous amount of energy. As the horses entered the stretch, two closers began to make their move. Horse players would expect to “see” the leader fade as the horses that conserved their energy came to challenge Medina Spirit. However, Medina Spirit found the needed energy to hold off the two closers. One of these closers had run the same race in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile and actually led that race only to be caught in the last 100 yards by eventual 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. The point being that the horses Medina Spirit held off were not slouches, but good horses.
In the Rebel, Concert Tour had never run farther than 6 furlongs and was being asked to go 1 1/16 miles. He was facing a known speed horse trained by Brad Cox who was breaking from the inside post position. Concert Tour was gunned to the lead, fought the “speed horse” and then drew off to win easily. This might not be the best example, but all of these races are exact blueprints of one another.
These 2021 preps continue to fail the “eye test”. While most horses sent to the lead would begin to tire, these horses all seem not only to maintain, but also find reserve energy to enhance their performance. This is akin to making a quarter horse run a thoroughbred distance. The horses in this barn continue to run very fast fractions on the lead fighting off other speed horses and then look closers in the eye and defy logic by finding additional energy to not only hold them off but draw away from the closers.
This does not pass the “eye test” in that the thoroughbreds are doing something that their breed has never before been able to do. They are running rapidly early in the race and sustaining this speed and energy use for a long distance. One simply does not reinvent a breed. This would be the medical equivalent of a human being running a mile at the speed of a 400 yard sprinter. Keep in mind the criticism of the thoroughbred breeders over the last 10 years is that the horses are being bred for speed and not stamina. Given that criticism, you would not expect horses to run faster and run farther.
When you combine this change of certain horse’s running style contrary to thousands of years of racing with the substantial increase in certain trainer’s winning percentages, it leads to another inconsistency which is not easily answered. Trainers like Servis and Navarro had unusually high trainer win percentages. The sport needs to reduce the fan’s doubt not increase them. This is the only way the sport will regain the full trust of the betters.
The one thing all of these horses have in common is they are trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert has been among the most successful trainers, as well as one of the most heavily sentenced drug violators in the history of the sport.
Baffert has tied for the most Kentucky Derby wins with 6. His Kentucky Derby victories have come in bunches: his first two wins were 1997 and 1998. He was the trainer of record in 2002 for War Emblem, purchased by a client of Baffert’s just 17 days before winning the Derby. Therefore, Baffert had nothing to do with the horse’s development, but yet has been credited with this Derby win.
Baffert went through a 13-year slump without winning a Kentucky Derby. However, he has suddenly won 3 Derbies in the last 6 years. The one thing found with each win is that all 3 of the recent Derby winners have won the race in the same style. Yes, you guessed it they were on the front end and outlasted closing horses who ordinarily would have passed these front running horses.
A further head scratcher is that 2018 Kentucky Derby victory of Justify. Not since Apollo in 1882 (136 years) had a horse won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. There have been many horses that had tried this; yet all had failed. The reason was believed to be that horses needed to be have a good foundation to build their endurance. The race is described above, and the horse exhibited stamina that most never thought was possible. When the horse won the Triple Crown 5 weeks later at 12 furlongs in the same style, he was suddenly retired.
This move did not pass the “eye test”. Why would a horse be retired so early into his three-year-old campaign when he could not begin stallion duty until the following February? Justify had proven his dominance over this group of horses and one would expect he could have won the Travers (a race that Baffert does run horses in regularly) and the $ 6 million Breeder’s Cup Classic.
The event that brought these “eye test” failures more in the open have been the recent drug violations. Baffert is no stranger to drug violations. The New York Times stated in an October 2020 article that Baffert has had 28 drug violations in his career. In 2020, Baffert was disqualified from not 1, but 2 Grade I races. It is one thing to get disqualified from a minor race, but to commit an act that would get you disqualified from a high profile race— where a trainer knows the scrutiny will be at its highest— is either the largest of oversights or a blatant example of dependency on a banned substance.
On the May 2 card at Oaklawn Park, Baffert had two horses test positive in post-race samples for Lidocaine. Charlatan, who had won a division of the Arkansas Derby, and Gamine, who had won an Allowance race, were both disqualified. The owners had to return the purse money earned. In the case of Charlatan that was $300,000. Baffert’s attorney stated the positives were caused by an employee wearing a pain relieving Salonpas patch. Baffert received a 15-day suspension. But this penalty has been appealed, so the trainer has never served the suspension.
Gamine also ran in the Kentucky Oaks (the female equivalent of the Kentucky Derby). She had finished third. However, her post race test showed a positive for betamethasone, which is an anti-inflammatory drug. The owners of Gamine were forced to return the $120,000 that she had earned. Gamine later won the 2020 Eclipse Award for Female Sprinter.
Baffert also had a horse test positive in Summer 2020 at Del Mar named Mereneith. The substance in question was dextromethorphan. The trainer claimed that the violation was caused by a groom who had Covid (why was he at work if he had Covid?) who was using cough medicine.
The Kentucky Derby winner Justify tested positive for scopolamine after he won the 2018 Santa Anita Derby. The rules in effect in 2018 called for Justify to forfeit his Kentucky Derby points and earnings. This would have resulted in Justify failing to have any Derby qualification points, effectively disqualifying him from competing. Because the California officials spent 4 months investigating the matter, Justify was giventime to win the Derby and the Triple Crown. After the horse’s stallion rights were sold for $60 million, the California Horse Racing Board “disposed” of the inquiry in a closed door meeting. The chairman of the CHRB was a former client of Baffert.
One thing Baffert never lacks is an excuse for his positive tests. With Justify it was environmental contamination. In the case of a previous contamination, it was caused by a groom eating a poppy seed muffin. The groom later provided testimony that he had not consumed any food while handling the horse.
Dr Stephen Sinatra, whom I have known for years, does not use any controversial performance enhancing agents on his horses. On rare occasions he has used small doses of pre-race Lasix if the equine has not responded to his supplement program to offset the chance of pulmonary induced-equine hemorrhage.
The obvious questions
The more observations that just do not pass the “eye test”, the more questions the betters have. A review of almost any article about Baffert is accompanied by the various comments questioning or outright accusing him of illegally affecting the outcome of races. This column is not about determining his innocence or guilt, but rather this column points out the doubts that the public is beginning to have regarding the legitimacy of races. This is a real problem for horse racing as it relies heavily on the gamblers to bet (risk) their money on the outcome.
A list of questions that needs to be asked includes:
What did Baffert discover that, after enduring a 13-year Derby drought, would make him a trainer that would win three Kentucky Derbies in 6 years as well as 2 Triple Crowns when a triple crown had not been won for 37 years? It is doubtful that it would be due to an upgrade in the quality of horses he was training. Baffert continuously had a stream of owners sending him the most expensive stock that was purchased at the yearling sale. There did not appear to be a difference in the Baffert workout program for his horses. A savvy handicapper always looks for a big performance after a Baffert horse has a 6-furlong workout 2 workouts before a big race. This is when Baffert’s horses have the most success. Other trainers do this, so this is not revolutionary but merely an observation.
So, what caused this change in his success with 3-year-olds? Why are they all of a sudden able to run faster and farther than thoroughbreds of the past? Keep in mind this was at a time when the breed was being created more for speed and less for stamina.
How is it that Baffert seems to have a “once in a lifetime” horse come around every few years?
Why have Baffert’s assistants not started their own stables? Unlike the other leading American trainer of our generation, Wayne Lukas— who has produced a pedigree of trainers including Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, and Dallas Stewart— Baffert has not had any of his assistants go out on their own and make any kind of impact. There could be a variety of reasons for this.
How do these questions effect the future of the sport?
Watch me make changes to dominate
The changing of the horse’s performance reminds one of professional golfer Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau made the decision about 20 months ago to change his approach to golf. He chose to emphasize power to drive the ball farther than any golfer ever has before. Similar to the movie “Happy Gilmore”, the golfer strove to hit drives of over 380 yards when one generation ago a 300-yard drive was an exception.
The key to making fans believe the golfer’s improvements complied with all rules is that Bryson was completely transparent. He invited the media to document the change in his diet. He publicly consumed large quantities of foods, drank muscle building drinks, published details of his workout regime, made his trainers accessible to the media, and allowed all to watch his practice sessions. Articles were written documenting this “revolution” in magazines like Muscle & Fitness and Golf Digest, as well as numerous television outlets. Byson has bulked up. And while many whisper accusations of steroids, the golfer’s transparency has helped to make fans believe that he is operating within all the rules of the PGA.
The key to getting fans to get confidence in the Sport of Kings is transparence as well. Baffert, and other high percentage winning trainers such as Brad Cox, Chad Brown, etc. need to be transparent. These trainers should be required to demonstrate how they have gotten their horses to improve performance while complying with the rules of the sport. Trainers need not reveal all their secrets, only those action that may appear out of compliance with the sport. In thoroughbred racing honesty is the best policy. For example, should a trainer select a feed high in nutrition—or targeted nutritional supplements like vitamins and minerals– that should be their prerogative.
The trainers can use their compliance with the rules while increasing their winning percentage as a marketing tool to attract new owners which will only make their stables stronger. This is not unlike other sports in which successful coaches give clinics to college and high school coaches detailing how they devise their strategies.
How to save our sport
This problem was not caused overnight and will not be solved overnight. Thoroughbred racing is a great sport. My motivation for this column is to make it better, not to attack the sport or any participant. High winning barns have been accused of cheating for decades. However, the recent domination by a small number of barns has only increased this doubt because their horses appear to defy logic to perform in ways never before seen. The betters need to know, without a doubt, when they wager their hard-earned money on a race that there is no doubt that all rules are being complied with. There are many things the sport needs to do to maximize the public’s trust in the sport, such as:
Establish a national leadership organization to run the sport
All other major sports have some form of national governing body. For the last decade, there have been various movements to create a unifying body. However, this momentum is constantly squashed by the regional organizations that refuse to give up their power. An article in the March 16 Thoroughbred Daily News states that regional Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Associations (not Florida, Kentucky, New York, or California HBPA’s) are now threatening legal action to keep a national horse racing body that was approved in a recent bill signed by the President from being formed. The two major racing companies (Stronach and CDI) need to quit expending energy fighting each other— trying to develop real estate by selling profitable racetracks and working against the horsemen— instead of doing what is best for the sport. This new organization needs representation for all racing venues and stakeholders (trainers, owners, jockeys, backstretch workers and horse welfare). The new organization needs to have absolute power to take actions to improve the sport.
Make all medication regulations uniform
One of the leading doubts the public has is the levels of medication. Currently, each state has its own standards. To Bob Baffert’s defense how does any trainer that ships horses state to state maintain full compliance with a varying level of medication acceptance? The level of acceptable medication needs to be determined not by what states currently use, but what is best for the welfare of the horse. Gamblers would rather see horses run slower so long as the playing field is leveled and the actions taken are for the betterment of the horse. The penalties for violations need to be serve enough to deter future non-compliance, yet be easy enough to understand and fair for all parties. Baseball does not except any excuses, if players test positive for a banned substance the penalties are enforced without reduction. A trainer is responsible for what goes on in his barn.
Require full transparency from all participants
The time has come for all participants to open up their barn and prove they are doing things the right way. While certain trainers will complain this takes away their competitive advantage, transparency maximizes the confidence of gamblers. The sport made a huge mistake in the late 1980’s by restricting media access while other sports were inviting the media and people to get an insider look at the sport. The media needs to learn how to ask tough questions and quit pandering to certain trainers, owners and officials.
Promote good horsemanship
The emphasis needs to be placed back on the welfare of the animal. This includes breeding, breaking, injury identification, rehabilitation, and appropriate post career activities for the equine participants. Trainers and assistants need to be mass educated in proper conditioning, early injury identification, proper rehabilitation, and proper placing of horses in the appropriate races in order to minimize injuries.
Receive feedback from betters and fans
The sport needs to realize the role of the fans in the ongoing success of the sport. These fans fuel the sport and need to have their concerns addressed. This should not be limited to the high dollar gamblers, but all fans should be invited to provide their ideas for improving the sport. Racing is like any other business. And customer feedback is an integral part of improving the product.
Provide full cooperation to resolve the medication and legal issues plaguing the sport
The 2020 indictments were a shock to the credibility of the sport. The longer this matter goes unresolved only causes further damage to the sport. One of the immediate actions needs to be that all parties provide full cooperation to putting this horrible matter in the sport’s rear view mirror. All companies have issues, but those that survive are those that run a negative into a positive. Use this misfortune to take a stand against the harmful practices of the past. The industry needs to show leadership and work with the Jockey Club top bringing this matter to a close.
Again, like anything in the sports world— and especially in thoroughbred racing— honesty and integrity are the only policy.