Jones: "Either we eliminate the problem, or the problem is going to eliminate us"

Brereton Jones with a horse on his farm, Airdrie Stud, in Midway, Kentucky. Photo: AP Photo/Brian Tietz.

Brereton C. Jones, who served as governor of Kentucky from 1991 to 1995, operates Airdrie Stud in Midway, Kentucky, with his wife Libby and son, Bret. The farm covers about 2,500 acres, including land that was once the Alexander family’s historic Woodburn Stud, which was home of the great 19th-century sire Lexington and produced four Kentucky Derby winners bred by Woodburn owner A. J. Alexander: Baden-Baden (1877), Fonso (1880), Joe Cotton (1885), and Chant (1894). Alexander also bred the runner Preakness, for whom the Triple Crown’s middle jewel is named, and sold 1901 Derby winner His Eminence in utero.

The Joneses founded Airdrie in 1972 and have bred Thoroughbreds to race and sell ever since. The farm frequently ranks among North America’s leading breeders by purse earnings and the 135 stakes-winners it has bred include Kentucky Oaks winners Believe You Can and Proud Spell, the latter also a champion 3-year-old filly; Canadian Horse of the Year Biofuel; G1 winner No Such Word; and, most recently, Haskell runner-up Albano, a G3 winner.

Brereton Jones, 75, was a founding member of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, which aimed to raise awareness of the horse industry’s economic impact on Kentucky, in part to stimulate grassroots support for expanded gambling in the state that could benefit racing’s purses.

Jones, a Jockey Club member since 2012, was interviewed by Glenye Cain Oakford on July 31. 

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How would you describe your breeding philosophy?

“We really believe in raising horses like I think good athletes are raised. Having been a football player through high school and college, you’d go out to practice and you’d get roughed up and you’d think the coach was running you too hard and that sort of thing, and the next thing you know there were a ton of people—not myself—but other people who go to be great athletes because of that activity. The bottom line is that I think if you raise horses on the best land and give them the best diet, that you have a chance at raising the best horses. But you can’t hothouse them. You can’t raise them in a stall. You have to raise them out in the bluegrass and out in the sunshine and treat them like the athletes they are.

“We’re very fortunate, because the land where we are and the land I was able to buy after I moved here was land that, according to all the professors at [the University of Kentucky] or any place else, there wasn’t any better land around. I’m not qualified to tell you every single way that you document that, but you can “ooooh” at the trees that are growing out in old fields, and you can look at different grasses that are growing wild, you can look at the way land has produced whatever it’s been asked to produce, and there’s no reason why it can’t do the same for horses.”

You breed both to race and to sell. How do you decide which horses to keep and which to sell?

“We have to pay the bills, and in order to pay the bills, you have to generate a cash flow, to generate a cash flow, you need to be selling your product. What I’ve done from the very beginning is put in the sale what I felt like were my most salable and best yearlings and  let the public then decide. But I would tell them my reserve bid on the animals, so the public would know.  If someone comes up to me and asks, ‘What are you willing to take for this horse?’ I will certainly tell them. It’s up to you: If you don’t think it’s worth that much, then don’t bid on it. It think it’s a fair way of selling horses, so we share that knowledge.

“There was an interesting cartoon one day a year or so ago that had a picture of me, and underneath it said,  ‘If you don’t buy my horses, I’ll take them and beat you with them.’ That’s fair [laughs]. Albano, I bought him back for $37,000, and I had a $50,000 reserve on him. The public didn’t think he was worth that. So far, he’s won $500,000, and he’s very sound, so hopefully that will increase.” 

Fair to say that essentially everything off your farm will go through the sale ring, though?

“There are some exceptions. If we’ve got an old mare that’s been very successful for us and we want to keep a daughter, then we’ll race her and she’ll eventually join the broodmare band.” 

You’re one of the founders of the Kentucky Equine Education Project [KEEP], though you’ve retired from that. In your view, how has that effort done, particularly with regard to readying the political ground for expanded gambling in Kentucky?

“KEEP has done very well. When we focused on that, we were very surprised and disappointed to see that the statewide poll that we did had only 40 percent of the people in Kentucky who really felt that the horse industry was really important and good for the commonwealth of Kentucky. That was a very surprising figure. The last time we did that poll, it was up to 72 or 73 percent. The way that’s been able to transpire is by having a KEEP person, very much like a member of the general assembly, in every county in the state. They can communicate with the horse people, and this is not just for Thoroughbreds, but for all breeds. There are more riding horses and Quarter Horses in the state than there are Thoroughbreds. Consequently, I felt it was important, if the state was going to be successful in its equine operations, then we needed to be certain that all breeds got a chance to participate and help create the jobs and opportunities that horses bring to this state. That helps everybody, even if you’ve never been in the horse business and don’t like horses. Horses have created an economic opportunity that goes into various kinds of jobs and therefore becomes of value to every member of the commonwealth.” 

But KEEP was designed not just to raise the awareness of Kentucky’s horse industry as an important economic force, but also to put some muscle behind the push for expanded gambling, correct?

“What we wanted was, if we were going to go into expanded gambling, to make certain that it was properly presented and honestly and fairly operated. If you’ll notice, the states that have gone into expanded gambling and have sold it on the idea that this is going to bring more money into the purse structure at the track, and therefore, all the horse people need to be for it. What has happened is that there’s not a single state now that has gotten gaming passed in the last two or three years where the politicians haven’t looked back and taken the money that we were making. And, year by year, they are taking more from each state. They haven’t really begun to take it yet in the way that I’m fearful they will be taking it in New York. West Virginia was one of the first states that started that, and I thought that it was probably a good idea for West Virginia, but in retrospect, I think I was wrong. I think, quite frankly, that if you have it passed, it needs to be done in a way that politicians can’t just turn around and take it away. How do you do that? Through a constitutional amendment so the people would have the right to vote on whether or not they want to take that money away, rather than just the politicians [having] the right to vote on it.” 

Are you still hopeful that this can happen in Kentucky?

“I really am not because I don’t believe the revenue that it would produce will help an industry that is one of our major production industries in the state. And if you do something that hurts any significant industry, you’re hurting the state as a whole. So the only way it could pass, in my opinion—well, with my vote—would be if it was in a constitutional amendment and the people would have a right to see how well it worked or did not work, and therefore, either keep it or elect to abolish it.”

Speaking of racing’s patchwork of state-by-state laws, in your view, should racing continue to be regulated at the state level? Is there any benefit to bringing in the federal government, as some have proposed?

“My view is that the government does not very often do anything that is better than the private sector can do it, and I have difficulty in wanting to turn anything over to the government. The fewer regulations you have, the more productive I think you become. I think we need to regulate racing, but, for example, if you look at The Jockey Club, that to me is the logical overseer of our industry because they are the ones who determine whether your horse is registered or not. And I think it probably has come to the time that we need to really give some serious consideration as to what organization has the integrity and the commitment, and the knowledge to oversee the racing industry, the Thoroughbred industry, as opposed to turning it over to a government that has proven time and time again that occasionally they can do things right, but more often than not they do them wrong.” 

But given the network of state regulatory bodies, how would you envision The Jockey Club’s role working? And where would it get the authority to actually take punitive actions other than pulling a horse’s registration, for example?

“We need to strengthen the penalties for doping horses, for example, and then you need to give that job of enforcement to somebody like the United States Anti-Doping Agency [USADA]. If you have USADA in control of that under the larger umbrella of The Jockey Club, it would seem to me that you would have your best opportunity of doing this properly. But what’s happened in the horse industry is that there’s been too much wrist-slapping when rules are broken and not enough penalties applied for these broken rules.” 

Are you offering a “third way” here?

“It seems to be common sense. There are a lot of good people who go into government who want to do right and try very hard to do right, but many of them don’t have the background to know the difference between right and wrong in certain agencies, and so you’re going to have problems. But there are also a certain number of people who go into government for all the wrong reasons. And so that’s why I think you need to stay away from government except in certain very special ways. I think the biggest mistake we could make would be to turn the Thoroughbred industry over to the government. The Jockey Club has proven their worth for many, many years, and we’ve got to strengthen these penalties. It’s got to be that if you do something that’s serious, there should be a serious penalty. And if you do something that is doubly serious, then you’re going to have to go home for a rest for the next five years. You can’t turn your horses over to your wife or your brother or your son or someone else; they cannot participate any longer in this industry for that length of time. If that happens a third time, you’re out for life. Three strikes and you’re out. It’s not that complicated.”

Brereton Jones-owned Proud Spell in the winner's circle at Saratoga Race Track after taking the Alabama Stakes. Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese.

You’re an owner, too, and you seem very frustrated. Would you characterize this problem of doping as common? In your experience, are medications and drugs commonly abused at the racetrack?

“I think there are far more than you’d like to admit. If we don’t get tougher penalties and don’t get them adopted, our industry is going to be going downhill. It’s just like the PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] thing.  They came out with some pretty strong stuff, and some pictures and tapes, and it makes you sad to see that sort of thing. But when you see and listen to the words that are used, you forget about whether you’re pro-PETA or anti-PETA, and that’s not the point. It’s whether that’s going on or not. If it’s not going on, then the people who have been accused have their remedies in court to prove it. But [if it is going on], it would seem to me that we’ve got to strengthen these penalties. Because what’s going to happen, in my humble opinion, when you don’t deal with this kind of a problem, people begin to lose confidence in betting on horses, and then they will stop and leave because they don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake. As they leave, then the industry goes downhill. That creates more economic slide for the entire state. The horse industry is so much fun and it’s so beautiful, and the horses are so noble. To think that they’re treated in such an ignoble way by some is extremely disappointing.”

On a practical level, how do you propose to strengthen the penalties?

“I haven’t totally thought through all of this, but I would say that you’d have to go straight to a group like The Jockey Club and say, ‘Look, we need your help. You guys and gals are capable of handling this if you can spare the time.’ 

“If the people who are placing the bets, who are the ones that keep our industry going, if they lose confidence—and many of them are saying now that they are losing confidence. I’ve had several two-dollar bettors come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’m not even bothering to go to the track,’ and when I ask why, they say, ‘It’s all fixed.’ No, it’s not fixed. That’s a gross exaggeration. But if more people believe that these horses are being mistreated, number one, and, number two, the more people that believe that the trainers are taking unfair advantage of them, the fewer people who are going to come to the track. And the fewer people that come to the track, the fewer people will bet. As you bet less, there’s less money circulating and the less money going to the state. And the commonwealth of Kentucky gets a lot of value from the revenue created by gambling on horses. That’s a fact of life. And without the industry, you’re not going to have the big, beautiful farms if they can’t pay their bills. If you start allowing the public to walk away from the industry, for whatever reason, the fewer bills you’re going to be able to pay in the long run.”

Let me just ask you a blunt question, then: Do you feel that trainers and their organizations have too much power? In an earlier interview we did with George Strawbridge, he expressed frustration that trainers, through the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, have too much ability to block changes.

“I’m not sure that the trainers have too much power. I think we have not chosen, as an industry, to allow the head of the organization to have enough power. I’m not saying George isn’t right; he’s more right than wrong on that. But it depends on whether you get good people or bad people, just like in politics. But I don’t think we can change the political system, and we can change this system. George is 100 percent right in what he’s saying as it relates to dealing with the anti-doping and all those things. That’s what we’ve got to settle, and we can’t let ourselves get sidetracked.

“We certainly can live with hay, oats, and water, and that, to me, is the optimum.” 

Trainers say they can’t live with that, that there’s no way to train horses today on that regimen, given the demands that today’s sport places on them.

“My reaction to that is that Lasix is not the culprit that some people have tried to paint it as. To me, giving Lasix to a horse in a proper dosage is like giving someone a proper dosage of aspirin. It would help their headache. I’m not convinced that it makes horses, in the long run, run faster. I think it gives them the opportunity to run to their capability. There will be people who will vehemently disagree with that, and many of those people will have more veterinary knowledge about the details of that than I would have. But that’s what it seems like to me. By focusing on just eliminating Lasix for the 2-year-olds of next year, which I understand is a proposal about to come out, as they tried a couple of years ago, I think by doing that it’s a big mistake because that is going to put the focus on an issue that was too difficult to get passed the last time they tried it. And once it’s passed, I don’t think it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished. I think we’ve got too many of the trainers out there that are using frog juice and whatever else. They come up with these new things because something else has been found out, and they’re able to check for it. We’ve got people motivated to really do something positive to help the horse industry, and if we expend that energy on Lasix, I personally think that would be a mistake, because I think we’ve got to put the main focus on strengthening the penalties for doping horses.”

What about the National Uniform Medication Program? Are you saying that this effort isn’t working or penalties aren’t tough enough?

“I’m not saying there’s anything magical about The Jockey Club, but I think you need one organization to oversee this whole thing, and I don’t see any other way to get that one organization that we want. What we really miss is a commissioner, for example, but that’s not going to happen. That would put it too much in control of one individual, who could be a wonderful commissioner or a terrible commissioner. So an organization that’s got proven respectability over many years would, to me, be logical. I haven’t proposed this to anybody; I’ve just been kind of playing with the thought. But there has to be some control at the top to make this thing work properly in the long run.” 

And you’d rather that regulatory power be given to The Jockey Club rather than to, say, the Association of Racing Commissioners International?

“There are so many racing commissions, and those are political appointments. Again, there are good people in politics and good things that happen with good political decisions, but equally there are bad things that happen with bad political decisions. And you’re not really in control of it.”

Can you give me some specific examples of how you think existing penalties have fallen short?  It sounds as if you think they often do fall short.

“The things I’m talking about other than Lasix are [the issues surrounding the] strong doping of horses. I’m not in a position to give detailed information as to who’s doping and who’s not. That’s why I think we’ve got to set up an organization, like USADA, and let them be in charge of this. To put me in charge of something like this would be ludicrous, but somebody has got to be in charge. If we don’t deal with this, it’s going to be a disaster.”

The idea you’re presenting is that there’s a fairly pervasive problem with illegal, illicit drugs being given to horses and that this is the issue  the industry must address. Do you have, without naming names of the accused, an example of an existing regulation that is too lax in your view? Or a case in which a penalty for, say, a Class I medication, is just not being enforced to your satisfaction?

“It’s not in my interest to start naming names, because then you just create so much animosity. The people who are the serious horse-dopers aren’t concerned about the strength or the weakness of the rule.”

What can owners like you do to address the situation you have described?

“We can support the thought that the penalties must be strengthened, and then the penalties must be paid when they are found guilty. That takes a major amount of doing. But there’s no easy fix to this problem. It takes strong-willed people willing to go out and make it happen.” 

I understand that you have a particular interest in improving or expanding certain measures for security barns. What are your views on that?

“We need to have that surveillance before we allow these horses to start in the Grade 1 races. They have the surveillance now in the Breeders’ Cup and the Triple Crown races, I understand. But if the Breeders’ Cup’s integrity is any value, then the races leading up to it should receive equal protection.”

So, I take it you’d just like to see this expanded, as in, if it works for the Belmont Stakes it should be in effect for the entire Belmont meet?

“I think there will come a time when that will be possible, and I think it will be. If we don’t do this, we’re going to have declines in attendance and that will guarantee declines in handle, which will guarantee declines in purses, which will ruin our industry.”

Of course, it costs something to do this.

“It costs more not to do it than it does to do it. But where does the money come from? The money’s going to come from the purse structure that we have. It will have to come from the betting dollar. It’s kind of like saying, ‘Would you be willing to pay more in taxes if it means we’ll get better schools?’ The answer is ‘Yes, but don’t come take my tax money and then keep giving me the same old schools you’ve been giving me.’ I’m not saying take it out from the bettors, but take it out from the handle, take it out from everyone. Everybody would have to participate. If the bettor understands he’s going to get a more honorable result and he’s given that opportunity, I’d think he’d jump at it.” 

Breakdowns are another real problem for many fans. Do you think The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database is making enough progress to combat the breakdown issue?

“I think it is a sign of progress, but I read of a trainer a year or two ago that had had six or seven horses die of a heart attack that year on the track. And I asked my trainer, ‘How is that possible? How many have you had in your worst year?’ He looked at me with this strange look and said, ‘I haven’t had any die of a heart attack, ever.’ He kind of rolled his eyes and said, ‘Something’s going on.’ When you start seeing more and more horses die because we’re forcing them to do something, are we forcing them to do more than they’re capable of doing? These are questions that need to be fully understood and fully asked and then fully answered.” 

What changes would you like to see made in the near term in the Thoroughbred industry?

“Strengthen the penalties and strengthen the ability to make those penalties stick. To me, it’s absolutely elementary that we should have 72 hour-surveillance for all the Breeders’ Cup races and the Triple Crown races, and, quite frankly, all the stakes races. Because they are so valuable to the economy of the whole enterprise.” 

But so are the claiming races that are, in many ways, the backbone of the racing industry.

“It does need to be expanded all the way through, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and most of the people that are doing whatever dishonest acts they’re doing are focused on bigger bucks, I think. But I don’t know that to be a fact. But they’re the showcase races. Either we eliminate the problem, or the problem is going to eliminate us.”

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