Moss: Get rid of people who cheat and hurt horses

Maggi Moss' So Many Ways and Javier Castellano win the 2012 G1 Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga. Photo: NYRA/Adam Mooshian

In 2006, Maggi Moss achieved what no other female racehorse owner had achieved before: becoming the winning-most owner in the United States, notching 211 victories. Since setting that benchmark, Moss has consistently remained among the top four owners in the country in terms of wins, and among the top 10 in the country in earnings.

Unlike many of her peers whose successes have been contingent upon vast fortunes and familial ties with the sport spanning decades, Moss built her own racing legacy with money she accrued as a criminal prosecutor and using her own intuition as a horsewoman. To cap it all, over the years her barn has largely consisted not of high-priced bluebloods but of more moderately-bred horses she has acquired out of claimers.

As much as Moss is known for high win-percentages and swollen year-end totals, she is equally as noted for her work in connection with animal and racehorse welfare. She founded the Hope After Racing Thoroughbreds (HART) retirement program for horses that have raced at Prairie Meadows. She also has been publicly critical of drug abuse within the sport, and about efforts within the industry to combat drug violators – an aspect of her character honed from a long career in law.

Moss was chief prosecutor in Polk County, Iowa, for approximately seven years. Afterwards, she spent a further 10 years as a partner in a law firm as a trial lawyer, specializing in female plaintiffs. Now in semi-retirement, Moss is selective about the cases she works on – abuses within the puppy mill industry providing a good portion of her work.

From her home in Iowa, her faithful canine companion Stormy at her side, Moss agreed to share her views on what she considers racing’s greatest ills, how the mechanics of racehorse ownership have changed since she started in the sport and how she has adapted her racing operation to mitigate some of those problems she now sees. Never one to curb her opinions, Moss proved typically candid.

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You've mentioned in the past that the patchwork of different drug rules around the nation is a major problem for owners and trainers. Has the gradual roll-out of the National Uniform Medication Program (NUMP) helped or hindered this issue, and is the NUMP an overall change for the good?

“I can’t say that anything we're trying to do to clean up the sport is bad. But the National Uniform Medication Program is an ever-changing landscape that will not resolve the problems of drug cheating or public perception of the sport, which are what I still see as the most serious problems when it comes to drug regulation. But perhaps, it's a start.

“The number one biggest problem, however, is what the bettors and the public perceive of us as a racing industry when they hear the term, ‘positive.’ If somebody has a nanogram or a picogram of a therapeutic drug overage, it is the media that will call that a positive. Therefore, without the media explaining the difference between cobra venom and blocking horses versus a picogram or a nanogram of a therapeutic drug, you are considered a cheat. This does not clean up racing, or fix the public perception of the sport.

“This leads to the other problem I have with any uniform medication policy, which is that I am still convinced more than ever that we have very dangerous boutique drugs being used in this industry that can kill horses and jockeys. I have talked to lab directors and they don’t know what they are, nor do they have the resources to test for these things because they're not going to show up under normal testing. So, why aren’t we concentrating on these dangerous drugs? Because we’re too busy quantitating picograms and nanograms of therapeutic medications.”

Do you want to elaborate upon your assertion about “boutique drugs” being used in the sport?

“I base that on two things. But first of all, I don’t like the speculative part. I don’t want to go up to somebody with unbelievably good racing success and call them cheaters. However, I think I’m enough of a horsewoman having grown up around horses since I was nine to understand that when I see things that are so extraordinary, that it goes beyond super trainers and natural horsemanship. Do I think [boutique drug use] covers a very small percentage of the sport? Yes. But when I speak with lab directors, what I describe are the same traits. I describe seeing wild-eyed horses, and horses coming for home, re-breaking where normal racehorses don’t re-break and accelerating like it’s the first furlong of a race. Then, they gallop out around the track like they’ve been stung by a bee. 

“I talk to the scientists, they’re seeing things that are unusual in testing, but it can’t be found. They are seeing a pattern in certain people, things that look suspicious on their testing. So, that leads to this question: Why can’t we find it? I was surprised to learn about Dermorphin, which went through about three different labs and nobody could find it. Colorado State University eventually found it.”

You're a proponent of a centralized ruling body in racing, but you've also railed against federal government involvement in the sport. Why are you against government oversight of the industry?

“I am a proponent of a national anti-doping laboratory similar to what is being used now in other sports on a national level. I’m not a great sports aficionado, but I know the NFL and NBA [each] have a national commissioner and have certainly made progress in cleaning up their own houses. In comparison, there are roughly 25 separate state regulators in racing, and 5 to 6 national organizations, and none of them seem to agree on anything uniform for horsemen.

“My reluctance for federal government involvement in racing, other than with drug testing, is based on my own experiences in dealing with the federal government as a lawyer. In federal court in the criminal system, from judges to federal officers, they were constantly overwhelmed and underfunded. One example would be the Department of Agriculture inspecting puppy mills. The problem is, they have no money and no man-power and nothing is being done. It’s a cluster of bureaucracy. So, why would we add to a system that’s already in total disarray and say, ‘come on in and deal with horseracing’?”

If you were made commissioner for a year, what are the three things you’d most like to get accomplished?

“Year after year, we’ve talked about what's wrong, from drugs, safety, horse welfare, oppressive takeout rates, too many regulators, and on and on. But, to fix a broken product, we need less racing and less racetracks. In response, I know a lot of people would say, ‘you mean cutting out all the low claiming horses for people who work hard?’ No, that’s not what I mean. I mean that, as it stands, we have way too many racetracks and way too many races, and we're getting overloaded with cheap condition claiming horses and a bad product. Clearly, we have now learned that casinos have ultimately created a bad racing product. The product has to change. Creating just five or six levels of racing would be a good start, from lower claiming races to stakes, without all the conditions that we have now. 

“Second, I would absolutely make it paramount to do whatever is possible to get rid of the people that cheat and hurt horses. But I would create a better system that is not a point system for therapeutic drugs. It would be analogous with when I took over as a prosecutor here [in Iowa]. At that time, there was no money, the jails were full and the system was amok because we spent all our time concentrating on a gram of marijuana, prostitutes, and licenses under suspension. Whereas the things that were most important to me were the murderers and the rapists. So, we had to let go of the insignificant crimes and concentrate upon the big crimes. We don’t have enough money and resources. The public’s dying for us to clean up the sport.

“Third, the image of racing by the media needs to be fixed. It seldom showcases the true beauty of our horses nor the truly hardworking individuals behind the scenes that love horses. A national public relations firm that can fix racing as a sport, cure the image it now has and bring the most important people back—the betting public—would be a great start.”

Is racing fighting a lost cause in America?

“No, we’re not a lost cause. That’s because one thing we do share in America is a love of animals. Picture in your mind two big trials going on in the Midwest. One involves somebody who killed a baby. The other one involves someone prosecuted over a puppy mill. The puppy mill case was covered by court TV, national TV, and every single TV station there was. There were pictures of the dead dogs and the dead puppies and the dastardly things the people were doing all over the media. The baby trial was covered by nobody. 

“So you see, I think there’s a tremendous passion for animals and a great love for horses in this nation. I think people love horses, and I think people love good horse racing. And I think you can create a product starting with the love of the horse and the beauty of the sport that can win the public back.” 

The decline in field size is often attributed to America’s declining foal crop, but the lack of owners is also a concern. How do you think racing can attract new owners?

“Bring it back to reality, the pride of owning a racehorse and why we do it. Transform its image to make it a reality for everyone that wants to own part or all of a racehorse. That again, starts with image and public relations. The argument you’ll read is because the foal crop has declined, but I do not buy that. At times, the real problem feels like the chaotic way we run our horses and the way casinos are writing [the conditions of] races. That’s another big problem in racing right now. Once you win conditions, if you can’t step up to stakes competition they sit in the barn. And here’s what happens when they sit in the barn: they go around in circles each and every day until you get the call that they got hurt.

“I can’t make money on the $5,000 condition claimers anymore, yet that is the steady dose of races one sees the most nowadays. And it has become very hard to claim horses because they’re overused. They’re sore and they’re inflated in price. If you’re looking for a good horse, you’re going to pay 10-times what it used to be worth. We must start fixing the image of racing and show it’s affordability – show that it’s viable for all.”

Are you saying that you advise most people to steer clear of owning racehorses? 

“No. I still feel that owning a racehorse, any kind of racehorse, is one of the most spectacular incredible experiences ever. Having a horse at the racetrack, going to the barn or watching your horse run is an amazing experience. I still feel it’s affordable. I still feel it’s a great experience. I still love it. And I will continue to say that you do not have to inhabit the world of kings to own a racehorse.

“But again, most of all, we need to prevent breakdowns when possible. Too many horses are dying on the track. Safety initiatives have to go way beyond what we are doing, and the known practices of shock waving, injecting, and running sore horses has to stop. As of late, I am approached far too often and asked, ‘you own racehorses? I thought you truly loved animals.’” 

What do you look for in a trainer and what do you think the keys are to a successful owner-trainer relationship?  

“Number one is communication and honesty. I can give you an example, and this involves Tom Amoss [one of Moss’ trainers]. I feel it is imperative trainers examine their horses of a morning and be able to give an accurate status where horses hurt or don’t hurt. Fast-forward to a horse I owned that Mr. Amoss was bothered by, even though the horse was not lame. We X-rayed him - did everything. Nothing showed up. But on week two, Tom said to me, ‘I just don’t feel good about how this horse is traveling.’

“So now, you have two options: to carry on or to stop. Now, which one do you think most trainers in America would follow with a horse that is not lame and that the x-rays show nothing? They would probably run it. But because Tom was so bothered by what he saw, we both agreed to go the extra step - a bone-scan, which costs a lot of money, but they found the problem. It wasn’t a major problem, but if I’d run that horse, the vets told me the horse had a very good shot at maybe fracturing a leg and, of course, maybe hurting the jockey.

“Number two: you need to be successful. You need to have someone who knows how to read the condition books and is a good trainer. Being successful doesn’t mean you win 80 percent of races. It means, every time you see one of your horses at the barn or on the track, you take great pride on how they look. And part of being a good trainer, and this is the integral part, is that you take exceptional care of your horses - great feeding programs, great bedding, and great training systems so that horses are happy and they feel good. A big part of success is having happy horses.

“Number three: they treat your money like their money!”

How do you acquire most of your stock and what do you look for?

“If I go back five years, I used to strictly claim horses. But over the years, because of everything I just told you, that has become almost impossible. Horses are more prone to become overworked, inflated in price, and frail. So now, I have a lot less horses because it is simply not profitable. 

“I was raised to truly respect the value of money, with a father that was totally self-made. I learned that it wasn't how much money one had, but what one did with it, and I learned that other purchases like real estate was smarter. That’s why I find the prices people are spending on horse to be extreme. So, I am trying to buy some younger horses. When I buy yearlings, I’m sticking to certain breeds, such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Louisiana breds. I’m not looking for the Derby horse or the Breeders’ Cup horses.”

Given the breadth and depth of your racing operation, how do you stay personally involved with your horses?

“I retire a lot of horses. When they come full-circle and they've earned $500-600,000, I’m not going to run them in claiming races. I’m going to retire them. But I’ve learned that finding them proper homes is hard work. I make sure they’re going to a home where I know they’re safe and loved, and that takes a lot of time and research. But it’s imperative they end up in homes where they’re loved.

“Every horse I own or have owned is also on some form of stable alert. I have horses from four to five years ago that are still on some form of stable alert. In terms of horses I’ve lost to claiming, I’ve followed two of my horses just in the past two years that have ended up in Pennsylvania, for example. Consequently, I knew that one of them [a horse called Danger Storm] was in trouble. Big trouble. I located him and he was in a kill pen. But I bailed him out and he’s now a show horse in South Carolina.

“I’ve found that running my barn and keeping track of my horses is a full-time job. If you have a husband or children, or a full time job, it would be impossible to do what I do. And I don’t recommend it to anybody! I go through all my horses every week - sometimes every morning. I probably look at more replays, numbers, and conditions books than any owner just to try to make it work.”

Are there any horses you've regretted losing?

“I’m looking at a picture of him right now. It’s one I think about constantly. It was during my early beginnings of being in the business in 2007. I had a horse called Northwest Hill. He was from New York and was a warrior that my trainer entered week after week. I didn’t have the wherewithal or the knowledge to stop it, though I knew something was wrong. I was there when he broke down [at Prairie Meadows]. As a result, I did learn to say no, and that has guided my path through many racing forums and many trainers. I simply will never forget.”

Thoroughbred retirement has become a signature issue for you, and you founded the HART retirement program at Prairie Meadows. How and why did you first get involved?

“I started it when I was put on the board of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) a long time ago - one of the most prominent retirement foundations at the time. The TRF had started a program that, to this day, was one of the best programs there could be. We opened up one of the first prison retirement facilities at a prison here in Iowa. And back when I was a prosecutor, watching the transformation among hardened prisoners was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

“But the TRF ran into financial and management problems about the same time the state decided that the land was too valuable to have horses on. So, after we built the stables, the state wiped away this great program to build a food processing plant. Nevertheless, at that time in Iowa and Nebraska, there were lots of cheap races and horses getting hurt and ending up in bad places, so I decided that there was nowhere in the state of Iowa for retired racehorses. And as we had racetracks, we had a responsibility to create a retirement program for horses that ran there.” 

What rescue stories are you most proud of? 

“There are so many horses I’ve retired and so many horses that I’ve plucked out of slaughter houses and so many of my own horses that are living an amazing life right now, I think they are all great stories. But I suppose that the story of the horse [Danger Storm] almost in the hands of the slaughter buyer is the most meaningful because it involved sheer luck getting the call from this girl telling me about my horse in the nick of time. If I hadn’t PayPal-ed $500 in the middle the night, he’d be dead. He’d have his head cut off. That was one of the best stories - because he’s still alive.”

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