Nick Luck: Craig Fravel talks Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita, Lasix and the whip

A packed Santa Anita on Breeders’ Cup Saturday in 2016, the last time the World Championships were held there. Picture: Doug Engle/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders’ Cup

Craig Fravel is an optimist. Right now, he needs to be. In his ninth year as CEO of Breeders’ Cup Limited, he is charged with delivering one of the most significant global racing events at a racetrack where 22 horses have died since Christmas. Santa Anita may be one of Breeders’ Cup’s most cherished hosts, but the dreadful sequence of recent events has sparked the most fundamental existential debate over the direction of the sport that most of us can remember.

Fravel, a Del Mar native with three decades’ experience in California racing, is never a man to be drawn into frenetic, urgent responses. In a world where moderation has become outmoded in favour of extreme polarity of opinion, he cautiously treads the middle ground between “something, anything, must be done NOW,” and “Crisis? What Crisis?”.

Truth is, this is a crisis, but he’s not going to allow Breeders’ Cup to make a drama out of it. At least not for the time being.

“Like everyone else in the industry, we’re concerned and we’re monitoring the situation very closely,” he says. “At this stage, I’d be confident that Santa Anita and the California Horseracing Board [CHRB] will address these serious safety considerations and, once a clear picture emerges, we’ll analyse the situation and sit down with our board to make a decision on how we proceed.”

So could the 2019 Breeders’ Cup be relocated sooner rather than later? Fravel is unwilling to set the cat among the pigeons just yet, but he recognises the need to “give people time” should such a measure be required and is keen to point out that the event has “changed venues at late notice several times before in its history”.

Long-standing policy

Perhaps of equal interest in this context is the extent to which his board is willing to sign up to The Stronach Group’s [TSG] hastily drafted suite of recommendations for the furtherance of racing at Santa Anita and Golden Gate fields.

Philosophically, at least, the TSG modernisers and Breeders’ Cup under Fravel do not seem a million miles apart, certainly in terms of the desire to phase out the use of raceday Lasix.

“A lot of the TSG suggestions in their latest document are issues that Breeders’ Cup have condoned as a long-standing policy,” he says. “We have long believed, for instance, that raceday medication should not be a part of our event.”

So why, after the internationally heralded experiment in 2012 with Lasix-free 2-year-old races, did the ever-contentious diuretic work its way back to full usage within two years? Fravel is frank in outlining the realpolitik at play here, noting that his team had to “back off, because the horsemen threatened to use their power to cut off our simulcast signal if we continued along those lines”.

Could the current backdrop of crisis management, and with it the entire sport’s heightened appreciation for cooperation and conciliation, lead to a rethink? “I wouldn’t want to speculate,” says Fravel, “but it’s fair to say that the horsemen in California have been part and parcel of the solution to the current situation.”

If a modernising agenda to withdraw raceday Lasix gathers momentum across jurisdictions, it is surely possible that the much-called-for unified leadership and regulatory harmonisation becomes more than a pipedream. Fravel’s experience tells him otherwise, noting wryly that this would require “a lot of people and a lot of organisations to cede power that they already have, and that is hugely problematic”.

It seems grimly ironic that the viability of this year’s venue should be open to question when it was Santa Anita’s own perceived reliability that steadied the Breeders’ Cup ship as the host track for five of the seven years between 2008 and 2014.

Given that the first two of those events - the Zenyatta years, if you like - were run on the Pro-Ride track, it could reasonably have been expected that the case for another synthetic revolution would be reopened. Yet, for all its commitment to superior racetrack maintenance, Belinda Stronach’s Open Letter stopped short of advancing a change of surface.

Sharp contrast

Fravel is disinclined to believe that this will be a natural consequence of the recent fatalities. “I don’t think this will rekindle the movement towards synthetic tracks for racing. It may well be that there should and will be more in a training environment, which may - long term - be more important. But there were issues relating to the quality and consistency of those synthetic racing surfaces and, although it’s hard to say ‘never’, I don’t see it in the next few years.”

And what of the whip? The proposed new regulations at Santa Anita and Golden Gate - in the sharpest contrast to the laissez-faire attitude to the whip that had prevailed for years in North America - make the Stronach Group either faithless appeasers of the animal rights lobby or global pioneers with a desire to scrub the tarnish from racing’s image, depending on where you stand.

Either way, TSG is marching to the beat of its own drum - it is not as though this issue had been debated with nearly the fervour that accompanies it in the UK, for instance. Indeed, Fravel concedes that the use of the whip has “never even been discussed at board level”, although he recognises the need for “a lot of open conversation” and volunteers that Breeders’ Cup is now entering into a joint venture with the Jockey Club to induct survey work and focus groups to “more fully understand where we are on this in relation to public perception”.

As important as public perception might be, Breeders’ Cup is hugely conscious of its reputation on the world stage. Craig Fravel believes that restoring and maintaining its global standing has been a significant success story in recent editions: “When I started, we were being questioned internationally. Could we survive increased competition from British Champions Day, Irish Champions Weekend, Hong Kong and so on? I’d like to think that we remain unique in terms of the quality and quantity of international participants and that we’re in a good place reputationally.

“I am lucky to work with a great team, and we’ve developed an excellent and consistent broadcast partnership with NBC. We know it’s a serious business, but we try to give everyone a great experience and remember that it is supposed to fun at the same time.”

But is it possible to maintain such a healthy degree of confidence in the sport in the face of some of its sternest challenges? “The optimist in me says that, out of real sadness, good things will come. There will be finger pointing and consternation, but we will make huge steps forward. I hope that whatever happens to advance the cause is always guided by being good for the horse.”

Come what may, Fravel has “no doubt” that this year’s Breeders’ Cup “will be conducted well and will be a great championship”, irrespective of where it may take place.

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