2020 is a year like no other. Worldwide lockdowns have forced all industries to adapt to a new normal, which horse racing has not been exempt from.
In fact, the show - on the track – did, for the most part, go on and our sport has received a unique opportunity to be the main live action on the airwaves with a chance to attract new fans – an aim that has been at the forefront of recent iterations of the Jockey Club Round Table Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing.
The 68th gathering took place on Sunday to the delight of the industry, but the annual conference was, of course, forced to adapt to an exclusively online output for the first time.
A not-in-person event does nonetheless have its boons for organisers: The calibre and diversity of guests, for example, relies less on proximity and the Jockey Club attracted major European trainers – who would be deep in that continent’s season – and major players from the tennis and cycling world, who might have had prior work commitments in a normal summer.
Like recent years, the Round Table focused on what chairman Stuart S Janney III called the Jockey Club’s “two primary missions” to ensure the sport will continue to develop – “one is to protect the integrity of the breed and the second is to grow the sport”.
Jason Wilson, Equibase’s president, provided a report on the how the Jockey Club is increasing fan engagement to a new and existing fans, primarily through America’s Best Racing and Equibase.
While Bob Costas, former sportscaster for NBC Sports and current presenter for MLB Network, shared his experiences of covering the Triple Crown for NBC, cautioning the industry that reform must come not only because “these magnificent equine athletes deserve to be treated with the care and dignity”, but also because of the current “public perception” of the sport.
Katrina Adams, the immediate past president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), explained how her organisation strove to increase diversity in tennis and how racing must implement this message.
“When I pick up a magazine, I [must] see myself in your sport,” argued Adams.
International thoughts in train
Trainers Mark Casse, John Gosden and Jessica Harrington discussed their craft and competing in different jurisdictions in a panel moderated by Matt Iuliano, Jockey Club executive vice president and director.
Gosden began proceedings by discussing the decline of durability within the modern Thoroughbred. “If you go back in time, horses were bred to race and weaknesses were eradicated,” he said. And he cited the fashion of breeding “for the sake of the sales” in the 1980s, which he said has driven breeding in the “wrong direction, a commercial direction”. Harrington added that sales had become a “beauty contest” with horses that “aren’t correct being removed by the agents”.
Gosden, the current world #1, added, “Certain weaknesses were tolerated because it was a well-bred filly related to this and maybe a stallion had got away with it. The greatest example was the great stallion Danzig, who didn't even win a stake but became a great stallion.”
Casse – who conceded that he would “upset a lot of people by saying this” – believed that the main thing that has “hurt our breed” in the U.S. is the “state programs” where stallions and broodmares are being used when “if we didn't have a local program, they would never cut the mustard”. He followed that with a warning of the dangers of clenbuterol, “which promotes the growth of muscle but reduces bone density”.
Discussion then turned to Lasix and other drugs available on raceday in the U.S. but outlawed in Europe and most major international jurisdictions.
Gosden, who, despite not being a “great believer in it”, said he did used Bute and Lasix during his time training in California, and that he uses Lasix “if I have a really bad bleeder ahead of a major workout ten days ahead of a race”. But he said he was ignorant on suspect modern drugs.
Britain’s champion trainer continued, “There has to be an issue in this day and age to know that a horse, the night before the race, let alone the morning of a race, [that] this is an athlete in a competition [that] is actually permitted to have an intravenous injection? It’s a little hard to think of any other athlete in any sport [where] that would be tolerated.
“I do think that it’s something in America that has to be cleaned up.”
Casse and Harrington agreed with the anti-Bute stance - “if you need [to give] that to your horse, it shouldn’t be running” – but Casse said he has always been pro-Lasix. He believes that, if access to Lasix is denied, then “the bad guys” will find other ways to cheat the system.
“There’s a lot bigger problems out there in the U.S. than Lasix,” said Casse. “Personally, I’m so fed up with it I question how long I want to even train … You’re going to have to decide which is more important: winning at all costs, or your dignity.”
Greg LeMond: ‘A clean sport is good for business’
Jockey Club CEO Jim Gagliano dialled in to interview three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. The American has been outspoken about PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) for more than 30 years and has testified before the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
He explained how a sport can be truly respected only through improved testing and harsh penalties, and why clean sports are more successful. He cited the examples on blood passports and the collection of power outage data, which have helped profile and catch cheats, and could be used in racing.
LeMond recalled that in cycling “they kept putting Band-Aids over each drug scandal – it just prolonged the pain”. He argued that racing has got to use “this moment to clean house”, and that the “sad thing about horseracing is that the horse can’t talk”.
“Trainers who are caught [doping] should never be allowed back into the sport, period,” he said. “If you want the sport to have legitimacy, people need to know that it’s not fixed.”
Janney: ‘Without integrity the sport will never grow’
In his closing remarks, Janney harked back to the Jockey Club’s 2015 investigation into cheating when it had become “convinced that cheating was a growing activity and needed to be perused with increased effectiveness” and a modernising of the testing.
He highlighted the Jockey Club’s work with 5 Stones intelligence (5Si) to examine and remedy those concerns.
“We have always viewed this investigation as part of a larger picture, which importantly includes the Horseracing Integrity Act,” said Janney. “Without modernising our current system of regulation, we will slip back into the present unfortunate state.”
He went on to say that racing “owes a tremendous debt” to the FBI and the department of justice, which helped indicte 27 individuals in the racing industry in March. Moreover, Janney warned the cheats that, while Covid-19 had slowed down procedures, “it is reasonable to assume that more arrests are coming”.
He did acknowledge that the drugs being used are “far more effective and harder to detect than in the past” and that testing in place “has not – and will not – meet the challenge” until domestic labs get in line with global standards, such as the ones run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
He also warned that, with prize money never greater, diverse betting opportunities and increases in bloodstock values being so relevant to racing performances, “all the incentives are in place for criminal behaviour”.
He bemoaned the moral line of some racetrack vets, who “feel it’s okay to seek a competitive advantage for their clients – and bring home huge profits – by supplying and administrating illegal drugs”.