Strawbridge: Racing in denial about image problems

George Strawbridge, Jr.

George Strawbridge, Jr., has been deeply involved in Thoroughbred racing for most of his life, and his green and white Augustin Stable silks are familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the top flat runners Strawbridge has raced alone or in partnership are Selkirk, a European star who went on to success as a sire; homebred Moonlight Cloud, a six-time G1 winner in France; American champions Informed Decision, Forever Together, and Waya; and such major stakes-winners as With Anticipation, Tikkanen, Collier Hill, Turgeon, and Silver Fling, who competed at the highest levels in Europe and the United States. A onetime amateur steeplechase rider, Strawbridge also is the National Steeplechase Association’s all-time leading owner by purse earnings, and his jump-racing notables include Hall of Fame ’chaser Cafe Prince and the winners of four Carolina Cups between 1982 and 2008 (Quiet Bay, Gogong, Invest West, and Imagina).

Today, his American string consists of about 20 horses in training, divided between his longtime trainer Jonathan Sheppard and Graham Motion. He also has 24 horses in Europe with trainers Ian Balding, Jonathan Pease, Freddie Head, and John Gosden.

Strawbridge, 77, has been an outspoken opponent of horse slaughter and race-day medications and is a member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), which advocates federal legislation to ban performance-enhancing drugs on race day under the oversight of the non-governmental United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). In 2011, as the Thoroughbred Club of America’s Honor Guest, he noted that American Thoroughbred racing has become associated with “a sinister substances mixed in a black bag” and called for reform.

“Emulating the success model of the rest of the world would be a big start toward respecting the star of our sport,” said Strawbridge, a member of The Jockey Club since 1976. “We need to stop treating the Thoroughbred as a commodity and start showing the public and our fans that we care and are a clean and legitimate sport.”

The following year, he resigned his membership in the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) to protest a decision by TOBA’s American Graded Stakes Committee to delay implementing a proposed ban on race-day medications for juveniles in graded stakes.

At a time when U. S. racing is engaged in debate over such issues as medication regulations to allegations of cruelty to horses, we wanted to catch up with Strawbridge and get his thoughts on these issues. Glenye Cain Oakford interviewed him on May 9, 2014.

 ----------

You keep horses in both America and Europe, but your individual strings are fairly small. Do you consider a small operation a key to success?

“I do. The other great thing is that [my horses] were raised at very good farms, such as Derry Meeting Farm [in Pennsylvania], and that always produces such good horses, amazingly so, because of the land. These horses would have an enormous amount of bone. I tell you, it’s a very slippery slope the breeding industry is on. I bought a yearling filly by Dynaformer, and I couldn’t even get it to the races because every time it would breeze, it would bleed. That, to me, was an enormous lesson, to find out where it was raised, what the family was like. There aren’t bleeders in Europe because they can’t [run them on Lasix].”

And yet there’s still a large international buying base at our sales.

“It’s becoming less and less. People will argue about that and say, ‘Look at all the agents over at the yearling sale.’ But they aren’t trainers. There are only about two or three trainers that come over here.” 

I know you like Dynaformer as a sire; what other pedigree preferences do you have?

“I’m a sucker for turf horses and distance horses. This year, I think I’ll have a horse [Flying Officer] in the Ascot Gold Cup – what is that, two-and-a-half miles? Exciting! One of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had in my life was when a homebred I had [Lucarno] won the English St Leger, the third jewel in their Triple Crown, and that’s one mile and seven furlongs or something.”

At some point, though, you must need to put some speed into those families. What do you like for that?

“It’s a piece of luck if I have any speed! I had Silver Fling, and she ended up being a champion sprinter in Europe, but I must say that I was so disappointed when she ran in a seven-furlong race at Newbury as a three-year-old. It was a graded race at seven furlongs, and she didn’t stay the seven furlongs. I was depressed. She went on to win the Prix de l’Abbaye in the fall.” 

Given how frustrated you are by aspects of American racing, are you going to stop racing here?

“I absolutely do prefer racing in Europe, there’s no question about it. And, as you know, the purses in Europe are not great, unless you have a champion horse. But it is completely enjoyable there. ... And they’re very, very strict. You don’t see a veterinarian wandering around the barns there the way you do here on the backside.” 

So, why have a stable in the States?

“Because I live here, and I have trainers who don’t drug horses.”

Strawbridge's Informed Decision, trained by Jonathan Sheppard, wins the 2009 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. RacingFotos.com

As an owner who competes internationally, what specific lessons or policies do you feel U.S. racing can adopt from abroad that might improve the racing product?

“The main one is drug-free racing. You look at the difference between, say, England and the United States. There, you have Gerard Butler, who had been giving his horses some steroids, and he received a five-year death sentence, so he couldn’t train for five years. Not only that, he was absolutely smitten with guilt and damage to his reputation; he said it was worse on his wife and three sons than on himself, because every single day they would be reproached because of his actions. Whereas, in this country, not only are there slaps on the wrists given, there’s no regret or reproach. We award the people who have been caught with Eclipse Awards and championships. It’s a completely different attitude in this country than in the rest of the world.

"It’s an attitude that is absolutely, coincidentally, copied after the cyclists, where cheating was an accepted means of performance enhancing, and they were very, very good at it and could get away with it. The rewards were so great and the punishments could be avoided with very clever doctors. That was all spoken of by Tyler Hamilton in his book The Secret Race. He was a teammate of Lance Armstrong. Performance-enhancing drugs do work: They increase the performance of the cyclist and the horse.”

How, in your view, can an owner navigate these issues ethically and humanely? You race horses here. How do you do it?

“I don’t win as many races [laughs]. What you do is go to a non-drug trainer, like Graham Motion or Jonathan Sheppard or Michael Matz. That’s what I do. Some other owners would say, ‘Their win percentages are way less than 20 percent, so I’m not going to do that.’ ... It isn’t so much of a business as a sport, at least in the rest of the world. And the reason the Chinese of Hong Kong spend so much money on horses is because they can only have, what 1,200 horses in Hong Kong, and they have more than 1,200 people wanting horses. They love it as not a money-making thing, even though there are enormous purses there, but as sport. That’s their attitude: They look at it as a fun sport.

“The reason I’m in it is because of this noble animal. I love the breeding, I love seeing them grow up from little babies to yearlings to two-year-olds, and I love to see them as two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and five-year-olds in training. I just love it.”

Do you believe there has been any progress in tackling America racing’s issues since your Thoroughbred Club of America speech back in 2011?

“No. They’re doing a good deal worse, because when I spoke there, at least there was some hope that reforms would be embraced, in the form of TOBA saying, ‘We’ll have drug-free graded racing or we won’t give them graded designation.’ Well, naturally, they backed up on that and dropped that requirement. Then the Breeders’ Cup had a plan to eliminate drugs from the Breeders’ Cup races, and that was opposed by the HBPA [Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association] and various owners who said that they would sue unless they dropped that requirement. So, obviously, racing is in the middle of a bigger and bigger cesspool of drugs."

But the American Thoroughbred game also is an industry, and these horses often are commodities or assets to the people who breed, own, and train them. Are you saying there needs to be total systemic change, from claiming policies to commercial breeding? How could you possibly prevent commoditization of horses?

“That’s a very good question, and I’m not quite sure of the answer, but there has to be extensive change. And that’s why it probably won’t change, because too much will have to change, and people are reluctant to change. They know the status quo, and they’re happy with the status quo. And they [think] that if racing organizations keep putting their heads in the sand, then this, too, will go away. But we’ll have declines in attendance and declines in handle, and we’ll suffer grievously in our reputation.” 

Why should the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) handle oversight, in your view?

“Because they have a proven track record. They will see to it that there are very sophisticated testing operations…[and] we have to have a very powerful organization that is responsible for the testing so that positives will come up.”

But, as you point out, everyone is under budgetary constraints. Where would you get the funding to support USADA’s testing for racehorses?

“It will have to come from the betting dollar. That’s why Hong Kong is so rich, my goodness gracious, what do they bet there? $17 million on just an ordinary horse race? It will have to come from betting, and maybe betting will increase if people don’t look at the sport in such a negative light.”

In your statement of support on the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA) website, you mention “powerful forces in the racing industry that want to keep things the way they are,” and you point out the failure of medication reform through TOBA and the Breeders’ Cup. Who do you feel is preventing these changes?

“The HBPA is, one, denying there’s a problem and, two, threatening lawsuits against these alphabet organizations. That’s pretty powerful. And they have the ability right now, as the result of federal legislation, to not have simulcasting. That’s why they’re powerful, because they’ve been written into federal law to be powerful. The only way it can change is through the federal government intervening and taking away the right of the HBPA to veto simulcasting.” 

Is such an effort underway to take away that veto power?

“No, House Bill 2012 is mainly designed for setting up a testing organization that will supervise the drug problem that we have. They can’t even get enough support for the House Bill to have it pass. It will be difficult to do it. You have the Humane Society of the United States, which is an enormously powerful organization, but they’re concentrating on soring in Tennessee Walking Horses [an illegal practice involving application of a painful substance or piece of equipment to a horse’s legs or hooves to make the horse lift its feet higher]. But this is a much bigger problem than soring.”

You sound happy to ally with Humane Society and even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), often seen as sworn enemies of racing, because you’re desperate to see change. Are you okay with having reforms come through organizations like those?

“Yeah, because, look, after [National HBPA chief executive Phil] Hanrahan made his statement that racing does not have a drug problem, it was the FBI who indicted these trainers. It wasn’t any Thoroughbred regulator. And the expose from PETA, that was from an outside group and nothing to do with regulators. The PETA expose is the truth, and I couldn’t get over the reaction of our industry, saying, ‘They’re sworn enemies and you have to consider the messenger, the whole thing was doctored, Asmussen will be found innocent.’ Racing is in a state of denial, and I do think there’s a feeling of no sympathy or admiration for the animal. It’s looking at the animal as a commodity, full stop.” 

Without significant reform on the medication, or drugs, issue, where do you see American racing in a global context in 20 years?

“Where it is, which is not at all respected. They just had a conference in Asia [Asian Racing Conference], where they were speaking about drugs in racing, mainly from the United States, producing a major image problem for racing in general. [Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh] said, ‘I think what we should do is have uniform rules, therefore no drugs in racing, period, and if you race with drugs we put an asterisk next to the group designation that will say, ‘These races were run under the influence of drugs.’ The Jockey Club…says that’s a non-starter. So, I don’t know. As years go by and our drug problem gets worse and worse, the reputation of the American Thoroughbred would be greatly diminished…

“The trainers’ main object is to win a high percentage of races. They don’t want any interference with the status quo.”

If there is a cultural difference between American racing and, say, European racing, where does that difference come from, in your view?

“I don’t know. If there’s no real penalty for cheating and the rewards are so great, it would be very tempting to do it, as all the cyclists did. Tyler Hamilton said, ‘Everybody’s doing it, and I’ll have to retire unless I cheat, too.’ And then people say, ‘We have to protect the image of our sport,’ and they develop a code of silence that cheating really doesn’t occur, it’s all overblown. Because they feel if they say cheating is rampant, it will damage the sport.

“There’s a very, very close parallel between cycling and horse racing. People in racing will fight to the death to preserve the status quo. That’s what happened with the TOBA, that’s what happened in the Breeders’ Cup. You look at this brave woman from PETA, for gracious sakes. She comes up with a nine-minute clip which indicated the absolute callous disregard for the horse, and racing’s reaction is, ‘We’ll keep our heads down,’ and they say a bunch of platitudes and toothless comments from toothless organizations that will have absolutely no effect at reform. The only way we can possibly save ourselves is to have a national governing body and put USADA in charge of all the testing, like they do in Hong Kong and other important racing areas. Racing has an image problem that is denied by many of the participants. I’m not very optimistic about things changing here.

“When you have the head of the HBPA testifying before Congress that racing does not have a drug problem ... and two days later, you have three trainers and one clocker indicted at Penn National. Then, you have the PETA video. But maybe that was a turning point. I’m not saying it is, but it could be, because it takes the question out of the realm of just cheating. Maybe the majority of people don’t care about the cheating because maybe they just see it as racing insiders cheating each other, but when PETA shows up with this video, that expands the equation to cruelty to animals, which I think most people do care about. If you love horses, you don’t call them rats and treat them like commodities.”

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Jockeys, Owners and Trainers Articles

By the same author