SARATOGA SPRINGS — The best time to discuss strategy is when you’re not being asked for it right this instant.
With that in mind, there have been and will be several interesting articles and discussions this weekend about the strategies the horse racing industry should implement to save it from itself.
The first came Friday from Equisponse, a leading marketing/public relations firm in thoroughbred racing. It was an open letter to the thoroughbred community. The letter began, “Horse racing is at a pivotal moment in its long history in the United States.” It went on to acknowledge the events at Santa Anita Park (30 horses died during the six-month meet) “that have shaken public confidence in our sport” and led to calls for reform.
It then voiced its support for the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA) of 2019, introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate. It notes how the HIA would put drug testing in an independent board composed of “non-conflicted” equine experts and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, and lead to uniform testing, regulations and sanctions.
It went on to say it understands there are concerns about increased costs and regulations the HIA would result in.
“But the sport finds itself amid an ongoing crisis of confidence, and the need to reform and restore public trust more than justifies the necessary sacrifices,” it stated.
The letter said it also backed “initiatives to standardize and improve the quality and consistency of racing surfaces” and asks racetracks and other stakeholders to invest more money into the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory and related research projects.
The most interesting thing was the list of 16 trainers that signed the letter. Yes, just 16. I reached out to Equisponse to ask more about the process of getting trainers to sign, but they didn’t return a call in time for this story. Still, it’s worth noting that the list is very New York-heavy. And if you want to feel better about putting $2 down on these trainers’ horses, they are Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, Ben Colebrook, Gary Contessa, Arnaud Delacour, Janet Elliott, Mark Hennig, Kiaran McLaughlin, Shug McGaughey, Ken McPeek, Tom Morley, Graham Motion, Todd Pletcher, John Sadler, George Weaver and Nick Zito.
Props to Sadler. If I were a California-based trainer, I wouldn’t leave him alone on that island. That state’s racing is still under a more intense microscope.
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Along the lines of racing surfaces, Thoroughbred Daily News’ Bill Finley wrote an informative, entertaining story on how Michael Dickinson, a retired trainer and inventor of Tapeta Footings — the leading synthetic surface manufacturer in North America — believes that American racing should switch to synthetic surfaces instead of dirt.
The story does not sugarcoat the fact that Dickinson would make a lot of money off such a movement, but it also points out that Dickinson’s wife and co-operator of Tapeta Footings, Joan Wakefield, has improved his initial product and that the safety statistics don’t lie.
The story said what Tapeta now produces is called Tapeta 10 for the 10 improvements Wakefield has made. Some of those improvements have been put in at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the 2018 fatality rate was 0.34 horses per 1,000 starters, making it the safest racetrack in the country. The complete Tapeta 10 is in use at Wolverhampton and Newcastle in England, and there the respective fatality rates are 0.07 and 0.08.
The average dirt fatality rate in 2018 was 1.68 deaths per 1,000 starters (Saratoga’s rate was 0.97). Synthetics were 1.23 and grass’ was 1.20.
The final presentations regarding the sport’s safety and next moves will be made at The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing on Sunday morning at The Gideon Putnam. The first half of the program makes it clear what the sport is up against. The topics include “The University of Kentucky and Racing Surfaces,” “Lessons in Crisis Management and What the Thoroughbred Industry Must Do Better,” “The Humane Society of the United States and Safer Horse Racing” and “The Case for the Horseracing Integrity Act.”
By the time intermission comes, attendees are probably going to run over to the nearby Spa City Farmers Market to feed and drown their sorrows.
And while every entity seems eager to get in its two cents about which direction racing should go, it is a good time. Not like this spring, when the track management of Santa Anita missed the mark in its response to the tragedies. As for Saratoga, there have been 10 horse deaths since the Oklahoma Training Track opened in April. Two have happened during racing at the meet. Five happened during training (three on the main track, two on the Oklahoma) and three were non-racing related in which the deaths occurred in the attempts of treatment at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on Hennig Road.
Meanwhile, at Santa Anita, the main track has had new dirt added and been completely graded in preparation for its fall meet. Also, there are plans to install a drainage system on the main track under the inside rail. Finally, its downhill turf course that has an 80-foot crossover onto the main track will be closed to sprints during the upcoming fall meeting. It will be used for races 1 ⅛ miles or longer when horses aren’t running so hard over the crossover.
The Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita on Nov. 1-2.