HTA/TRA meetings come to a close

12:10 AM 21 Feb 2008 NZDT
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Late odds changes, Congressional investigations, medication and technology were the topics of the day as the general sessions of the 2008 joint meeting of Harness Tracks of America and the Thoroughbred Racing Association came to a close Wednesday (February 20) in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The morning kicked off with a look at “Trust in the Pari-mutuel System: Looking at Late Odds Changes,” which featured USTA President Phil Langley, Curtis Linnell of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau and Mike Maloney, one of racing’s biggest bettors.

The prevailing sentiment from all three was that odds changes that take place after the race has started -- sometimes as late as the head of the stretch -- hurt the credibility of racing. The reasons for such jumps are two fold, according to the panel -- wagering right up to the start, and sometimes making bets after the gates have folded.

“I see wagering occurring after the races have started,” said Maloney. “I have seen it my entire 20 years at the track.”

Both Linnell and Langley agreed that the infrastructure for betting has not kept pace with technology, and racing must work collectively to get to that point.

“We’ve tried to take a regional or local system and make it a national and international one,” said Linnell. “It’s a radical leap to get to the efficiency our customers demand.”

Maloney added that the racing industry has only been concerned with one end of the pipeline -- where the money comes into the system -- but that no one makes sure the money gets into the proper hands at the dispersal end of the pipeline. There is no way to know if someone skims five percent of the trifecta pool and cheats the bettor.

Maloney endorsed the idea of a national office of wagering security -- an office to serve as a watchdog for the bettors.

From wagering integrity the sessions turned to medication integrity as Bennett Liebman of the Albany Law School shared his thoughts on Major League Baseball’s report from Sen. George Mitchell regarding steroid use and abuse, and its impact on racing.

Mitchell’s findings were that the use of steroids in baseball was widespread, and its only direct connection to horse racing was through catcher Paul Lo Duca, a Thoroughbred owner. But beneath the surface, said Liebman, “harness racing is baseball.”

“Steroid use is rampant,” he said. “There is no question that it is. It’s been rampant for years. And racing’s response has been slow and initially ineffective.”

Liebman said that racing has used steroids, at points, almost like a supplement with the perception that it is a legal drug, but in most states they are not legal.

He encouraged the racing commissioners to set a policy, to adequately fund and support testing, incorporating analytical testing, and freezing samples for future testing. He also advocated forcing racing’s licensees to report drug use.

“We can rise above it,” he said. “We can put our house in order.”

Medication and regulation was the focus of the next panel, which included Alan Foreman of the Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, Dr. Scot Waterman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, Ed Martin of Racing Commissioners International, trainer Ben Wallace and Dennis Dowd of The Meadowlands.

Foreman said one of racing’s biggest problems is that it views and promotes itself as a business of cheaters, but it is not the truth.

He said in 2006-07 there were 135,000 drug samples collected from U.S. racing horses, making racing the most rigorously tested sport.

The result: around 60 positives.

In the Mid-Atlantic states from 1997-2004, 229,000 drug tests were conducted resulting in 1,872 positives and 95 percent were for therapeutic medications.

“We do not promote the transparency of our business,” said Foreman. “Penalties are swift. If we promote the negative, we could separate ourselves from other sports to show how proactive we are. If we reinforce the notion our business is negative, consumed with cheating, and drugging of horses is rampant, our future is not particularly bright.”

Wallace agreed, adding, “We’ve created a scenario where when a trainer wins a race, he did it illegally. We have the public and owners thinking that way. That’s where I think we are going wrong.”

Wallace said he cut his racing teeth in the 1970s and 1980s, which was when pedigree and conditioning were a trainer’s best tools. Now, he added, racing a horse without medication is almost unheard of. That has led to serious perception problems.

“We attempt to be progressive and proactive, but when a bettor loses, he feels someone beat him illegally,” he said. “Owners feel when they get beat, they got beat illegally. Maybe they just bought a bad horse.”

Martin agreed that racing is its “own worst enemy in the perception we give to the public,” and that not too many trainers compete on good honest horsemanship anymore.

“The best thing would be to focus research efforts to test all horses in plasma and not rely on urine,” he said. “Put a vet tech at the end of every race, and draw blood on every horse. We may not run every test, but we will create a sense of deterrent.

“We have to focus on how to test all the horses. We can’t do it under the current system.”

Waterman said such testing would be ideal, but the fact that some states pay $20 a sample, there is not enough funding to accomplish that. He said that racing spends the extraordinary sum of $30 million annually on testing, but that amount has not changed in nearly 20 years. And that money is being spent at 18 different labs, creating a dilution that leads to inefficiency.

The talk turned toward trainers’ responsibility when Martin noted that most medication violations are for pain management, prompting him to question why racing horses are in so much pain. Wallace explained that early speed means early money, and horses are no longer trained for $10 or $15 a day.

“The millennium trainer, the trainer of today, is in a position where there must be results sooner rather than later,” he said. “It’s snowballed to horse shortages and horses racing through pain and more therapeutic use of medication. It’s an economic scenario.

“With catch-drivers and $75 a day training bills, it’s now get up and go.”

Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs owner Jeff Gural sought even more trainer responsibility when he asked from the floor why conditioners don’t help racetrack owners by telling them who is cheating.

“We get no help from the racing community,” he said. “These young guys have no future, because the game will not be around too long if we don’t address this.”

Wallace countered, however, that he as a trainer has no greater insight into who exactly is doing what in their barn, but he sees “blatant records” of horsemen with significant violations who are still in racing.

“I’m supposed to pick up the phone and ask, ‘How do I race against this son of a gun?’” he asked.

The day’s sessions concluded with a panel on “Racing And New Technology: Having Missed the Television Boat a Half a Century Ago, Will We Be Left to Sink Again without Adapting to New Forms of Communication.” The participants were Eric Wing of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Dave Johnson of Sirius Satellite Radio and Seth Merrow of Equidaily, an online horse racing news entity.

The panel discussed various aspects of communication technology, especially Internet expansion, but Johnson said there is a deeper problem racing must address.

“I don’t think it’s the technology we have to embrace -- it’s the passion,” he said. “People have lost interest in our game. Interest in the content is dying. If people don’t have interest, technology does not mean anything. We have to use the technology to bring the passion back into the game.”

Nicole Kraft, communications director, U.S. Trotting Association

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