American racing out of step

The recent reversal of the planned raceday medication ban for juvenile Graded events must be rued more »

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Feature columnist

Some 30-odd years ago I walked into the bar of a hotel in Miami and ordered myself a drink, evidently much to the amusement of a couple of chaps standing alongside me. What sparked the sudden outbreak of mirth wasn’t immediately clear; it wasn’t as though I’d asked for a pint of Bishop’s Finger, which might have supplied an excuse.

I gave them one of my looks which pretty much demanded a verbal response and it was soon forthcoming from the cheekier of the pair. It ran along the lines of: “Say, man, that’s some kinda accent you got.”

Of course, I swiftly pointed out that, on the contrary, he was the one with an accent; I spoke the Queen’s English. That remark was apparently funnier still, judging by the upgrade from giggles to guffaws.

Then I was asked where I came from and responded by stating what was surely obvious: “England.” The laughter suddenly ceased and silence reigned for perhaps half a minute, while they racked their brains for something to say. Eventually one of them came out with a tentative suggestion: “England? Is that where the Beatles came from?”

Yes, I found it hard to believe as well, but I swear that’s what the fellow said. The pair of them knew of England only because of the Beatles – and they weren’t even sure about that. Anyway, we got along famously after that, buying each other drinks and chatting amicably. There was just one other thing that I remember about our conversation. They asked me if I was returning home from Florida and I told them that I was going to California first. Had they been to California, I asked. Heads were shaken and I tried to guess what their vacant expressions meant. It struck me that I had asked a ridiculous question. California was no more on their map than England was.

That apparently mundane episode in a Miami bar became permanently deposited in my memory bank because I found umpteen reasons to relate to it when travelling in America. It is a vast country, a federation of 50-odd states which all have significant degrees of autonomy and are united only in name. Can it truly be said to have a national identity?

Thanks to that conversation I could understand why TV news bulletins tended to be so localised, why out-of-state events were deemed not to matter much, and why international news was often non-existent. I realised why JFK could have delivered a speech in Germany and unwittingly described himself as a kind of doughnut. How would any American have known what “Ich bin ein Berliner” meant and how much funnier it sounded in a Boston accent?

Unity in racing is needed
There are certain things about which America is united, notably her major sports. Americans don’t need to look beyond their boundaries and can ignore the rest of the world, because the rest of the world cares little or nothing about her versions of football, rounders and netball. They are encouraged in their insularity, most being blissfully unaware that nobody in most other countries could give a damn about their obsessions.

Fear not, America. We are not going to try to convert you to cricket, a game so esoteric that it allows for up to five days of competition and your anathema of a drawn outcome. But we would like to be on the same wavelength as you where racing is concerned. Unfortunately, that is not the case, despite the fact that there has been a great deal of interchange of stock, largely westbound for well over 200 years, significantly in our direction for nearly 50.

It’s not just that America’s version of racing is so much duller, every track a clone of every other one and dirt as the preponderant surface. In addition, many of America’s top races are run under handicap conditions, something that the European Pattern has never condoned.

But there is another much more important difference – at least, it rates as important on this side of the Atlantic – and that is the diametrically opposed stances on raceday medication. In Europe and everywhere else in the world it is strictly verboten; in America its use is so prevalent as to seem almost obligatory.

Of course, in this context medication is too polite, indeed, a quite erroneous, term. Medication is something administered to the sick to promote a return to health. Are we supposed to believe that virtually every thoroughbred in the States is ill, requiring medication to be able to compete? What a sick, sorry lot America’s racing population must be.

The plain fact is that almost every Stateside runner is drugged on the day of its race, whether or not it is necessary. It will have a shot of what we used to call Lasix and must now call Salix, and in some cases that may not be all. America is out of step with the rest of the world in allowing – one might almost say encouraging – abuse that in human sporting endeavours, such as athletics and cycling, would result in lengthy bans from competition. Americans have known for decades that their permissive regime is deplored elsewhere, but they were disinclined to act. They foresaw problems over getting races to fill – and a consequent fall in revenue from wagering – if they were to apply a ban on drugs. Or so they alleged.

Implementing change proves difficult
But finally one body, more conscious and respectful of international opinion, proposed to come into line. If there was one organisation that would have to recognise the need for change it was the Breeders’ Cup, especially after it added its claim to represent the World Championships of racing. The claim was dubious anyway but it meant nothing if the competitors were not on level terms. Heavens be praised, the Breeders’ Cup announced a prohibition on Salix and other raceday medications for all its races at the two-day autumn bonanza.

There was, it seemed, even better news to follow. The Graded Stakes Committee of TOBA, which purports to represent owners and breeders nationwide, announced that it would follow suit in respect of two-year-old Graded events in 2012. America was at last making a start at establishing clean racing.

But it was a different matter when it came to trying to implement the changes. This was where federalism proved the bugbear. Of the 45 scheduled Graded Stakes for two-year-olds, 40 came under the jurisdiction of just three states – New York, California and Kentucky – and they all had their reasons for rejecting the call for a change in their rules.

In Britain we routinely rue the fact that it seems impossible to get all the factions involved in the sport to agree upon anything. But there is at least an overall authority, however ineffective it might appear to be, and that is something America lacks. The Jockey Club runs the Stud Book, but it controls nothing else. Every state which conducts thoroughbred racing rules by its own lights; anything goes.

No doubt TOBA had the best of intentions but ultimately it became clear that it did not have the clout to enforce the changes it had promised to deliver. Nor, it would seem, did it make an adequate case for a move that was not just advisable, but absolutely necessary, if there was a real will to earn the confidence of the rest of the world.

Have America’s owners and breeders not noticed that Europeans do not flock to Stateside sales in great numbers any more? Are they unaware that the rest of the world is suspicious about the value of the form in Graded events conducted under a permissive drug regime?

I fear that the isolationist ethos holds sway. Most owners and breeders are not concerned with the export market. It’s all the same to them if their racing – like their football, baseball and basketball – fails to claim the attention of anyone outside America.

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About Tony Morris

Feature columnist
  • http://www.facebook.com/layton.register Layton Register

    The peak of the select yearling market in the U.S. was arguably 1984. In that year the top 26 highest priced yearlings in the U.S. grossed $85,800,000 which was likely driven by 11 of Timeform’s 27 highest rated three-year-old horses in 1984 being North American-bred. Of Timeform’s 25 highest rated three-year-olds last year that raced primarily in Europe, four of the horses were bred in North America. Of the four, Dream Ahead was sired by Diktat, a European-based stallion. Last year in the U.S., the top 28 highest priced yearlings grossed $24,500,000. In 1984, Keeneland’s sales yearlings grossed $240,411,300. In 2011, they grossed $223,487,800. The yearlings that sold at England’s Tattersalls in 1984 grossed 36,545,600 guineas. In 2011, they grossed 78,783,000 guineas. The reasons North American-bred horses have lost value may have a little to do with the general economic conditions, casino gaming, the tax treatment of horses, and the political climate in Washington, D.C., but it has a lot to do with how Thoroughbred racing is organized and conducted in North America, especially in regard to race-day medication.

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