Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Paulick, PETA and racing 'Luck'

Ray Paulick has done an admirable job today of trying to separate the truth from the animal-rights movement fiction about the cancellation of HBO's horse racing-based drama "Luck."

I was greatly enjoying "Luck." It was the only series on television I faithfully watched every week. I was even further impressed by the dedication to the production and its fans displayed by cast members John Ortiz (@johnortiz718), Tom Payne (@justanactor) and hall-of-fame jockey Gary Stevens (@HRTVGary), who routinely interacted with viewers and participated in a weekly #LuckChat on Twitter.

When news broke that a third horse associated with "Luck" had died at Santa Anita, there was concern among the show's fans that it wouldn't survive the negative publicity. That proved true when public pressure -- largely fueled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- was apparently too much for HBO to bear. The series was canceled.

Ray has tackled the task of unmasking PETA as one of the least ethical major charities in America. And when it comes to PETA, I'm not certain there could be a less-reputable group in America being treated by the media as though it IS reputable. I spent 20 years as a journalist and have been appalled that the healthy skepticism typically directed toward nearly every source is so often completely absent when reporters speak with PETA. I can only think of two reasons.

1. PETA is so impassioned in its position and so polished in its theatre that journalists are too readily convinced the vehemence and varnish with which the PETA message is delivered equates to veracity. ("They seem so informed and insistent; it must be true!")

2. Journalists have an admirable, but sometimes misguided, commitment to "tell both sides" of the story. That's great when both sides are making potentially valid points. It's a disservice to readers when one side is peddling propaganda that at best is loosely based in truth, at worst is often complete fabrication. When PETA is the first, loudest and most reliable "other opinion" for an animal-related story, it's too easy for a busy (or lazy) journalist to just take PETA's quotes and run with them.

For the record, PETA sneaks around. PETA twists the truth. PETA outright lies. PETA hypocritically scolds people for mistreating animals and "kill" shelters for engaging in euthanasia, while a study of PETA records shows the organization euthanizes 95 percent of the stray dogs and cats it takes in. In 2011, PETA's Virginia headquarters killed more than 1,900 dogs and cats, finding new homes for only 24. Charity Navigator shows PETA collecting $35 million in revenues last year and spending 85 percent of that on "programs," but when PETA kills almost every animal that comes into its "care," what sort of "programs" could those be? (Answer: Huge advertising campaigns, publicity stunts, lobbying, hiring staff (including convicted eco-felon Gary Yourofsky), euthanasia, financially supporting ecoterrorists like firebomber Rodney Coronado, and staging its "covert investigations" into cruelty wherever it can be found -- or merely imagined.) PETA would rather you or your children die than that your life be saved through medical research that involved animals.

Humane treatment of animals is moral and right. Taken to PETA's extremes, the notion becomes insanity. But as Penn & Teller tell us in their own "Bullshit!" episode exposé of PETA: "In any conflict, the crazier party usually wins ... which is why PETA is doing so well." (LANGUAGE WARNING: Don't view the Penn & Teller link if you have sensitive ears.)

The horse racing industry should never do anything -- NOT ONE THING -- merely to appease PETA, and neither should Hollywood. (Fat chance of the latter.) PETA is not a reasonable and grounded critic of the industry; it is not a trustworthy partner in affecting appropriate change. Horse racing, Hollywood, the restaurant business or any animal-ag business trying to work with PETA would be like offering the scorpion a ride across the river on your own back.

So if change needed to take place on the "Luck" set, or if cancellation was the only option, it should have been for valid reasons far beyond the simple fact that PETA was predictably flipping its collective wig.

Anyone who questions the ability of PETA itself or animal rights activists in general to take extreme positions unfounded in fact -- even sanity -- should read the comments under a story at the Today Show Web site this afternoon. It is being described as "abuse" and the dog "living in hell" for a 4-year-old goldendoodle to be employed as a service animal for a 3-year-old girl who must be tethered to oxygen. (The dog carries two bottles in a specially designed vest when the pair go out to play.)

Needless to say we can't be blind to the racing industry's troubles nor deaf to all criticism. The industry has serious horse-welfare issues that must be addressed.

But offhand I'd suggest there are four general "camps" when it comes to undertaking, observing and judging this effort. Two of them are serious problems; a third is our primary audience and challenge.

First, there are racing industry professionals who believe nothing is wrong with the sport. Whether through selfishness or merely wishful thinking, they believe no ban of race-day meds is necessary, no extra effort or thought given to the pursuit of safer racing for the horses. These people are the industry's biggest impediment to necessary progress. Their culture and obstructionism have clearly proven difficult, sometimes impossible, to overcome in the past.

Second, there are the industry professionals and fans who ardently believe in and support horse racing, but who equally believe that the humans involved must make every reasonable effort to protect the equine athletes. If we love and value these animals, we should always treat them accordingly. Good ideas for improving horse welfare will come from this sector; so must the energy and the sheer force of will to achieve them in the face of opposition within the industry itself.

Third, there are PETA and vocal animal rights activists. Frankly, there's nothing racing can do to appease these people. Ever. Regardless what we say or do, they are the antithesis of "preaching to the choir." Our goals as racing's advocates are to give them as little ammunition as possible for their attacks, and to provide accurate information that hopefully keeps this can of mixed nuts from poisoning the fourth group.

And that fourth group is by far the largest -- those ranging from casual fans to non-fans who are completely disinterested in the sport, but who don't want to see animals abused or needlessly suffer. These people do NOT believe (as PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk once said) that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." Most of them will eat the surf and turf. They own cats and dogs and hamsters and parakeets. They have their human-animal priorities pretty well in order. And they comprise, I'm guessing, at least 80 percent of everybody.

Billy Martin once noted that on any baseball team there will be a couple of players who hate you, a couple who would do anything for you, and the rest are undecided.

"The secret of managing," Martin said, "is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided."

And in a very real way, that's the secret of managing horse racing's image and trying to reverse the downward trend in its fan-base in the 21st century. Those of us who would do anything for the good of horse racing need to be the agents of progress in the sport and the buffer of truth that separates the vast majority of moderately interested and disinterested observers from the agenda-driven animal rights zealots who won't stop until there's not a single horse left being raced, nor dog carrying oxygen bottles, nor beef placed on a bun.

PETA alone will never have the power to shut down horse racing. But a willfully and woefully misinformed general public who are eventually provoked into crying out to everyone from the networks and advertisers that carry and sponsor racing to state legislatures and Congress that can crush us under the weight of government, just might.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Graded Earnings: Unfair hype over perceived Derby slight

I congratulate a writer and race fan I know only as Indulto for inspiring me to post on this blog for the first time since October.

I don't happen to agree with the lengthy first installment of his piece at HorseRaceInsider, touting a point system rather than graded earnings to determine Kentucky Derby entry. But his position is well-considered and passionate enough that it stirred me to think and to write, and that in itself makes it of considerable merit.

I just had to say after reading the first installment (Part 2 is coming today), I'm not thrilled with the notion of a points system.

Almost everyone who follows horse racing would agree there are concerns with using graded earnings to determine Derby entry, so I can't discredit someone for putting serious thought into how those concerns should be addressed. Let's say that right off the top.

Not the least of these problems is "recency;" a horse can be in the Kentucky Derby field largely or almost solely on what he did as a 2-year-old, regardless of his current 3-year-old form. Other complaints center on money earned from turf or synthetic races (which might not be indicative of dirt potential, ANIMAL KINGDOM and BARBARO notwithstanding), and graded earnings collected from sprint races that could permit entry into the Derby by a horse who has shown no ability whatsoever to win beyond, say, 7f or a mile. Then there are, as the writer puts it, these "virtual win-and-you're-in" races such as the Delta Jackpot; so much money riding on one race that if you win it, your horse is a Derby-lock (provided he's healthy) from one victory.

Points, one proponent of such a system cited by Indulto says, are more "equitable," and they "reward consistency and activity." I'm not sure I can argue. I'm also not sure that I need to.

Whether we're talking earnings or "points," the only way to address most of these concerns is through a weighting system that only gives full credit toward Derby entry for dirt races run, say, at least a mile or a mile and a sixteenth. (Because how many opportunities do early 3-year-olds in the U.S. have to go even 9 furlongs?) ... Oh, and only full credit for races run at 3. Maybe extra-credit for races run in the last month or six weeks before Derby Day. ... And discounted credit on turf and synthetic.

As HorseRaceInsider John Pricci commented after the post itself, that runs the risk of quickly becoming unwieldy. And, if you're going to do that with points, it could be done with earnings anyway -- say, only half-credit for 2-year-old earnings, etc. -- leaving just one remaining problem: "Virtual win-and-you're-in" races with huge purses; the money itself.

Pricci (who wrote the introduction to Indulto's piece) also suggests in the commentary below that "throwing money at at race might be best for the track," but might not be the best assessment of talent. ... I'm not certain that I agree. Absolutely you'll get some horses running for that dough who don't really belong -- but they won't win it, will they? Not usually.

Money has always been the incentives tracks use to get good horses in their good races, building their brand and turning a listed stake into a graded stake. It's really the only incentive they have. If a horse gets equal points for winning any Grade 3, regardless where he wins it, certainly that would create the sort of playing field that permanently favors the NYRA circuit, Churchill and Keeneland, Gulfstream and the Big 3 in California. Money will always have an appeal, but money with the attached value of Derby passage is what is increasingly bringing VERY good horses to Delta Downs for the Jackpot and Princess (the filly version), and might someday bring better and better horses -- and a Grade 3 designation? -- to Oklahoma's nifty Remington Park for a 2-year-old race like the $300,000 Springboard Mile.

The complaint, for those inclined to complain, is that it just doesn't seem fair that while a pair of races might each be a Grade 3, in earnings they are very different. The Delta Jackpot carries a $1 million purse; win it and you're Derby-qualified. ... WAYI, as Indulto abbreviates it -- "Win and You're In." ... Just stay healthy and fit and you'll run for the roses.

But ultimately THAT'S the single largest factor determining the Derby field: Which horses are healthy and fit on the first Saturday in May.

Are there horses whose connections want them in that get squeezed out? Yes, probably every year.

Are those horses key contenders if ONLY we'd let them in the starting gate? ... I'd venture to say not very often.

I discount completely Indulto's suggestion that DROSSELMEYER was somehow shortchanged on his chance to be a Triple Crown winner. That's laughable. Drosselmeyer won the Belmont that year, but we've seen several Belmont Stakes winners who were (as Indulto likes to put it) the ULTIMATE "one-hit wonders." JAZIL and DA' TARA leap to mind.

"But wait," the argument would go, "Drosselmeyer backed up his Belmont by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic."

Um, yeah, as a 4-year-old, nearly 18 months later, not to culminate a 3-year-old campaign that might have made him a 3-year-old champion -- a champion who was screwed out of a chance to run in the Derby by that silly graded-earnings rule.

Drosselmeyer missed the 2010 Derby on graded earnings, so what was the next move by his connections? The Preakness? ... No, they ran in the Grade 2 Dwyer at Belmont (scheduled between the Derby and Preakness). And lost to FLY DOWN by six lengths.

That's our poster-boy for a new point system? Our possible missed Triple Crown winner had he only run for the Roses? A horse who couldn't make the Derby on graded earnings; who didn't run in the Preakness, choosing the Dwyer instead; who got BEAT in a seven-horse Dwyer; won the Belmont, but then didn't win again until May of his 4-year-old season in an ungraded stake? ... THAT'S the horse?

It's pretty clear I'm not buying.

The Kentucky Derby offers entry to 20 horses. That's a LOT -- too many, some would argue. (And they might contend that's as big a deterrent to a Triple Crown winner as anything; the Derby is overstuffed and to win it takes as much luck as talent.)

To have any faith in an argument that richly deserving horses are being left out of that 20-stall Derby gate, I'd have to see who, say, the last three in and the last three out were from the past decade or two, and assess what they did thereafter -- particularly in the Preakness and Belmont. At this stage I simply doubt that a serious Derby (let alone Triple Crown) contender has been excluded from the field based on graded earnings over the past quarter-century. Maybe ever.

Meanwhile, with much gnashing of teeth over big-purse "WAYI" races, what has the effect of those races been on the Derby field ... REALLY?

For starters, let's agree that much of nobody is going to want the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner (often 2-year-old champion) excluded from the Derby field if he's sound and fit to run, even if he hasn't amassed a lot of earnings or "points" since. (Regardless that only one prior winner has gone on to actually WIN the Kentucky Derby, STREET SENSE.) ... So it doesn't really matter what the B.C. Juvenile pays; win that and you punch a Derby ticket IF you can stay healthy. Fair enough.

I think the real gripe for someone touting the points system can be narrowly focused on the Delta Jackpot. There simply have to be people all over America -- particularly those who frequent NYRA tracks, California tracks, etc. -- who resent that little backwater bullring offering a ton of money to "buy" a graded stakes race; people who think it's muddying the waters of the Derby field by throwing a life raft of cash to a host of otherwise drowning and undeserving Derby hopefuls.

Let's see about that, because -- for the fear to be realized -- there'd need to be Delta Jackpot-winners and -placers and their dirty money in the Derby field almost every year, robbing a horse like the vaunted Drosselmeyer (who hadn't won above the NW2L condition at the time, mind you) his much-deserved place in the Derby.

Since the Delta Jackpot became a Grade 3 race, here are your in-the-money horses (and big paydays):

2011: 1. SABERCAT; 2. Basmati; 3. LONGVIEW DRIVE.
2009: 1. RULE; 2. UH OH BANGO; 3. OAK MOTTE.

Don't see much "Derby" there. Not of the "Kentucky" variety, anyway.

Obviously the "Jackpot Class of 2011" hasn't played out on the Derby Trail yet. But Sabercat hasn't run since winning the Jackpot (though he IS working) and thus I doubt he'll make the starting gate. Basmati hasn't run since finishing 11th in the Cash Call Futurity and just came back on the work tab; no threat. Longview Drive was third in the G3 Sham, but stubbed his toe in the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn last out, finishing in the triple-dead-heat for sixth (as the favorite in that flight). ... Could still get in, but if he does, he has some work to do, presently standing 30th in graded earnings. So if he hits the board or wins a close-to-the-Derby prep, hasn't Longview Drive earned his ticket?

How about prior years?

The 2010 Jackpot tote produced 14th-place Derby finisher Decisive Moment, but he also finished second in the G3 Spiral as a final Derby prep (beaten only by eventual Derby winner Animal Kingdom) so I'm hard-pressed to consider him undeserving. The other two on the board -- Gourmet Dinner (third in the Holy Bull S.-G3 and second to Soldat in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 at age 3), and Clubhouse Ride (3rd by a head over Gourmet Dinner in the Cashcall Futurity-G1 and second in the G3 Sham at age 3) were both hurt and taken off the Derby trail. But had they made the field, I'd have to think they deserved it.

(Gourmet Dinner, the faithful of this blog should note, was one of my 2010 juvenile sales selections.)

Rule, the 2009 Jackpot winner, was at the top of many Derby contender lists until injury took him off the Trail. Uh Oh Bango was fourth in both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby and was declared out with injury for the Kentucky Derby, despite being 21st on the earnings list with a chance to draw in. He's come back as an older horse to win the San Pasqual S.-G2 at Santa Anita and place in three other graded stakes at 4 and 5, suggesting he'd have been perfectly acceptable as a Kentucky Derby starter (and really damned good for an Arizona-bred). ... Third-place Oak Motte didn't run again until July of his 3-year-old season and hasn't won a race since taking a Texas stallion stakes as a 2-year-old, but he didn't steal anybody's Derby bid, either.

The 2008 Jackpot winner, Big Drama, is unquestionably a great horse. He proved not to be a Classic-type (run off his feet by RACHEL ALEXANDRA in the 2009 Preakness), but he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint and was champion sprinter as a 4-year-old. He was NOT a Derby starter. ... West Side Bernie was ninth in the 2009 Derby, but had just finished second to a short-priced I WANT REVENGE in the Wood Memorial S.-G1 and deserved his chance. Stimulus Plan didn't return to the racetrack after the Jackpot until the midpoint of his 3-year-old campaign and was not on the Derby trail; he has come on as an older horse to be placed in several stakes races, including a pair of G3s at Calder.

For 2007, dead-heat winner Z Humor finished 14th in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, but while his "Trail" to get there was undistinguished, he did finish fourth in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 and third in the Illinois Derby-G2 in his final two preps, so his entry at Churchill wasn't unfair. The other horse in the dead-heat for first, Turf War, flopped in his Derby preps, ran in the Derby Trial instead of the Derby itself, and never won another race. Golden Yank also sputtered on the Derby Trail and didn't run for the roses, but he has eventually won three stakes races after the Jackpot (including the Oklahoma Derby) and has been graded-placed several times, earning $840K.

The 2006 Jackpot produced a trio of which none made the Derby field, though Xchanger would run eighth in the Preakness. No harm, no foul.

So I ask, where's the injustice? I can't make a case against any Delta Jackpot podium-finisher who eventually ran in the Derby (at least, not a case that he shouldn't have been one of the TWENTY), and many of those injured and taken off the trail would have been clearly deserving had they been in the Derby, particularly horses like Gourmet Dinner and Rule.

Seriously, if the $1 million Delta Jackpot isn't a consistent source of undeserving Derby starters -- and demonstrably it hasn't been -- what high-purse race COULD be?

I'm left to ask, then, whether we're not all bent out of shape about the unfairness of graded earnings, and 2-year-old races, and fat purses, and dirt vs. turf and synth, for little or no considerable reason.

More than 30,000 thoroughbreds are foaled every spring in the United States. Three years later, the Kentucky Derby tends to be run by the 20 most remotely qualified 3-year-olds who are sound and fit as of the first Saturday in May.

The brilliant but fragile, precocious, speed-favoring 2-year-olds have fallen by the wayside. So have a litany of seeming favorites from the traditional prep races: ESKENDEREYA, the aforementioned I Want Revenge, former 2-year-old champ UNCLE MO and his Wood Memorial vanquisher TOBY'S CORNER ... just to name a recent few.

Hey, differences of opinion are what MAKES a horse race. Controversy drives many good column-inches of journalism and a few positive changes to any sport.

But I really feel like we're not arguing here about whether a playoff would give us a more accomplished, recognized champion of college football than the BCS provides; we're splitting hairs over whom should be the 68th team in the March Madness field.