Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tough situation, smart move by DRF: Two days of free PPs

Considering I've taken time to criticize the horse racing industry as a whole and individuals or organizations within the industry for lack of good public relations skills, I'm going to give a pat on the back this evening to the Daily Racing Form. has been down now for quite some time -- going on 48 hours, I suppose. And it may have taken DRF management a little while to make this decision, or at least make posting possible, but as of this wring, the Daily Racing Form is offering free past-performances for all North American tracks, for today (Thursday, May 22) and tomorrow.

I don't know if doing this sort of thing was completely impossible in the wake of's recent server failure, up until this afternoon, or if it just took management awhile to come up with the idea for this sort of olive branch to the Daily Racing Form's customers. But it's a shrewd move, and one that should be appreciated by all those who rely on DRF PPs -- as I do on the rare occasions these days I get to a track.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nasal strip flare-up threatens Chrome's Crown run, highlights need for national regulations

One of California Chrome's populist owners on Saturday fired a shot at Churchill Downs management for the track's perceived lack of hospitality during Kentucky Derby week.

Now they've fired a shot across the bow of the New York Racing Association, and anyone in this sport who still stands in the way of commonsense, nationwide, universal regulations for thoroughbred competition.

The California Chrome story has caught America's attention. The bargain-priced, modestly bred colt with a six-race win streak and owned by a couple of fellows with an unabashed "regular-guy" streak -- enough that Steve Coburn and Perry Martin named their stable Dumb Ass Partners -- stands one last victory away from capturing the nation's first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

But an arbitrary, 15-year-old ruling by New York stewards might prompt the connections to skip the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. Trainer Art Sherman says the horse might not make his bid for Triple Crown glory in the Big Apple on June 7, because Chrome's co-owner Martin is who wanted the colt to run with the strips in the first place, and might not let him run without them.

Martin, it should be noted, apparently was so put off by the lack of hospitality in Kentucky during Derby week that he skipped the Preakness entirely. He completely stayed away. So don't be certain he won't do the same with his horse over an issue this dear to his heart.

"This guy Perry Martin, he might not run if they say you can't run with a nasal strip," Sherman told USA Today. "He's very funny about things like that."

New York remains one of very few North American racing jurisdictions in which thoroughbreds can't compete while wearing nasal-strip breathing aids, similar to those worn by some human athletes.

Operative words are "thoroughbreds" and "compete" in that sentence. Apparently in New York it's O.K. for standardbred horses to wear the breathing strips in harness races. And NYRA hasn't banned the strips for training on the state's thoroughbred racetracks -- only for race-day.

But it's a ban NYRA and its stewards have stood by in the past, even in the face of derailing a Triple Crown bid. In 2012 the connections of I'll Have Another, like California Chrome a Golden State shipper to the three eastern races, were going to be denied use of nasal strips by NYRA in the Belmont. That horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, said he was prepared to "respect" the ruling run the horse without a breathing strip.

Ultimately, I'll Have Another didn't run in the race due to a leg injury. He was scratched only a day before the Belmont. And was saved the indignity of all the rampant speculation that NYRA stewards might have nostril-blocked the first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years by their staunch enforcement of what is -- let's face it -- by all evidence just an arbitrary rule.

For a fan to stand behind NYRA in its possible rejection of a breathing strip-wearing California Chrome in the Belmont, we have to know why the anti-strip ruling was reached in the first place, and why NYRA continues to enforce it today, despite the device's use in so many other jurisdictions.

And after a little reading, all I can come up with is "just because."

From Bill Heller's book "Run, Baby, Run," it seems NYRA stewards rejected the strips after a very brief and inconclusive test in the autumn and early winter of 1999, after the breathing aids made a big splash at the Breeders' Cup, with about 30 percent of the competitors wearing them. The strips were banned for racing at the state's thoroughbred tracks, but not for training, and then-NYRA CEO Barry Schwarz said it was the stewards' choice.

A steward explained.

"We knew nothing about them, and I don't like to endorse something that the public doesn't know about, whether it affects the horse or not," said NYRA steward David Hicks.

That actually was a well-reasoned approach. For 1999.

Now it's 2014. We know a lot more about the strips, although that information is hardly definitive. Among the things we think we know is that the strips may or may not significantly reduce Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH, for which nearly every racehorse in America is injected with Lasix before every race), but that they at least don't seem to do any harm. And they don't work many miracles on the racetrack, either.

There have been numerous studies of the strips since they made a splash when a long-shot named Burrito won a race at Keeneland sporting such a schnoz-sticker. Some found glowing results -- Kansas State University initially saw a 33-percent decrease in EIPH among the wearers and a study at the University of California-Davis found that the most severe "bleeders" benefited the greatest. Other studies found no harmful effects, but couldn't really establish any helpful ones, either.

Initially it looked like the strips were going to be a hot commodity, but within a year or so their use had subsided. Still, a handful of trainers use them wherever they can -- just not in New York.

From a bettor's perspective -- which seems to be what NYRA is trying to protect, since it doesn't mind the horses wearing the strips for training -- with a month-long analysis of Churchill Downs races in 1999 Andrew Beyer quickly established that nasal strips were a throw-out in evaluating past performances.

"The data from Churchill suggest that bettors can disregard nasal strips as a handicapping factor," Beyer wrote.

Equibase data from the period generally supported Beyer. Between Oct. 23, 1999, and April 24, 2000, some 8,402 thoroughbreds raced with the nasal strips and 1,077 won -- a strike rate of 12.8 percent. … Not very compelling. According to The Jockey Club, the average field size of that era was about 8.15 horses, and since at least one horse has to win every race, that means the average strike rate was around 12.3 percent. If the breathing strips helped, it was only marginally.

So here we are in 2014 and stewards in New York may dig in their heels and defend a conservative decision made based on a lack of information in 1999, as though they've paid no attention at all to everything that has happened since.

Yes, it can be argued that "everything" to have happened is "not much." But that's part of the point.

There isn't unanimous overwhelming evidence that the strips are beneficial, but there seems to be a dearth of evidence that they're harmful to the horses, which should be everybody's first concern. And there never was any evidence that the strips were somehow shafting bettors. Even if they do create a tiny advantage in winning or losing, simply mark their usage on the past-performances like blinkers or any other piece of equipment and let the fan decide whether the strips are important enough to account for in handicapping.

This story further illustrates the debacles that a lack of universal North American racing rules invites. It doesn't matter much that the rules differ from California to New York if all you ever run is a $7,500 claimer. But in the graded stakes world, from connections to mere fans we expect horses to ship coast-to-coast -- sometimes overseas -- and still be able to bring their A-game. Weather, track conditions and other factors will always differ, but to have no single set of basic competition rules for what medications and equipment are allowed at the very least can create confusion and mistakes for visiting trainers, and at most can lead to what we may have this year -- a Triple Crown hopeful who stays away from the race of his life.

Try explaining that to racing's fans, let alone the the masses who already give horse racing very little credit as a major sport.

So here we are, in a stare-down on Main Street, city-slickers NYRA at one end of town, Steve Coburn in his cowboy hat and Perry Martin with the itchy trigger finger at the other. It's a three-week walk to the Belmont Stakes during which fans have to hope somebody blinks to avoid an ugly confrontation.

This is also our latest, potentially loudest call for nationwide regulations. It would benefit horses. It would benefit their connections. It would benefit the Triple Crown trail, Breeders' Cup and graded stakes everywhere. It would benefit the spirit of equal competition. It would benefit handicappers. It would benefit even the casual fan.

It's time for all the state-run fiefdoms to relinquish at least that much control, so silly things like this nasal-strip business can be settled once and for all, not flare up every couple of years threatening to embarrass the entire industry.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Churchill Downs finds a way to lose twice on the $15K it overpaid Wes Welker

Churchill Downs today might just be the poster-facepalm for an entire racing industry that is foundering for lack of better marketing and public relations.

Here's the scenario:

1. Wes Welker, darned-good football player and pretty widely recognized as an all-right guy, dresses up to attend the track's biggest racing day. (Glamorous!)

2. Welker wins big, and who doesn't like a winner? (#Winning!)

3. Welker celebrates his score by handing out $100 bills to numerous utter strangers. (Populist!)

4. Churchill Downs realizes it made an error in the payout and demands Welker repay almost $15,000. (Buzzkill!)

For the record, Churchill Downs, Welker's score and impromptu philanthropy was good publicity worth perhaps a hundred times what you lost in overpaying on his winning tickets. Asking for some of that money back -- less than 15 large on a day that your own betting service,, by itself handled a record $21.5 million -- is CD management face-planting in the souvenirs left after the post parade.

Are you trying to disprove the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity?