Saturday, June 23, 2007

This Horse Died in a European Slaughterhouse

Surfing around the net the other day, I stumbled across this video of Exceller's 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which he defeated TWO Triple Crown champions, Affirmed and Seattle Slew. Exceller was a horse of enormous class and stellar breeding, and the way he died was a disgrace to the entire industry.

Read more about horse slaughter here and here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Double Secret Probation

A great moment in comedy happens in the movie "Animal House", when the exasperated college dean, realizing he has come to the end of his options, puts a fraternity on double secret probation.

Jockey Rene Douglas must know how that feels. Charged with no rule violation, Douglas was "excluded" from riding at Calder last month for reasons unknown, although everyone implied that it had something to do with an ongoing investigation by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB). This exclusion was then "honored" by Tampa Bay Downs, and, subsequently, by Gulfstream Park.

Now Gulfstream has changed its stand. In an interesting choice of words, The Blood-Horse reports that Douglas is now "cleared to ride" at the Magna-owned track. Cleared? Not charged with anything, it's difficult to imagine how he could be cleared. Why not invent a new term, in the spirit of Animal House, to describe the situation more accurately? Let's just say Gulfstream un-honored Calder's exclusion.

With another seven jockeys on the equivalent of double secret probation for the past six weeks at Tampa, said "exclusions" also currently being honored by Gulfstream and, it's rumored, Turfway Park, we all have to wonder when, if ever, the TRPB will produce the goods.

And who will be responsible for the jocks' financial losses if this "jockey scandal" just turns out to be a bad joke?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Barbaro's Struggle is Over

I was in the gym, facing a bank of televisions which I could only see, but not hear, when ESPN's Sports Center program led-off with footage of Barbaro's Kentucky Derby. I knew immediately that it could only be bad news. After a struggle lasting more than eight months, the heroic horse was unable to overcome the repeated complications and setbacks arising from a life-threatening fracture he received in the Preakness Stakes.

It is a credit to Barbaro's owners, and to the veterinary team that attended him, that they tried everything humanly possible to save him, and very nearly did, yet let him go humanely when his distress finally became acute. Both Barbaro and his connections showed tons of class in this, his final race. We all regret the loss.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Wire to Wire": From Boob Tube to YouTube

The suits-in-search-of-a-mission known as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) have terminated the ESPN broadcasts of TV's only national racing program, "Wire to Wire", deciding that the show "belongs on an internet platform". The move will reduce production costs, presumably freeing up some additional cash for executive compensation.

If you want to continue watching a scaled down, streaming-video version of the program, try a Google search. With a little dedicated effort, you should be able to find it. Rest assured that few of the general public ever will.

Are you sure this is how NASCAR got started?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Crazy Business

The business of racing Thoroughbreds is a little crazy, definitely full of ups and downs. Thus, don't be surprized if that guy who trained a stable of 25 or 30 head at your favorite track last year is serving you a hotdog at your favorite convenience store today. In the spirit of this craziness, two brief bits of news.

In the wake of the Florida/Michigan/parts unknown jockey-scandal-that-wasn't, former leading jockeys Joe Judice and Terry Houghton are currently whiling away their days as exercise riders in Ocala. At least one other of the seven jocks banned from Tampa, Ricardo Valdez, has joined them there.

But while the mighty are frequently humbled in this business, the opposite is also true. Take Mary Anne Barron, a longtime Michigan trainer from a well-known family of trainers. While she was working as a car-parking valet in the horsemen's parking lot at Tampa Bay Downs yesterday, Magna Entertainment annnounced her appointment as Racing Secretary at the upcoming Great Lakes Downs meet. No word on her replacement at Tampa yet, but maybe management should consider interviewing some jockeys?

As they say on the backside, chicken salad today, chicken feathers tomorrow. And vice versa.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Plot Thickens in Florida

Yesterday we posted what may be the beginning of a long story about a race fixing scandal emerging in Tampa and Miami, and which may well impact other far-flung jurisdictions before long.

Since yesterday's posting, another jockey has been excluded from Calder Race Course in the wake of what Tampa Bay Downs and Calder managements will only characterize as an "ongoing investigation" by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. With the ejection of jockey Jose Bracho from Calder yesterday, the current body count stands stands at nine, two at Calder and seven at TBD. Although these "exclusions" are not (technically) disciplinary actions, TBD and Calder have announced their intentions to honor each other's exclusions, a highly unusual action that might come back to bite them later if the jockeys in question aren't ultimately found guilty of wrongdoing. Legally, it's one thing to exercise your perogative as a land owner in feudal Florida to eject someone from your property without cause, but it's quite another to conspire to deny someone the right to earn a living in interstate commerce, which is what horse racing has become since the advent of simulcasting. This could get really interesting.

Another juicy development in the case yesterday came from the entrance of retired jockey Herbie Rivera into the fray. Rivera, a former steward at both Tampa Bay Downs and Great Lakes Downs in Michigan, has just become a regional representative for the Jockeys' Guild, and will be the Guild's lead man in defending and restoring the honor of any and all excluded jocks.

Rivera, quoted in the Thoroughbred Times, has confirmed what has been rumored around the backside at Tampa for weeks: that TRPB investigators from Michigan visited Tampa recently to question jocks and others about possible irregularities at Great Lakes Downs, and that the Florida investigations and exclusions resulted from a cascade effect of the Michigan probe. Three of the seven Tampa jocks currently excluded were in the rider standings at Great Lakes at the end of its race meet in November.

Will Minnesota, Indiana and other jurisdictions where the excluded jockeys ride in the summertime enter the investigations? Or have they already? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Scandal Breaking at Tampa Bay Downs?

Sometime before this afternoon's racing program, Tampa Bay Downs management took the remarkable action of banning seven prominent members of its jockey colony from the grounds.
Among the seven jocks barred from the property, three, T.D. "Terry" Houghton, Derek Bell, and Joe Judice were leading riders at previous TBD race meetings. The others excluded were Jorge Bracho, Luis Castillo, Jose H. Delgado, and Ricardo Valdes.

There must have been quite a scramble for replacement riders, as Houghton was slated to ride nine of the ten scheduled races and Judice four, while four members of the "gang of seven" were all scheduled to appear together in the fouth race.

Tampa Bay Downs management refused meaningful comment on the matter, saying only that their action was related to an ongoing investigation at the track by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB). Is this the beginning of a race-fixing scandal? No one can be certain yet, but this incident comes on the heels of two equally mysterious happenings:

At the beginning of the Tampa meet, Terry Houghton's longtime agent, Frank Garoufalis, known far and wide as "Frank the Greek", was excluded from participation, without explanation.

Last week Miami's Calder Race Course banned former leading rider Rene Douglas, also without explanation.

Rumors flew through the Tampa grandstand this afternoon, many surrounding possible FBI involvement in the investigation and reputed compliations of phone records of jockeys, bookies, and others, and connections to an earlier race-fixing case at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan. There was also plenty of talk of more exclusions still to come, both in Tampa and Miami.

We'll have to wait and see, but I hope that rumors will not be the only source of information we have. Too often the Thoroughbred industry's hard-hitting investigative reporters fail to penetrate past track management's press releases when it comes to controversial issues. Let this time be the exception.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Surviving the System

When you land face-first in the dirt at forty miles per hour, the momentum of your butt and legs will supply the force necessary to snap your spine in two. Afterwards, life will never be the same. Jockeys go to work with this knowledge every day.

Sadly, they also know that catastrophic injury can leave them destitute. Track managements have traditionally, and with great success until recently, sought to dodge any responsibility with catch phrases ranging from "racing luck" to "assumed responsibility". In "Seabiscuit" (the book, not the movie), author Laura Hildenbrand devotes an eye-opening chapter to the working environment endured by jockeys in the 1930's, and it's safe to say that the gains jocks have made since then have come with the speed of your average glacier. To add insult to injury, the recent well-publicized looting of the Jockey Guild's treasury resulted in the cancellation of the insurance which the jocks thought they paid for when they elected to pay the Guild $10 per mount instead of the basic dues assessment of $3.

Imagine yourself a quadriplegic, abandoned by management and labor alike, facing an initial medical bill of around a million dollars, with much more to come throughout your lifetime, and little or no prospect of being able to support yourself or your family. Could it be any worse?

In recent times, two jockeys who found themselves in exactly this predicament were able to buck the trend and find some measure of accommodation for themselves. Their stories are worth telling.

On December 1, 1998, jockey Linda Hughes found herself aboard an inexperienced maiden filly in a six furlong race at Calder Race Course in Miami. Her mount was sandwiched between two others going into the turn, all three horses eyeball to eyeball when, inexplicably, the outside horse drifted in. Linda took a hard hold of her horse, pulling it up in an attempt to avoid what seemed like a certain collision, but when the other horse got in front of her, her mount clipped heels and stumbled. When a 1,000 pound horse stumbles and drops its head abruptly, a 110 pound jock with a death grip on the reins instantly becomes the payload of a giant slingshot. Linda hit the ground face first, probably at a velocity greater than the horse was running, say around 40 mph. It was the last time she ever rode a race. Or walked.

The events immediately following the race, while demonstrating tons of ineptitude, probably were all for the best, as they doubtless gave Linda's attorney something to exploit later on. The horse and rider who "bothered" Linda's horse won the race. There was no claim of foul from the unconscious jockey or bumbling trainer, nor was there a steward's inquiry, nor was the winning jock even invited by the stews to review a film of the race later on. (There is this friend of a friend who claims to have access to the race tape. If I get my hands on it, I will post a video here. We'll play a little game called: "What would you do if YOU were a steward?")

I never saw mention in any media of the lawsuit that followed. Churchill Downs, Inc., in a 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, mentioned briefly that Calder, which had been acquired by Churchill after Linda's wreck, was found 85% liable for damages in an August, 2003, trial. It wouldn't be unreasonable to guess that Linda's total damages, including lifetime medical care and loss of income, could be six million or more. If you like that number, it puts Calder's liability at about 5.1 mil.

But before a court could determine the actual dollar amount of the damages, Calder settled. There was, of course, a non-disclosure agreement. Industry media politely cooperated by not even acknowledging the existence of the suit.

Jockey Gary Birzer's lawsuit against the Jockey Guild was a different story. The disasterous results of the takeover and subsequent trashing of the Guild by L. Wayne Gertmanian had been gleefully detailed week after week by all the racing media, egged on by race track managements everywhere who knew in their hearts that collective bargaining for jockeys could only come to a bad end. Gary's lawsuit, while meritorius in the extreme, was icing on the cake of a media feeding frenzy.

The mechanics of the wreck that changed Gary Birzer's life were much the same as Linda's. Gary came off his horse in a race at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, and hit the ground head first at an estimated 40 mph, breaking his neck instantly.

Gary has long had a reputation as one of the truly nice guys in this sport, somebody you could trust to do the right thing. He would, in turn, trust that whatever coverage Mountaineer carried, and the Guild insurance he was paying $10 per mount for, would surely take care of his loss in the event of a catastrophe.

Not so. Buried by unpaid medical bills and struggling to pay for food and groceries, Gary and his wife Amy soon found themselves on Medicaid and living on charity. Mountaineer's "contribution" was likely spent in the first few days of intensive care. The sleazeballs who ran the Guild at the time not only had let their insurance coverage lapse, but were determined to exploit Gary by making him the poster boy for the callous indifference of racktrack managements, a red herring so big it should be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

Eventually, and I'm guessing, reluctantly, Gary sued the Guild, Gertmanian, and Gertmanian's right hand man, Albert Fiss, for $10 million. The suit was settled two months ago, and, once again, the terms of the settlement (i.e., the measurable costs of the malfeasance of those in charge) are confidential. As part of the settlement, Gary Birzer will represent the Guild as a public advocate for disabled jockeys.

What shines about this story is that two disabled jockeys navigated past the greed and indifference of people who should have done the right thing, but didn't, and arrived at a point where they can cope with the medical and financial consequences of their injuries.

Oh, and West Viginia's two racetracks, Mountaineer and Charles Town, have reportedly upped the coverage which they carry for jocks from $100,000 to $1 million. The higher amount is probably less than twenty percent of the total cost of one of these catastrophies, but give them credit for doing something. At other tracks, jockeys have been ejected from the grounds for suggesting that jocks should bring collective pressure for more coverage.

Meanwhile, jockey advocate Gary Birzer will be looking past his life-changing injuries to contribute something more to the game that almost took everything from him. Is he a hero, or what?