Brothers: Don't Let 'Perfect' Get In The Way Of 'Good' National Leadership By HISA - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Brothers: Don’t Let ‘Perfect’ Get In The Way Of ‘Good’ National Leadership By HISA

In a piece published on the Paulick Report Aug. 16, I talked about what's right and what's wrong with horse racing. Today's Part 2 of that commentary is a little uglier.

In the midst of reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I was struck by a simple fact: homo sapiens rose to the top of the food chain because of our unique ability to cooperate in numbers greater than a hundred. There is no other mammal that can maintain a colony, herd or otherwise cohesive group once their numbers exceed a hundred or so members.

Yes, the ability to communicate helped. But lots of species have a language of their own, some that we understand to some extent, others that we know nothing about.

Fire helped. A lot. As did the advent of farming. But our rise to the top of the food chain some 50,000 years ago occurred because of our unique ability to cooperate in large numbers. Quoted from Sapiens:

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” 

Until you get to the unique sapiens in American horse racing.

Everyone has a stake in this, and, to our credit, each and every individual has tried to get others to see things their way. We've even formed several organizations over the years that were intended to bring everyone to the table in the spirit of cooperation. Sadly, it seems that each new entity that is formed spurs the formation of another special interest group to protect their agendas and assets.

Disparate groups: can we learn from benchmarks?

We have national organizations such as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), the Jockey Club and the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau (TRPB). And then a national owners' and breeders' group (TOBA), along with regional owners' and breeders' groups in every racing jurisdiction (CTBA, KTOBA, NYTB, etc.). We have a national horsemen's organization (HBPA) and then, of course, a regional HBPA in each jurisdiction. In 2019 we saw the formation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, comprised of the Breeders' Cup, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, New York Racing Association and the Stronach Group. I could go on.

All of these organizations have been formed with the intention of making horse racing better, getting people to the table, and/or protecting their own interests. To be sure, they have all achieved some minor or major successes. But we have not been willing to set our differences of opinions aside and agree upon a uniform set of rules and codes of conduct.

The Olympics and the International Olympic Committee

I've long been a fan of the recently-concluded Olympic Games as they embody all that I love about sports. If the Olympics — an international competition, currently comprised of more than 200 countries and numerous sports — has managed to achieve a consistent level of success through cooperation, how is it possible that we cannot do the same? We are only one country, one sport. Thirty-eight different jurisdictions. Thirty-eight different sets of rules.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 after the formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, and today, the IOC remains the governing body of the Olympics. In terms of growth, the 1896 Olympics consisted of 14 participating nations whose athletes competed in 9 different sports. Today, more than 200 nations compete in 35 different sports, and there is one set of rules for each discipline.

From country to country, these various disciplines were often played with at least slightly different rules and nuances. Yet, 200 nations have shown us that not only is it possible to agree on the rules of these 35 different sports, it's also possible to agree on how they should be adjudicated.

Example: drug use.

Therapeutic drug use has been a point of contention in both horse racing and the Olympics. The IOC handled it by allowing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to create therapeutic drug use exemptions that are fairly straightforward. The three criteria that must be met to grant a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) are:

  • the athlete would experience significant impairment to their health if the medication was withheld;
  • the prohibited substance would not increase the athlete's performance other than from restoring their health to normality;
  • the athlete could not use a permitted alternative
[Story Continues Below]

If we had kept it that simple when it came to the use of furosemide (commonly referred to by its trade name, Lasix) this would not have turned into such a contentious issue in U.S. racing. Three simple questions/criteria. Not really that complicated.

That's sort of how it started with furosemide. In nearly every racing jurisdiction in which it was initially permitted a trainer had to prove that the horse had bled via an endoscopic exam and a subsequent veterinary report or state veterinary observation that the horse had bled substantially enough to require furosemide. And then, somewhere along the way, the floodgates opened. By the time the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act was passed, something like 90% of the horses competing in United States horse racing were competing on Lasix.

The arguments for and against are, quite frankly, pointless. Yes, some horses need it. Yes, the use of Lasix was wildly out of control. No, we could not agree in numbers in excess of a hundred about how this needed to be handled.

And that is really the point: can we finally agree to agree/disagree in numbers over 100? We are at a watershed moment in horse racing where we have to decide if we will cooperate. Organized horse racing has existed since the beginning of recorded history. Unsanctioned horse racing first sprang up in the United States in 1665 and in 1868, when the American Stud Book was first published, it became much more organized. Between 1665 and 1868 horse racing grew through cooperation, not division. The Breeders' Cup, the brainchild of the late, great John Gaines, was birthed into fruition through cooperation and has grown by the same means.

The Roman Empire reigned for 500 years and no one alive during that time could have predicted its collapse at its peak. Horse racing has been taking a steady downward slide from its apogee for at least the past 20 years. In 2000, $14.3 billion was wagered on Thoroughbred racing in the United States. After a steady decline over the past 20 years, that number fell to $10.9 billion in 2020. Adjusting for inflation this is a 50% reduction in handle in 20 years. An unsustainable hemorrhage.

Getting back to the Olympic Games, without cooperation and the leadership of the International Olympic Committee and their agreed-upon set of standards, the Olympic Games would never have survived. They faced many challenges along the way, including two world wars, the Cold War boycotts, doping scandals, a terrorist attack in 1972 and the COVID-19 pandemic postponing the 2020 games. But they have managed to cooperate and, at the end of the day, rise above the mayhem.

Horse racing cannot survive without leadership and cohesiveness either. The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Authority may not be the perfect answer but right now is not the time to let the unrealistic ideal of “perfect” get in the way of good. If we, the sport of horse racing and all of its participants, cannot cooperate we will fall the way of the wolves and the chimpanzees. Individually, we will survive. But our sport will not.

Correction: Annual wagering totals for 2000 and 2020 were incorrect in this article's original version.

Donna Barton Brothers is a retired jockey, award-winning sports analyst, author, and chief operating officer for Starlight and StarLadies Racing. She serves on the executive board of the TAA and TIF, and is on the advisory boards of Boys & Girls Haven and the University of Kentucky Research Department's Jockey and Equestrian Initiative. 

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More