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Changes in Sports Culture Is Felt in Horse Racing

Yesterday there was some big news in drug land. The DEA in the US conducted some surprise visits of NFL teams, sweeping for illegal prescription drugs, poorly or unethical record keeping and otherwise. A long held belief is that the practice (among others) has been going on in the NFL with the athletes:
  • “They know there’s a problem. I’m sitting here with stage 3 kidney failure because of concealment of my medical records. And the lack of responsibility on the medical professionals’ parts,” former 49ers player Jeremy Newberry told KPIX 5.  “I would be very surprised if they didn’t find exactly what they wanted to find in those locker rooms.”
The NFL has had a reputation for doing anything at all costs to field a team. I remember reading "You're Okay It's Just a Bruise" about the Raiders team doctor in the 1980's and believing every word of it; even if some of it was embellished, it just fit. I heard the story from a friend (my stable partner and long time university betting pal) whose father played pro in the CFL; where one particular player who was getting hurt "too much" continued to play in a game with a compound leg fracture because "coach is going to cut me if I don't".

It's a part of the league's culture.

Nowadays things have changed. Looking the other way is replaced with DEA raids. Bounties get you in trouble. In the 1970's, clotheslines, gauging out a man's eyes in a scrum, dirty play, leading with a helmet, putting a QB in the hospital is becoming not the norm, but something that the public, the league and the players association is handling much differently. Old time players and some fans (in some cases rightfully) gripe about the new rules and the new way of doing things ("it's not even football anymore!") but it's the way it is.

That change of culture is starting to make things better for a league that needs every inch of good PR it can find, to both keep the money coming in, and to keep mother's and father's sending their kids to football camps when they're eleven. It's not 1970 anymore.

Horse racing is going through many of the same challenges. We see stories about Cobalt, or Indiana vets, or Class II penalites or overages, or googling for milkshakes. We see talk about raceday drugs, Dbarns, shock wave therapy machines, hyperbaric chambers, jugs and "compounds". On one side we have some folks who say "no matter what we do, PETA will not be happy" or "it's only an overage, and a bookeeping mistake", or "they're out to get me like OJ". On the other we have zero tolerance, where anything remotely outside the law is worth booting someone out for, for a hundred years, with due process at all.

Like the NFL, the answer for horse racing probably lies somewhere in the middle. And changing the culture gets any sport to track a proper path - where things like honest debate and trial and error replace demagoguery - and I think that's happening.

When an NFL coach says "I can't send him in because he is hurt and we may do irreparable damage long term" the culture needle is moving. When a player who gets his bell rung tells his team doc he needs to be looked at, the culture needle is moving. When a 235 pound safety pulls up before creaming an exposed receiver on a cross route with the ball five yards over his head, the culture needle is moving.

Similarly, when a vet who does not keep proper records gets sanctioned and most say "that's good" rather than "he's a nice guy, let him off", the horse racing culture needle is moving. When a guy gets his tenth overage and the sport doesn't say "it's just for banamine" but "we have to ensure our stable managers are cognizant of the rules so he needs to be set down until he can do this correctly", the culture needle is moving.

When whipping rules or kicking rules are enacted and there is barely a peep about them anymore from participants, that's the culture needle moving. When track vets scratch a lame horse at the gate, when a guy who uses a shock wave machine on race day gets called out, when a Quarterhorse track owner cancels a race, when a dude like Gural hires his own investigators, when thinking twice about jamming a lame horse into a claimer who can't walk, and a hundred other things we've seen happen of late happen, the culture needle is moving.

Horse racing is not the first sport to be under fire for "this is the way we've always done it, so leave me alone." It was like that in baseball, cycling, track and now football. Those sports had to act in very public ways. But perhaps - probably because horse racing is so fractured - it might be the last to truly act through some sort of federal reform. However, in my view, the sport has a better chance to get meaningful reform done than ever before because in 2014, the horse racing culture needle has been moving for some time. The sport is beginning to do it all on its own.

Enjoy your Monday everyone.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Here's a culture shift that should be implemented immediately: namely trainers/drivers that have been barred at one track or jurisdiction should not be able to race in another jurisdiction. A very recent visit to Pocono Downs revealed that Doug Berkeley (recipient of one of the largest penalties levied by the ORC, and apparently never paid) and the "Allard brothers" (driving and training and barred from WEG and Meadowland tracks) are participating at Pocono. So much for integrity!! Why play and bet under these conditions.