Addiction: No Longer a Threat to Racing’s Integrity?

by | 05.16.2013 | 7:17am

A quarter-century ago, 54 racetracks had on-track treatment programs to address addictions on the racetrack, principally in the stable areas where employees both live and work. Today, only a few of those 54 programs remain in operation. Moreover, national conferences seldom include worker health on their agendas.

Those developments lead to the question, “Have racetracks solved the human addiction problem?”

That question was posed in a panel at the Winners Federation's Professional Conference last month in Oklahoma City. The answer, provided by Remington Park President Scott Wells and California Horse Racing Board official Mike Kilpack was: “Absolutely not!”

Wells remembered that, as a 10-year-old, he listened to a star jockey wretch due to alcoholism. “Nothing has changed,” said Wells, “Anyone who is willing to listen can hear the same thing in 2013.”

Kilpack, a long-time CHRB supervising investigator who evaluates programs for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said that shortly before leaving for the conference he had assisted in closing down an on-track meth lab.

Now a member of the Winners Foundation Board of Directors, Kilpack said human-resources programs are as sorely needed as ever. “Drug use, and its threat to racing, is not going away,” he said. “It is just that the voice of concern is growing softer.”

When inspecting tracks that seek NTRA's certification, Kilpack says that he sometimes finds only a part-time chaplain as the resource for stewards who are deciding on an addicted racetracker's future. “Where are the helpful programs?” he asked. California racetracks are served by the Winners Foundation, a long-standing provider of addictions services.

Dr. Curtis Barrett who chaired the panel, recounted that TRA Executive Director Chris Scherf years ago said sympathetically that the Winners Federation suffered because it did not have a “cute issue.” Over the years, the issue has grown neither more attractive nor less harmful to the employee base and the racetrack environment.

Wells and Kilpack agreed that the questions of what to do about addictions on the racetrack and how to fund those programs remain the crucial unanswered questions. “That does not mean that we should stop trying,” said Wells. “There has to be a way if we are serious.”

Oklahoma Racing Commissioner Phil Kirk concurred. “We have to do better. It is going to take leadership,” he said.

The conference also featured a session for counselors on Motivational Interviewing (MI), which has proved invaluable in the treatment of addictions. Racetrack security and stewards were strongly encouraged to assure that MI is available in the agencies where they refer workers. Referring to professionals is not enough. If treatment is not successful, often because the professionals don't understand horse racing, the workers always manage to come back—and they bring their addiction with them.

Chaplains and counselors asked that Winners Federation address the often-neglected issues of racing's aging workers. This means the employee's family as well as the worker.

Kay Anthony and her team from the Oklahoma Department of Human Resources explained ways that any racetrack can obtain help for its workers and their family members.

These resources are available at no cost to tracks, but Anthony made clear that chaplains and on-track counselors must adapt these services to the reality of horse racing.

Racing Industry Charitable Foundation Executive Director Peggy Goetsch spoke to this point from bitter experience in Illinois:  “Trying to deal with aging parents can bring down the best of us,” she said. “Yet just learning how to deal with dementia or other illnesses can make the difference and keep the employee on the job.”

The Future

“'Healthy Workers for Healthy Horses' remains the slogan of The Winners Federation and there remains plenty of work to do,” said Mike Stone, Winners Federation executive director. Stone emphasized the need to get the Winners Federation's message out to tracks.  “All too often,” he said, “resources are wasted when tracks are going it alone. Racing cannot afford that waste these days. We have to be smarter.”

For more information about the Winners Federation please visit

  • David

    When the boat’s sinking you don’t polish the chrome.

    • drary10

      i beg to differ. in this sport, that is EXACTLY what they do.

      • Please people! If the sport we love is to survive we need to start at thesloppytop, ,clean it up and hopefully it will reflect to the hard workers…the back stretch and the beautiful animals themselves . more money to the folks who help it happen!

  • NTRA sucks as does its so called leader Alex Waldrop…It’s a damn disgrace from top to bottom…Just look at what has happened to “The Game” under this clowns leadership…Period…

  • Richard C

    Addiction comes in many forms — and does not loudly announce itself at the entrance gate for the backstretch.

  • Miss the Magic

    Part of the problem might be providing on-track dorm rooms, then the help would need to spend their money on housing. At Fair Hill we do not provide housing and the help seems to do better (or maybe it’s just not in my face). I have seen tracks try to provide nice housing for folks, and they just proceed to trash it as quick as possible, maybe if they were paying for it they would have less money for alcohol, and drugs.

    • ron

      Based on that logic,maybe they should have their salaries cut in half, then they’d have even less money for drugs and alcohol. Or even better, don’t pay them at all and have them work for food only.

      • This is a tricky issue. Miss the Magic is correct, free or cheap housing is often not appreciated. Many years ago I was on welfare and lived in low-income housing. it was actually quite nice, and the bathrooms and kitchens were redone shortly after I moved in, as well as the siding, and new double-paned windows. On the open market they would have been at least $1,000 in that area. I forget exactly what I paid but I believe it was under $300 a month. People trashed them. It was one more lesson in human nature. There was no need for them to be dirty and crappy – cleaning is very inexpensive. But the majority of tenants did not put forth any effort toward that.

        In addition, people who work for minimum wage jobs make less than grooms, but they do not get free housing. Treating people like invalids or victims doesn’t actually help them.

        So perhaps they should have to pay for their housing.

    • Lhartley

      really? that’s your logic?

  • Not to sound harsh or unfeeling, but when you hire people with alcohol and drug problems that is what you get. Alcohol and drug problems. And yes, that is who is available to hire. That should send a message to racing in itself. Why does no one want the job of groom? Lousy pay, lousy hours, lousy boss, dirty sport, animal abuse, If a sociologist were to study the backside they would see it harks back to a time in human history where workers were little more than slaves and trainers were lords. And please do not tell me how hard trainers work. The ones who actually work on the horses themselves, yes. The others, not really. They would work much harder in a real job. There are many deep reasons why people work at the track. From top to bottom racing is a failing sport – and for many reasons.

    • betterthannothing

      Maureen I agree with you. Racing rips the delinquency and abuse it sows. Safety, transparency and integrity need to become top priorities to clean racing up and secure quality across the line.

    • guest

      “Why does no one want the job of groom? Lousy pay, lousy hours, lousy boss, dirty sport, animal abuse…”
      To add insult to injury, watch when the horse is back to the Winner’s Circle, who leads him into the Winners Circle, look who holds either side of his bridle? The trainer and owner. Look at the Win Picture and try to find the groom. Then look at who leads the horse back to the barn to start the post-race hard work of caring for the horse. Especially in the big races. The groom who spends 24/7 with that horse. No attention whatsoever is given to the groom. The trainers and owners stay up in the Turf Club or the Mansion high-fiving themselves, having a cocktail while the groom is back at the barn bathing the mud off the horse and spending hours cooling him out and lots of TLC before the horse is ready for his dinner. The trainer and sometimes the owners show up at the barn hours later to pet the pretty, clean horse, now back in his stall, after all the dirty work is done. I have seen where the “lords” don’t come back at all. The trainers train over the phone—call the barn and ask how the horse is. It is too obvious when you watch and the “connections” are doing interviews and getting their pictures taken. Then all the “connections” go to dinner. The groom still has hours of work watching the horse closely to make sure that something post-race does not show up later. Talk about a thankless job for the groom. The groom’s only chance of recognition is if maybe the owner gives him/her a tip.
      (Of course it’s much different with the small trainers, who has 4 horses to try and eek out a living and can only afford one groom, and does half of the work.)

      • I agree. Completely. As someone who has always taken care of her own horses it is really the groom who knows the horse. A truly good groom should be prized as who touches the legs, who rubs the horse, who sees the feed buckets, who knows the horse well enough to know when they are just the tiny bit off of being themselves. Good information given to the trainer is crucial and priceless. I can’t imagine relying on someone else to tell me about my horses. I want to know and see for myself.

        Truly, being a groom is a thankless job for the most part.

        • guest

          “Good information given to the trainer is crucial and priceless.” It all starts with the groom. You can’t have horses stabled at different tracks all over the country and know the details about every horse. The groom knows the horse inside and out–that means physically AND mentally. The groom recognizes if the horse doesn’t have any obvious physical ailments but his/her horse isn’t right. Their attitude is different, they are quieter than normal, etc. The groom tells the assistant trainer who then picks up the phone and calls the trainer. You have to KNOW the horse more than just over the phone to observe what is really going on 3,000 miles away. You can’t step off a plane, walk down the shedrow, look at the horse and say he is 100%. You have to ask the groom the pertinent questions.
          “Truly, being a groom is a thankless job for the most part” My point is, after years of doing this kind of thankless job, it is clear how it could lead to addictions or help exacerbate addictions already happening.

          • I’m not sure about that, but I’m a woman and I think we are more prone to leave a job we hate than turn to substance abuse. Drinking and drugs have never appealed to me, so I can’t really say. My goal is to resolve issues rather than hiding from them.

          • betterthannothing

            “The groom recognizes if the horse doesn’t have any obvious physical ailments but his/her horse isn’t right.”

            I can’t help thinking about Life At Ten. Her groom had to know better than anyone else that she was sick but had no voice.

      • Larry Ensor

        I don’t know where you rubbed horses but when I did in the early 70’s I and my fellow grooms did not think our job was “Lousy pay, lousy hours, lousy boss, dirty sport, animal abuse…”. In fact we took great pride in our job, our skills and the horses we looked after. Granted I was pretty sure it was not something that I was going to be doing the rest of my life. I did have aspirations for what I wasn’t sure. I admired the “old timers” who made it their life’s work. And I learned a lot from those “unsung heroes”. Some of them I still think about all these years latter. “What would Poppa Jack have done with this horse?”
        I did have to get up early, so do a lot of people with their jobs. But I was finished by 11-12 each day unless I had a horse running that day. I only had to week evening stables a day or 2 a week. But even if it was my day off no one ran my horses but me. It made no difference if it was a $2,500 claimer it was my “stake” horse. Sure it sucked having to run a horse in the last race at Charlestown, running last, long cold walk back to the receiving barn. Getting back to Pimlico with only a few hours before my day started again. Lots of people have jobs that require odd hours from time to time. I did not work for big named trainers nor owners. But both were always fair for the most part. The barn always got “staked”. I never felt it was a thankless job. No, grooms do not live with their horse 24-7. But most will if a situation calls for it.
        So what if an owner and their friends crowd the win picture they deserve to. They bought the horse and pay the many bills including my check. Considering most horses are lucky to win a race or two they better savor and enjoy the moment. I want them to keep them in the game. So what if the trainer joins the owner in the “turf” club after a win or even more so after a lose. That’s their job and its not an enjoyable one when a horse runs last. The majority started as grooms. The majority of trainers make a living at best. Sweating out the highs and lows hoping just to make payroll at times and keeping food on the table for their families. And yes at times, working for thankless owners and ungrateful employees.
        Everybody has to find their “lot” in life. For most it will not be what they hopped to aspire to. If they don’t come to terms with their place in life their days will be filled with hard rows to hoe.
        You paint a pretty bleak picture and if you are still a groom I suggest you find something else to do. Or find a better outfit to work for if you are that good at your job. Grooming used to be a profession. Most see it as just another job these days. And those are the ones that will bounce around. If you were a groom and went on to bigger and better things congratulations. No disrespect but the tone of your post suggests that perhaps your attitude has, is getting in the way. I can tell pretty much from the get go who is going to go the distance and is worthy of my time and effort and those I will just being writing a check to for a couple of weeks and or months. I don’t thank employees for doing the job they are paid for. I thank employees who do more then what they are paid for. With a smile. And it will also show up in their check and added benefits.
        It’s pretty simple IMO regardless of one’s profession. Employer, employee is a symbiotic relationship. It’s in an employer’s best interest to keep a good employee happy and it’s in a employee’s best interest to keep their employer happy. Good grooms are very hard to come by. It requires a very high skill level and IMO they are not paid enough for those skills. But the good ones are paid as well as the industry can offer. Good ones are not looking for another job. That’s why good ones are hard to find. The same in any business.

        • I am glad you didn’t think it was a thankless job. Neither did I, but that was 40 years ago. I was not talking about 40 years ago. Forty-five years ago I begged to work for free. Forty years ago I was paid $150 a week to rub 3 horses. The minimum wage at the time was $1.60 an hour. That adds up to $64 a week for a 40 hour week. Groom was a good paying job. Today the minimum wage is $7.25 and what does a groom make? $450? To rub 4 horses. I made almost 3 times minimum wage, grooms now make less than twice minimum wage. And it’s not a 40 hour week. And as for their “lot in life” what century are you living in?? And from what country do you come? Everyone is free to find a better life if they can.

          I am not a groom. I have not been a groom since I was 21. A long time ago. But I can appreciate what is fair. I am tired of trainers whining about not making money while grooms barely subsist. Richard Mandella (I read while looking up wages) charges clients $100 a day (2009) and cries that he is barely scraping by. What?????

          In 2009, along with his day rate, Mandella saddled winners of $2.4 million. Which gives him $240K. He claims in the article that he had 62 -63 horses. At $100 per day that is $2.26 MILLION dollars. Say he had 16 grooms at $450 a week, that comes to $375K. Add in exercise riders and feed. He stated $63K for feed. So let’s give him $500K for help and feed – the man is left with many thousands of dollars. Probably well over a million. So how is he barely scraping by?? Trainers have the unrealistic expectation that they should be multi-millionaires. And quite few are. Grooms’ expectations are to live in dorms?? If Mr. Mandella paid $550 a week it would cost him only another $83K a year.

          • Larry Ensor

            Maureen, I did say, “ IMO they are not paid enough for those skills”.
            Using Mandella is not really a fair rebuttal the vast majority of trainers are not and will never be in the same league. But for the most part their expenses are the same. Here in PA the per day expenses for a horse at the track + – are; $20 for hay, straw and feed, workman’s comp $5, $25 for labor, $15 for rider, $5 for liability insurance. $70 +- per day. This does not include numerous other small expenses that all add up. This does not include payroll taxes paid by the trainer. Most good trainers charge $65 to $85 a day in PA. These are real numbers not made up. So, you can see there is not a lot of gravy left over. I am sure the expenses in California are higher and justify $100 a day. Lets just say the expenses are $90 per day and the trainer is putting $10 per horse per day in their pocket and I doubt that much if they are on the up and up and not cutting corners. $10 a day per horse for their expertise, managing employees, difficult owners, and the multitude of details along with the stress that comes with all of the above is not a lot. Consider the “hassle factor” as I call it. Most trainers never take let alone get a day off. Even if they do they are still stressing over everything. Most grooms don’t have horses running every day so they are pretty much finished by noon. Most trainers do have horses running everyday and don’t get home before 6. And they are at the barn at 6 in the morning 7 days a week.
            Now, trainers in Mandela’s league that win a lot of money each years should and I would like to believe do “stake” their employees. If they don’t then shame on them. Our trainer charges 12% of the purse, 2% goes to his employees. It better be.

            As to your snarky reply to my “lot in life” comment I’ll allow you. I can tell by your various posts that you are passionate about things horse and the people that work with them. But that does not make all of your comments righteous. I believe you took my comment out of context or I did not explain clearly enough. One should read and digest before applying fingers to key board and hitting send. Life is not fair and anyone that thinks it should be is in for a rude awakening. I am not saying that makes it right, it is what it is. I am not saying that one shouldn’t work for change I am just saying that bitching and whining doesn’t get one anywhere but miserable. I have found most people are not worth the pay scale they think they are worth. But some, most could be and more if they truly wanted to make the effort. But it seems these days people feel they are “entitled” just for showing up. If an employee feels that are not being fairly compensated then quite and find a better job. Get their trainers license, find some owners and have a go at it. They will find as I did it’s not as easy as it looks. Are there “jip” trainers out there? Absolutely, and their lot in life will be training mostly their own crappy horses that would be better suited for other things. That being said there are plenty of really good trainers who struggle to do right by their employees and crappy horses. Like I said life’s not fair and at some point we all have to get comfortable with our lot in life.
            That’s the way I see and to each their own.

          • I agree most trainers are not making a ton of money. My point was that the ones who whine are usually the ones who are. Richard Mandella said in the article for which I attached the link, that HE was barely making it. That is sure not true.

            And yes we do choose our jobs and many people are not good workers. However, people do deserve fair pay.

  • It will be a loss to many if horse racing continues to get a bad rap

  • ziggypop

    Well, now just the horses are addicts thanks to the trainers and complicit vets. ;)

  • Concerned Observer

    I think a part of the reason fewer tracks have their own programs is because the tracks work with community addiction programs. I know of several backstretch workers that have gone thru local community programs. Sadly, addiction is so common today that every city, county and village has an addiction program. I think this article may have given the impression that no one is trying to help the addicted employees. I race at 9 different tracks and every track has a program in place to refer the addicted and try to help them.

    • There’s a ton of addictive Judges & Lawyers in this nation…After all they don’t have to take a wee wee test now do they???…You can throw Doctors in that crowd also…They are some of the worst drug addicts on the planet…ty…

    • philip

      Very true….

  • Noelle

    American racing is addicted to drugging horses. As Jack Van Berg said a few years ago at the congressional hearing on safety and soundness of Thoroughbreds, these days there are more veterinarians than horsemen on the backstretch. Racing routinely defends and even promotes drugging healthy animals to mask their physical flaws and enhance their performance. Some even go so far as to insist all the drugs are good for the horses since without the drugs some of them couldn’t run – never mind that others can and do.

    Among other common traits shared by addicts on the racetrack and everywhere else in American society is a belief in the (mistaken idea) that everything should be perfect all the time, should feel good all the time, and if that’s not happening naturally, it’s OK to take a drug (or a drink) so that one doesn’t have to recognize and accept imperfection or endure feeling bad.

    The line between drugs used to treat illness and drugs used to enhance reality is not recognized by those who manage racing; small wonder some racetrack workers don’t see that line before they fall over it.

  • If they didn’t give these folks a place to shower & sleep nobody would be back there…Period…

  • Convene

    Regardless of occupation or income, addicts are addicts (in most ordinary cases) because that is how they deal with unhappy situations. Had a bad experience? Here – have a drink! Or a pill. Or whatever. It’s nor YOUR fault! Modern society tends to encourage some of this by failing to tell people to go have a good cry or go kick a tree and then just get on with it! It’s what the rest of us have to do.

    There is more information about the evil consequences of drug and alcohol abuse than ever before – yet more excuses provided for using these things anyway. Heck, up here they pat their little heads and pay them disability – with no obligation to enter a program and take responsibility for themselves! Hard times visit all of us and they pass, especially if we do what we can to send them on their way. Substance abuse just gives hard times a nice, secure place to stay forever.

    In some cases (and some of this is relevant to our sport), I blame doctors who overprescribe addictive painkillers. I know injuries hurt and no one likes pain, but surely to goodness we don’t need to be medicated into insensibility for many of them. We can deal with some short-term pain, knowing that – in a while – it will be gone. I’ve had my share too, and the only big gun I ever had was post-surgical. 2 doses and on Day Two I asked for something less powerful instead.

    That said, there are people who, for some reason, become very easily addicted and don’t know until it’s too late. For them, I have sympathy and there should be programs to address their addictions as well as counsel them to understand that, for them, drugs and/or alcohol have to be absolute no-no’s forever.

    I have sympathy for many addicts – but I also think they have to be encouraged to own their problem and do whatever they must to get past it.

    • I agree with you. There are people who do not turn to drugs or alcohol or give up when things are tough. Those people prove that it’s possible to overcome problems and turn things around. But there are way too many people standing by to convince people that life has been unfair to them and there was no way they could succeed. That is not a helpful message. “Poor you, poor you.” and “Poor me, poor me.” are setups for failure. There are lots of people who made it out of the projects, who started as illegal aliens, who had bad parents, or whatever, and have become rich and successful. Mostly because their attitude was one of hard work, not poor me.

      • Convene

        Exactly! My own family was pretty disfunctional and – well, I’m not rich and famous but I never drowned or medicated my way up. I just dug in – and there sure isn’t anything special or noble about me. I’m just ordinary folks like all the others who did likewise. Find me someone whose life really has been idyllic; I never met one! The best drug for dealing with hardships is BACKBONE – and no one seems to be teaching kids to have any any more.

  • Some on here should write a book…

    • Be more specific. I’ve already written 2 books. There is a book out about the backside. The title is Down the Backstretch and it was written by Carole Case. In 1981, as a graduate student in psychology she accompanied her professor to an “elite” racetrack.
      She got permission from the track to access the backside to do research for her Master’s thesis. Someone told her she wouldn’t understand the backside if she wasn’t part of it, so she worked on the track for I think 2 years (it doesn’t say on the jacket,and I can’t remember exactly). It turned into her PhD dissertation, and then a book. She actually nails a lot of things, but some things she doesn’t get quite right – such as purse distribution.

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