Contessa: Our Sport Needs A Commissioner

by | 10.23.2017 | 8:33am
Gary Contessa, during the Saratoga meeting, has invited members of the public to visit his barn and learn more about the game

In case you have been a little too busy to notice, the public has completely lost faith in horse racing's ability to maintain transparency through self-rule. It's hard to argue with them. We have an infraction in one state where a trainer is given a seven-day suspension and the exact same infraction in another part of the country gets 60 days. One track will refuse entries from a person determined to be acting in a way that is detrimental to racing, while another track two hours away welcomes his horses with open arms. There is no consistency, and quite often no real deterrent.

We sometimes forget that we are a sports venue. We are putting on a show with the added attraction of billions of dollars of legal gambling attached to it. The playing field is the racetracks and their governing bodies, while the players are the trainers, jockeys, owners and horses. Unfortunately, the public is being asked to remain faithful to racing but also expected to live with such inconsistency, which is becoming quite obvious they are not willing to do. There are times when I wonder if there is any chance at all of winning back the public.

That brings us to my point. Baseball is a sports venue. Football the same as well as hockey, soccer and other organized sports. The glue that holds those sports together is a Commissioner. Now, before you get nervous, understand there are plenty of decisions that need to be made by the local governing bodies, stewards and racing commissions on a day-to-day basis. What we need is a Commissioner of racing whose purpose (among many other things) is to handle the big decisions and the big problems. Try to follow me on this.

The Commissioner of baseball is the reason that Alex Rodriguez gets the same penalty as a $500 a week player in the minor leagues for the same infraction. If Alex Rodriguez was the leading trainer at a major racetrack you can almost guarantee the penalty would not be the same as some poor schlep trainer no one has ever heard of. Consistency, Transparency. The reason those infractions are the same is because the Commissioner of baseball is hired to bring consistency and transparency to the game, and that he does!

Pure and simple horse racing needs a national Commissioner – one who is a horseman, not a political appointee with no knowledge of racing issues.

Take a recent decision handed down in New York. The hearing officer suggests a suspension of six months for a jockey agent and the commission increases it to 10 years. This was not a felony. It was an agent trying to secure open mounts, nothing more. But to a commission that does not understand racing it was worthy of 10 years. Right now there is a high-profile trainer who is being denied his right to a split sample on a positive test. This should be grounds for dismissal, but they continue to push it even though that trainer can not defend himself because of their negligence. Tracks need to police their own on the day-to-day things but when it comes to a decision that will affect someone's life we need a Commissioner.

The biggest problem is that many of our state racing commissions (one exception is Kentucky) are run by political appointees, many of which have never spent a day at the racetrack short of a political event. The major problems at the racetracks need to be overseen by a Commissioner who understands the game, understands the inner workings and can come to an intelligent conclusion, followed by a proper penalty that will restore the faith we have lost in our fans. Penalties that are well founded need to send a message and penalties that are questionable need to be handled that way also. A Commissioner can make those judgments without prejudice. Not based on his personal feelings nor based on the fact that this person might fill nine races per day. Consistency, transparency is what we need to restore the faith in this game.

The Commissioner would handle all Class 1 and 2 drug offenses and positives as well as anything deemed to be performance enhancing. The Commissioner would have authority over anyone found in possession of injectables or syringes or acting in a way “detrimental to the integrity of racing.” The Commissioner's office will also consider felony offenses committed by participants: jockeys, trainers, owners and racing officials.

Understand these decisions would be made after considering all the facts of a case, by a Commissioner that understands the inner workings of the racetrack. All tracks will be asked to sign off on this and be considered “Integrity Approved” racetracks. Part of becoming “Integrity Approved” is also accepting their share of supporting the Commissioner's office financially. As this progresses, I believe you will find the public and bettors want their dollar bet at an “Integrity Approved” racetrack and there will come a time when every track is integrity approved. What track would not want this?

This can all be achieved relatively inexpensively. We do not need elaborate cars, expense accounts and large staff. Just a Commissioner and staff in a small office working for the benefit of racing. Racetracks can cover part of the expense based on their handle and stature but the Commissioner's office can be set up and put into motion at very little expense. Possibly even supported in part by each state's racing commissions who will have a burden lifted off of them.

Now this will not be an easy thing to do like everything else in this business that makes sense. It has to jump through legal hoops and lots of wrangling. Pros and cons. Lots of discussions. But everything has to start somewhere and to me this just make sense. The public is crying out for equality, transparency, consistency and the rooting out of those who choose to cheat the system. To me this is a way to achieve that end.

Gary Contessa is a Thoroughbred trainer based in New York.

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