Mike Repole's Uncle Mo arrived at Churchill Downs on Monday, still dogged by questions about his first career defeat in the Wood Memorial on April 9. Last year's 2-year-old champion had no response when challenged in the final furlong of the Wood, finishing third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Toby's Corner.
Some questions have gone beyond Uncle Mo's performance, dealing with more philosophical questions about transparency in the area of veterinary medicine and racehorses.
For example, more than a few observers wondered about that freshly shaved rectangular patch below Uncle Mo's right knee. Could it be a splint bone issue, a skin problem, or was the area ultrasounded for diagnosis only?
We don't know, and probably never will.
The real question is whether or not it's anyone's business other than the owner of the horse.
It is the prevailing philosophy in American racing, as well as in the breeding and auction arena, that such information is private. Disclosure seems to be a dirty word in this business, whether it's surgeries on racehorses, leg-straightening procedures on foals who will later be offered at weanling, yearling and 2-year-old sales, or medications given to horses before auctions or races.
Is there a connection between this veil of secrecy and the growing distrust and skepticism consumers seem to be exhibiting about the Thoroughbred industry? Or is this much adieu about nothing?
For their part, owner Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher have practiced partial disclosure. Following Uncle Mo's defeat, they issued a statement saying the colt came out of the Wood Memorial with a gastrointestinal tract infection. The disclosure of the infection was preceded by this comment from Pletcher: “Although it is not my standard practice to share a horse's examination results with anyone other than the owner, I feel that Uncle Mo's disappointing performance in the Wood Memorial warrants an explanation.”
Their explanation for Uncle Mo's performance didn't include a treatment plan. Would he be given therapeutic medication, a special diet, or perhaps spend some time at a clinic with a hyperbaric (oxygen) chamber?
Again, is it any of our business?
That depends. Mike Repole owns the horse and pays the bills to take care of him. But many of the people who bet on horse racing believe they have a right to know what kind of injuries a horse may have had, what veterinary procedures that horse has undergone, and what medications he may be receiving.
Repole is a horseplayer. If he had no connection to Uncle Mo, do you think he might be curious to know about that shaved area on the right foreleg before he made a bet on the Wood? If he was playing the Derby Futures Wager, and there was widespread talk among racetrack veterinarians that Uncle Mo may have had a chip removed from his knee after the Breeders' Cup in November, is that something Repole the horseplayer would be interested in knowing?
There are veterinary-client privilege laws throughout the United States, but horse racing is a highly regulated, government controlled industry. Many states require disclosure of information regarding the gelding of a horse or what raceday medications a horse receives. The long arm of regulations could be expanded.
Complete disclosure is practiced in what many consider the world's most successful racing program in Hong Kong. Surgeries, lameness diagnoses and medications are fully disclosed and available to the public at the Hong Kong Jockey Club's website. In my opinion, that kind of disclosure builds confidence in the wagering public.
Here's an example: Sacred Kingdom, the 2010 Hong Kong Horse of the Year, had colic surgery last March and was diagnosed as lame on three different occasions. (Click here to read his veterinary report.) That kind of information is available on every horse stabled at an HKJC track.
In addition, horseplayers in Hong Kong are provided complete information on every horse competing in advance of each racing program. For example, click here for a look at tomorrow night's starters in the seventh race at Happy Valley.
“We have complied and published records on our official website for about 10 years,” said Bill Nader, the former New York Racing Association executive who now serves as the executive director of racing for the HKJC. “The Jockey Club website is content rich, embraces transparency and our customers have come to expect the highest standard of information delivery. So, it is all good.”
Nader acknowledges that it's a lot easier to practice complete disclosure under Hong Kong's controlled environment.
“The built-in advantage here,” he said, “is a captive horse population as only nine of our races are truly open to outsiders, the rest are for horses stabled at Sha Tin. Also, all vets are employed by the Jockey Club.
“Customer experience is the one thing that nearly every industry must respect and horse racing is no exception,” Nader added. “Reporting veterinary findings, whether on an odds-on favorite that has run poorly or any horse whether it be in a Class 5 or a Group 1, is good customer service. If a horse bleeds or suffers from a heart irregularity, we will announce it over our public-address system within an hour after the race. We strive to present the best racing and betting product in the world and, by doing so, we are meeting customer expectations. The fundamentals required to do this are quality racing, big betting pools that offer high liquidity, competitive racing with regard to runners per race (12.5) and integrity. Through greater transparency, we only take integrity to a higher level.”
Average daily pari-mutuel handle on each of Hong Kong's 83 racing programs is US$123 million and growing (that's more than was wagered in the pari-mutuel pools on the 2010 Kentucky Derby).
They must be doing something right.
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