Eric Hamelback likes to focus on the positive in horse racing. Running his first winter convention as chief executive officer of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the former general manager of Frank Stronach's Adena Springs in Kentucky put together several panels on Thursday's opening day designed to give HBPA members reassurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train.
The convention, which concludes on Sunday with a full board meeting, is being held at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, Fla. It began with a keynote address by Stella Thayer, owner of nearby Tampa Bay Downs, which many of the HBPA members will visit Friday after the convention's morning session on medication.
Thursday's first panel, entitled “Establishing Public Relations & the Importance of Media Awareness,” featured a warning from At the Races radio host Steve Byk that there is “a small group of elitists trying to marginalize horsemen.” Byk brought up the issue of race-day medication, namely the anti-bleeder drug Lasix, saying that there are “trainers out there who know very well their own opinion but they have owners sticking guns in their ribs, telling them what they have to say, because it is that particular owner's perspective.”
Byk discussed the fallout from the undercover video of Steve Asmussen's stable in New York and Kentucky by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the lack of an immediate industry response. Horsemen need to fight back when attacked, he said.
“There should have been a vocal, uniform pushback to an outrageous and disgusting attempt to embarrass the sport at large,” Byk said.
Byk took umbrage at what he called the “outlandish response by Dinny Phipps” – referring to a statement issued by Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps in the wake of the Asmussen video.
“Here was something that was the most vile attempt to smear an industry, and the head of The Jockey Club, instead of responding in a responsible manner, heaps more mud at the individuals in question,” said Byk. “Here we are two years removed and I'm still waiting for an apology.”
An investigation by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission found no wrongdoing in the Asmussen barn. The New York State Gaming Commission also investigated the matter, ultimately fining Asmussen $10,000 while agreeing with PETA on only four of 14 charges made by the animal rights group. New York regulators also tightened medication rules as a result of the PETA undercover video.
Byk said another problem is the “environment of poison” created by some in the media and in the comment section of online stories.
“Some of it has to be addressed, some of it can be ignored, but you have to strike a balance and figure out how do we come up with a central uniform message as a drum beat to beat back the catcalls,” said Byk.
“It really would behoove us collectively to have that kind of a mentality, that when something happens nationally or locally, there would be a very specific message that would be put in the hands of the most vocal horsemen.”
An afternoon panel featuring Mark Lamberth and Ed Martin, chairman and president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, respectively, cited progress industry regulators have made in recent years toward uniform medication rules. Lamberth, whose term as chairman ends in March, instituted a series of “town hall” style meetings at which he hopes industry stake holders can find common ground. Martin pointed out the positive news that U.S. pari-mutuel wagering on Thoroughbred racing increased in 2015 despite a decrease in the number of races run. He said proponents of federal legislation to put medication regulations in control of an independent agency affiliated with the United State Anti-Doping Agency are hurting the industry through their efforts to get the bill passed.
Martin pooh-poohed the bill's chances of getting Congressional approval, saying handicappers in Washington, D.C., led him to believe Lamberth had a better chance of out-racing American Pharoah than Barr-Tonko had of passing.
Other panels focused on the NTRA Safety & Integrity Alliance and NTRA Advantage; Thoroughbred aftercare, and a discussion on how horsemen should be “working with, not against professional gamblers.”
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