The Elephant In The Room: Racing Can Do More To Take Care Of Its Own

by | 05.30.2017 | 9:34pm

As the Thoroughbred industry makes another push toward federal legislation standardizing drug testing in racing, one of the central questions will be what reformed testing will cost. Expense is, after all, part of the reason disparities lurk between various state commission drug testing contracts now.

In the course of covering stories related to drug testing, aftercare, anti-slaughter policy, and jockey healthcare, I run into the same refrain: There just isn't enough money. In an ideal world, we'd attack this problem head-on, but the funds aren't there to support us.

It's true that with over 20,000 foals born each year, 37,000 races, and more than 1,000 licensed jockeys in the United States, ensuring care for every retired racehorse or injured jockey over their lifetimes probably isn't realistic. But the suggestion that racing just can't come up with any more money is flat wrong.

Already this year in America, twelve 2-year-olds have sold for seven figures, the most expensive being a Tiznow colt at OBS April who went for $2.45 million. Yearling sales last year included 10 horses bringing seven figures, the most expensive being a $3 million Scat Daddy colt at Keeneland September.

For perspective, $2.45 million would have paid to run racehorse adoption group New Vocations for two years, according to the non-profit's most recent tax return. Three million dollars would have paid for monthly stipends to all 60 riders supported by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) for four years, or allowed the organization to double its grantees for two years.

The $2 million in the Kentucky Derby's total purse would have funded the 13 research grants the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation gave out in 2014 twice over. A four pack of $15,000 tickets to the exclusive section of the Churchill grandstand called The Mansion on Derby day would have put a healthy dent in the veterinary and dentistry bills the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation paid in 2015 for its 900 horses. It might also have paid for a track to hire an in-house private investigator to monitor welfare and integrity. 

And, lest we forget the announcement earlier this year that the Pegasus World Cup would raise its purse from $12 million to $16 million to keep the title of “richest race in the world.” That $4 million would nearly have paid for most of the costs of an extensive post-race drug testing for the state of Maryland for five years, according to responses to a request for proposals generated by the state in 2014. Or, that $4 million would have accounted for nearly all the costs to run Old Friends, New Vocations, and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation for one year.

All this isn't to say the Thoroughbred industry isn't charitable; many individuals and tracks in the sport are, and some of them opt to donate privately, unrecognized by a nonprofit or media after a big donation, so generosity often runs deeper than the racing public realizes. Owners and breeders are able to donate .05 percent of sale prices at Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, OBS, and Barretts, which is matched by the sale companies. Stallion farms and owners are given the chance to commit 25 percent of advertised stud fees to the Alliance.

Earlier this month, Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher announced he would donate the value of the Ram truck he won as part of his prize package from the race to New Vocations and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA). The Blood-Horse reported the value of the truck might be between $26,500 and $62,000 depending upon the model. Assuming it's somewhere in the middle ($44,250), New Vocations would be receiving a gift of around 10 percent of its total revenue for 2014 (according to its 990 filing), and 20 percent of its total revenue for 2013. TAA's revenue will grow 6.6 percent from Pletcher's donation, according to numbers from its 2015 990.

One of the problems in keeping the lights on, aftercare organizations say, is they find themselves going back to the same groups repeatedly (owners, breeders, consignors, trainers), looking for funding. Pletcher has a long history of generosity toward aftercare causes. To improve equine and human welfare, new people within those populations need to step up, and charities need to get their message out to a new audience.

At the first International Forum for Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR) in Washington, D.C. this month, longtime racetrack executive Allen Gutterman had a suggestion for the latter approach: he suggested tracks add $5 to the price of every admission ticket at Triple Crown and/or Breeders' Cup events to generate money for aftercare.

“Here's what I've concluded from a life in horse racing,” Gutterman said. “Fans may curse jockeys, they may question the tactics chosen by trainers, but they love the horses they bet, and willingly, make excuses for why they didn't run better.

“I could be wrong, but, honestly, do you think that on these days, fans would object? Especially those paying with corporate credit cards?  A $1,000 seat to the Breeders' Cup would cost an additional $5. A seat in the Million Room at Arlington Park on Million Day would rise from, say, $295 to $300.”

Based on last year's attendance figures for the Triple Crown races, an extra $5 per ticket would have generated $1,812,985. An aftercare or charity fee on Breeders' Cup tickets would have meant $592,428 in donations. That means last year's races alone would have accounted for nearly 30 percent of the $8.3 million TAA has awarded in total grants since its foundation in 2012.

Stacie Clark Rogers, operations consultant for TAA, said at the conference the Stronach Group will soon test automated wagering machines from AmTote which would allow horseplayers to contribute a portion of winnings to the Alliance. It's too early to say how much such machines could generate, but initial tests showed 15 percent of users opted to donate one percent of their winnings.

And of course, it's not as though the person paying seven figures for a yearling or a 2-year-old is doing so without any benefit to others. The purchase price not only supports jobs and economic activity around the farm and track, but serves to pay for the sale prospects or pinhooks that don't earn their stud fees back but still must be fed. The racing market can't exist without a pricey high end, and big purses or standout prices enable us to all keep our jobs.

The industry has done a lot to support its horses and its people; there's no denying that. But it's hard not to think the current system is falling short.

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