The American Quarter Horse Association is pioneering cost-effective loaner integrity teams that provide investigative reinforcements for the sprint sport's big-event days.
The AQHA program was the main focus of discussion on Wednesday's panel “Policing the Backside: A View from the Front Line” on the second of the three-day Association of Racing Commissioners International's 83rd annual conference on Equine Welfare and Racing Integrity.
“The needs are great. But our thoughts are to put our money where our mouth is,” said Janet VanBebber, a former Quarter Horse trainer who is the AQHA's chief racing officer. “If we're going to preach about integrity and improvements in certain areas of our sport, then we need to apply our resources in that same area.”
The AQHA has developed protocols and teams of people to go to tracks, typically for a Grade 1 or 2 race, and provide enforcement assistance to the commission of jurisdiction. “We don't try to take control of their racing,” VanBebber said. “Instead we're just trying to help them if they don't have their own resources, or knowledge or protocol, to help them pursue having an integrity team. Our hope is they will go on and grow a program within their own jurisdiction.”
The AQHA in 2016 deployed 18 teams ranging from two to nine people — all members of the multi-breed Organization of Racing Investigators — to various jurisdictions. That included five to the Quarter Horse hotbed of Ruidoso, N.M., once to administer out-of-competition testing, and to Los Alamitos for the Challenge Championships, she said.
“Accumulatively they could have 200 years of racing experience,” VanBebber said. “… More and more jurisdictions are willing to partner with us, realizing that we are just here to help. Integrity touches everybody…. One of our greatest responsibilities in racing is to represent the best interests of the gambling public. It also evens the playing field on the racetrack; it protects the horse and the rider.”
VanBebber said last year the program helped uncover 18 contraband and 17 medication violations. “It tells me we're making an impact,” she said. “But more importantly is the deterrent.”
Tom Sage, executive director of the Nebraska Racing Commission and who has been involved with the AQHA program, calls it a “public-private partnership —and the public part is the commission.
“We are there to assist the commission, so any violation the integrity team would find, we report it right to the commission…. We're boots on the grounds, we're the eyes and ears in the barn area.
“… These teams are very beneficial for the jurisdictions, for the racetracks and for the AQHA. I would challenge all the other breeds to get ahold of Janet. Get ahold of myself and others. Every breed should have something like this.”
While the current program centers on the top-end racing, Sage said he could see all breeds creating and expanding quick-hit integrity teams to come in to tracks to address a problem with daily racing.
Crop panel whips up impassioned discussion
An assembly that included four former jockeys from different racing jurisdictions whipped up frank dialogue about the use of riding crops, which until a few years ago were always called whips. The ARCI model rules committee is expected to discuss the crop/whip rule Thursday.
Panel moderator Doug Moore, a former jockey who is executive director of the Washington State Racing Commission, noted the built-in conflicts in crafting an appropriate rule for a whip's use.
“We have to take into account public perception,” he said. “We tell these people that these horses are bred for and love to run. But then we turn around and use a whip on them, and they want to know why. We also tell the jockey that they must give their best effort. But then we turn around and tell them that they can only hit the horse three times in succession, when the horse may be responding to that whip. So how much is overuse of the crop? And should the rule apply for all breeds?”
Former jockeys Ramon Dominguez and Alan Monet went toe-to-toe with California Horse Racing Board executive director Rick Baedeker over California's restrictive whip rule.
“There are many reasons why we use a riding crop, but the most important is to maintain safety and for encouragement,” said Dominguez, who noted the big change made to crops came in 2008 but said that technology has produced an even better one now with a cylinder popper that can't cut a horse.
Dominguez said it is a problem for jockeys being forced to routinely change their stick style depending on where they were riding, suggesting it prevents them from performing at an optimum level.
“It is time we come together for a uniform set of rules across the country for the greater good of the sport,” he said, later saying it is “our responsibility” to educate the public that the new crops are not abusive.
Of course, what a uniform rule might require is the source of debate. In California, a jockey can hit a horse at most three times in succession before giving the horse a minimum of two strides to respond.
Baedeker said that the stewards had found “there's no question that the jockeys have more control of the horse when their hands on the reins more often than not,” with the new rule and “as a result, they're riding straighter…. We think it's fairer for the betting public and the owners that the horses are staying straighter and there are fewer DQs.”
He said the rule has changed the way the jockeys ride and “has made a difference in perception.”
Former jockey Alan Monet, who is chair of the ARCI rider and driver safety committee, said jockeys need more discretion than the California rule provides, especially in the final sixteenth of a mile.
“Because they are trying to win a race,” said Monet, who brought old whips and the new padded crops to show the difference. “I'm not saying a horse should be unmercifully beaten. I'm saying it should be up to the jockey — and up to the stewards. Instead of hitting him three times, maybe it's four time. We're not talking about misuse… I think the three-whip rule is actually good, but it's the response time we have an issue with. One stride is the proper time for the horse to respond…. If you put your whip away in the last sixteenth of a mile and you allow your horse two strides and you get beat a nose, not only are the bettors going to be mad, the trainer and you're going to be mad that you let that happen.”
Chris McCarron, the retired Hall of Fame jockey, told of his own heavy use of the whip early in his career and how he studied jockeys such as Laffit Pincay on when and where they were striking horses and adapted his style.
“My biggest pet peeves are that the stewards aren't strict enough on the riders in the use of the crop, most particularly when the horse is well-beaten,” he said, adding that jockeys can adapt to the new rules. “If you're a professional athlete with as much hand-eye coordination, as much physical ability as jockeys have to possess — because it is damn hard to ride a Thoroughbred — they can change.”
Insights of a champion handicapper
The racing regulators heard first-hand from 2016 Eclipse Award champion handicapper Paul Matties Jr., part of the panel “Questioning Whether Racing Officials Get It Right.”
“I think the stewards do their jobs well, most people do. This industry wouldn't be able to operate without them, or as smoothly as it does,” he said.
But Matties, a professional gambler and horse owner from Ballston Spa, N.Y., said rules should change with the evolution of racing, including the impact of social media and the public's attitude toward animals.
“It's a lot worse when I've bet and spent the time to figure out the puzzle of that race, and be correct, and then just have it taken down for whatever reason,” he said of disqualifications. “If it's a legitimate reason, it's a horrible feeling. But when you feel like it's not a legitimate reason, it's even worse. It's the perception. I don't think it happens very often. But just because it has happened, I think there has to be some changes made.”
Matties said the public should hear not just why a horse was disqualified, but the rule involved and how it was applied. The same should be happen when a horse is not disqualified, he said.
“I think there would be less a feeling that something malicious was done,” he said. “If something could be done that cites an actual rule, these feelings would dissipate over time and the perception would get better.”
In an era when racing jurisdictions are working toward having matching rules involving medication use and drug testing in horses, Matties said he'd like to see uniformity in how interference is called across the country.
Matties was asked about one of racing's most famous no-calls since Codex and Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness. That was Bayern swerving out of the gate, in the process taking out his main competition for the lead, then going on to win the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
“This was a race where everybody was watching; everybody had their own jurisdiction and perception,” said Matties, who said he wasn't really impacted by the stewards keeping Bayern as the winner. “There are some that say that, ‘it doesn't matter what happens first two jumps out of starting gate, we're not going to do anything.' This is the idea of no standardized rules. That would have been avoided if there had been an updated rule involved, that everybody had seen the last few years and cited every time. I don't think there would have been an uproar on that decision. But because there's a generalization that it's a judgment call and every jurisdiction was different, that was going to be a nightmare and everybody would have a different outlook.”
Mike Hopkins, the long-time executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission and a former steward, noted that stewards' roles have changed.
“They've progressed over the last 30 years,” he said. “At one point, for those of you in the audience who do remember this, when stewards made decisions, no one dared to question the decision they made — or appeal. That's all changed. Owners, trainers aren't shy about questioning the judgment of the stewards…. Look at the number of races that we do. In the mid-Atlantic area, there were more than 6,300 races last year. There were probably 75 disqualifications; two or three appeals. Everything was upheld except for one. The public perception is that if they lost a wager, they're highly critical.
“… I think the stewards do a very good job. From my perspective as an executive director, I try to encourage the stewards to be very transparent… to have an open-door policy to review what they've looked at, and why they made the decision they made.”
The panel also included Cathy O'Meara, coordinator of the Racing Officials Accreditation Program, and moderator Judy Wagner, ARCI's outgoing chair and the 2001 National Handicapping Championship winner.
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