At a resort hotel in the Sonora Desert, 400 movers, shakers, followers and acolytes gathered this week for horse racing’s annual convention.
Formally it is known as the Global Symposium on Racing, a label befitting the academic bravado that the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences attaches to this annual bash to celebrate its Race Track Industry Program.
The proper nouns do not end there. The ballroom and lobby and nearby restaurants were filled with chief executive officers and board chairpersons and enough vice presidents to overthink the most pertinent of topics.
During two days of panel discussions, speeches, committee presentations, workshops, luncheons, receptions, invitation-only meetings, cocktail hours and even a side trip to see college basketball – go, Wildcats – it was easy to be sucked into an insular bubble with a distinct series of messages.
“People run racetracks, because they love this sport,” said former Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), the incoming CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. “They love this animal. We will do the right thing by the horse.”
“We all recognize that a safer and a fairer sport will create a rising tide, which will raise all persons in this sport,” said Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) board chairman Charles Scheeler.
“I’m so tired of the narrative that the sport is dying,” Keeneland CEO Shannon Arvin said. “We’ve got to change that to be the sport is thriving.”
These were not merely rah-rah statements that were uttered Tuesday. There was more than a tinge of reality mixed in, especially the day after disputed Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit suffered a fatal heart attack in a workout a little more than 400 miles away.
There is also the reality of HISA, the federal law that was borne from racing’s inability to sufficiently govern itself. Amid the spoken optimism that its rules on drugs and track safety will make the sport better, there are legal and constitutional challenges lined up from the likes of owners and trainers and state authorities. They seem likely to delay HISA’s July 1 launch.
In case the movers and shakers and followers and acolytes got a little too comfortable sidling up to the Catalina Mountains and two adjacent golf courses, critics were not far away from what was a very public event. Some were in the ballroom listening, even asking questions. Others invested $195 to watch everything streamed for the first time via live and archived video. If they did not sound off in person, they certainly did using social media.
“It’s like a vacation in Tucson for the attendees,” one critic posted. “Anything worthwhile ever come out of the symposium?”
“Has anything ever been ‘solved’ at a symposium after a ‘white paper’ presentation,” one Tweep asked from Michigan. “They just create additional problems due to unintended consequences due to the short sightedness of the participants.”
“My main takeaway from the horse-racing symposium is the decision makers in the sport all live in an echo-chamber bubble,” an Arkansas viewer wrote. “The losers, as always, will be the bettors.”
“Horse racing Twitter is a lot more informed than the majority of people at the Symposium,” wrote Andy Asaro, a well-known horseplayer from Southern California who attended the convention. “They mean well. They’re stuck in the bubble.”
That word “bubble” keeps coming up. There is something McLuhanesque about both it and the criticism. It must be remember that, if not for the very existence of the symposium, the complaints would be more scattered and probably less effective. The medium really is the message, and its usefulness should not be taken for granted.
It would be easy for the sport’s highly paid poohbahs to hide behind the hundreds of nearby saguaros and pretend the Twitter wags were just making like the old men in the balcony on “The Muppet Show” – or, crawling into the 21st century, Miranda Sings. But the collective cynicism aimed at racing’s establishment is worth hearing.
Most of the panels at the symposium ended with Q&A sessions at which trenchant points were raised, many from people who would be regarded as friends of the sport.
Podcaster and horseplayer Pete Fornatale asked a group discussing fixed-odds horse wagering why winning bettors should be confident they will not be cut off by private bookmakers. Pat Cummings of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation asked a quintet of racing secretaries about “the dirty little secret” that owners and trainers are not interested in having bigger fields competing against their horses. When Scheeler failed to say anything about who would pay for HISA, racing journalist Ray Paulick asked.
The answers to these particular questions were more vague than specific, more hopeful than reassuring, and they certainly did not come with money-back guarantees. At least the issues could be raised in a public forum to put the movers and shakers and followers and acolytes on the record. That was not a waste of time.
In short, this convention with the high-falutin’ title is not just a place where the captains of the Thoroughbred industry go to hear themselves talk. There are times when they drone on and on, but they also know they must face the music of discontent, too.
As a first-time observer of this event, if there is one suggestion I would offer to RTIP chairman Robert Hartman, it would be to lock in more than just 5-10 minutes for the Q&A. How about throwing out the script for one session and making the public give-and-take last the full hour? Or, to avoid the endless, counterproductive “questions” that can infiltrate these opportunities (a horse owner’s ears are burning at Arizona Downs), how about having someone like Asaro on the same stage as Scheeler?
The cries that racing will never police itself and that cheaters will continue to be enabled and horses will continue to be killed will never go away. Ignoring them would be wrong.
It would be just as wrong to say the Global Symposium on Racing is nothing but an insular bubble, the sporting equivalent of a political convention. True, it can be just that, but not intentionally. It may not always keep the sport honest, but it certainly provides the forum to keep it accountable on a face-to-face basis.
Tuesday’s session with racetrack CEOs had an unintentionally funny moment when the big “Global Symposium on Racing” sign slowly sunk from the back of the stage and gently fell to the floor.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Arvin said as she laughed it off.
Maybe it was a higher power or a stage hand’s way of humbling everyone in the room. If that was the case, was that such a bad thing?
Racing notes and opinions
It has been two years since two-time graded-stakes winner Dennis’ Moment was the futures favorite for the Kentucky Derby and the post-time favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. After he went to his knees coming out of the gate during the championships at Santa Anita, it has been downhill ever since. Well, almost. The 4-year-old Tiznow colt was on an 0-for-5 schneid with only one in-the-money finish before trainer Dale Romans put him in a confidence-building allowance race Oct. 21 at Keeneland. That turned into a victory for Dennis’ Moment, who drew post 5 against six rivals in Saturday’s $100,000 Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The race is seven furlongs, a distance at which Dennis’ Moment (2-1 morning line) is a two-time winner. He will have Corey Lanerie riding him this weekend. Wind of Change (3-1), a 6-year-old trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., was credited with two bullet workouts in the past month at Palm Meadows. His last stakes win was in the Mr. Prospector – but not this one. The namesake race was run last May in the slop at Monmouth Park. In last year’s Gulfstream version of the Mr. Prospector, he set the pace before fading to finish fourth. The 3-year-old gelding Poppy’s Pride (20-1) should show early speed, but for how long? He won four in a row to end his 2-year-old season but is 0-for-3 in 2021. My money will be pointed to Endorsed (5-2), Mike Maker’s 5-year-old by Medaglia d’Oro who was making a late charge to finish fourth two starts ago in the six-furlong, Grade 3 Phoenix at Keeneland. With Tyler Gaffalione up, I will look for a little value by keying Endorsed with the other horses mentioned here being in the exotic mix. Forecasters say there will be 84-degree sunshine at Hallandale Beach, Fla., for the Mr. Prospector on Saturday at 4:32 p.m. EST.
What is the over-under on how many horses actually start Saturday’s 8½-furlong, $300,000 Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity? Five were entered, including two colts trained by Bob Baffert and two by Doug O’Neill. Coming in with two consecutive wins, Messier (1-2) gets blinkers again from Baffert after he finished first without them in last month’s six-furlong, Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. With Flavien Prat riding, he may press the pace that could be set by Durante, who led the whole way winning a maiden, two-turn mile Nov. 14 at Del Mar. Barossa (5-1), the “other” Baffert, was a non-factor finishing ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile three weeks after breaking his maiden going a mile at Del Mar. Maiden winner Slow Down Andy (5-1) graduates from state-bred company to make his first two-turn start for O’Neill. Rail starter Olympic Legend (15-1) has lost his two stakes starts by an average 14 lengths and looks like a gate filler here. O’Neill could reroute Slow Down Andy (5-1) into Sunday’s King Glorious Stakes, so don’t be surprised if this race ends up with just a party of four. In the seven years since it was moved from Hollywood Park, the Los Al Futurity has had an average field of only 5.42, and Baffert has won all of them. Durante does not look fast enough to keep up, so expect Messier to win this by open lengths with Barossa the best of the rest. Even though this is a 10-4-2-1 prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Bafferts are ineligible to collect any points because of the ban coming out of the Medina Spirit medication dispute. A sunny, 67-degree day is forecast for Saturday’s running of the Los Alamitos Futurity at 6:58 p.m. EST.
There is nothing like a tragedy to attract the attention of politicians. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has called for “a thorough and transparent examination into the death” of Medina Spirit. Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times that she wants to “ensure that all education and training protocols were followed.” She went on to say the colt’s “death and the recent spike in deaths at another track, Laurel Park in Maryland, illustrate why it was important for Congress to pass federal legislation (HISA) last year to create uniform standards in horse racing.” Feinstein was critical of racing in 2019, when 37 racehorses died during a 12-month period at Santa Anita.
Friday marks 127 days since Gov. Phil Murphy signed fixed-odds horse wagering into law in New Jersey, yet there is still no fixed-odds horse wagering. And just in case Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association do not consummate their partial breakthrough last week, Friday also marks 775 days since the home of the Kentucky Derby was available for betting through Las Vegas casinos. Carry on.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode originates from the Global Symposium on racing in Tucson, Ariz. Former Congressman Tom Rooney is the new president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Shannon Arvin is the CEO of Keeneland. They discuss the sport’s new federal regulations plus ideas on how to integrate horse racing into betting on other sports. From Las Vegas, Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.