Lintner: Haskell Stakes day just racing's latest test of fate

July 21, 2019 10:22am

Saturday at Monmouth Park, Dennis Drazin, whose Darby Development runs the home of the Haskell Invitational (G1), referenced a heat “threshold” the track needed to reach before deeming racing unsafe. There was no number given or formula cited.

That was even as racetracks in neighboring New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland canceled their cards before the day began. Too hot there, but not at Monmouth, where an unscientific “ocean breeze” could help beat the heat.

This column isn’t about whether it was too hot to race. This issue — as with medication, whips, track surfaces and more — is another on a growing list lacking consistency across jurisdictions. Absent minimum standards, the sport could be one independent track management decision away from its next crisis.

“It just wasn’t justified taking the risk,” Drazin said after Monmouth Park ran two races with a heat index surpassing 105, then axed the rest of the Haskell undercard, sans stakes, to finish racing later in the evening.

But if Drazin had deemed it a risk worth taking? If Monmouth Park ran all 14 of its races, and somewhere along the way a horse broke down? It wouldn’t just be Monmouth Park’s problem.

That would be Churchill Downs’ issue, and the Stronach Group’s issue, and the issue of every other racetrack in America. That’s where we are now after equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park became a national story, one that led reporters to scrutinize (rightfully so) their local tracks. Yet none of those entities had a say in what happened Saturday.

There is often talk of a “commissioner” in racing — one overlord to keep everyone in line. That seems a tad radical for a sport that can’t even determine how much heat is too much to race. Rather, what if every racetrack ownership group appointed a representative to a decision-making panel that set minimum standards at its facilities?

How high can the heat index go? How much, if any, Lasix is allowed? Heck, should programs be free to fans at racetracks, all video feeds in HD and social media accounts actually active to answer questions from the public? Monmouth Park’s first tweet Saturday was published at 1:12 p.m. — after a lengthy, unexplained delay for the first race, and to announced that racing would be halted following the second.

That shouldn’t be good enough. That shouldn’t be big-time horse racing’s minimum.

And if a track doesn’t want to join this governing group of owners? Don’t distribute the signal of a subpar product. Make those races invisible until they’re properly run in an era where awareness of equine safety has never been higher.

Of course, this isn’t a surefire solution, because what tracks want in some instances, horsemen, state regulators and bettors won’t. But racing needs to give off the perception that it’s doing everything possible to prevent breakdowns and approaching with a consistent front when they do happen, because they will happen.

In other words, try something.

In the meantime, all of racing will be on the hook for what happens at peer tracks that might not share the same standards.

Last week, when two horses collided and died at Del Mar in a morning training incident, Joe Harper, the head of that track, faced cameras to explain how that’s rare. And thankfully it is. But what if media had a go-to source representing the racetrack group similar to how PETA has a statement from its senior vice president, Kathy Guillermo, always at the ready?

Guillermo has issued 13 statements related to racing in the last two months relating related to deaths at Santa Anita, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s racetrack ban and most recently Monmouth Park’s decision to run in Saturday’s heat. Those press releases are reaching far more inboxes than racing’s disjointed voices of reason.

Speaking of, the Hollendorfer ban is another made in a vacuum. It led Monmouth Park’s local paper the Asbury Park Press, to publish a story headlined by the “horse deaths” trainer allowed to race in New Jersey.

Again, no minimum standards. No unified stance.

“This atmosphere,” Monmouth Park’s Drazin said Saturday, is not one in which racetracks can afford to take risks. So why do they continue testing their fate?

Jonathan Lintner is the editor of Horse Racing Nation.

 

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