Commentary


Stan Bergstein’s Daily Racing Form columns

With permission of Daily Racing Form, Stan Bergstein’s bi-weekly columns for that publication will appear here every other week.

 

Making better horses out of thin air?

The Examiner is a newspaper that covers news centered around Allentown, New Jersey’s hotbed of horse farms, and other areas around the state.

Because it does, I glance at it from time to time, and paused last week to check out a headline reading, “Hypoxic training takes professional athletes to another level.” Sounded interesting, with color pictures.

Then the subhead, in small type, caught my eye.

It read, “Master runner, world champ boxer and Hambletonian winner all use high-altitude training.”

Hambletonian winner on high-altitude training? Broad Bahn, winner of that $1.7 million trotting classic for 3-year-olds at the Meadowlands? A winner of $1,020,000 this year who finished five times first and four times second in 12 starts.

The Examiner story, by managing editor Jennifer Kohlhepp, was a long one, well written, dealing in the lead and early paragraphs with Dina Alborano, who started running at 9, set junior records at 10, and won a full track scholarship to Villanova a few years later. Now 44, Alborano is the second highest ranking master 5-kilometer runner in the world. Ms. Kohlhepp wrote, “Alborano has taken her training to a new level, 20,000 feet above sea level, with high altitude training.

It turns out Alborano’s husband, Don Carmody, an athletic trainer for 20 years with a background in mechanical engineering and design, combined his talents and built a full gym with a chamber replicates the oxygen level of a base camp of Mount Everest. Air normally is made up of 20.7 percent oxygen, but Carmody’s athletes train in an atmosphere with an oxygen level of 10 percent.

“It’s like pumping weights while running,” he told Ms. Kohlhepp, saying that “everyone from Michael Phelps to Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods has used it.” Everyone includes featherweight boxing champion Yuriorkis Gamboa, who hopes to move up to the welterweight division and fight Manny Pacquiao.

And, apparently, $1 million Hambletonian winner Broad Bahn.

Carmody and Alborano figured if the benefits of high altitude could lower her ranking from number 23 in the United States to number 2 in the world, and cut a minute off her 5K time in six months, it should have similar results for horses.

“We simply want to make the equine world stronger, faster, and healthier,” Carmody says. So they built climate-controled horse stalls, with floor-to-ceiling kickboard, rubberized walls, a pure-air monitor, a power-failure ventilation system, and generator limiters that simulate high-altitude training, and sold the first one to Australian Noel Daley, one of the top trainers in North American harness racing, based near Carmody in New Jersey.

Daley began using hypoxic training for Broad Bahn’s Hambletonian prep six weeks before the Hambletonian.

“I wanted to do everything possible to help him, but he obviously had been a good horse before the Hambletonian,” he said. And he still is. Racing away from New Jersey since, Broad Bahn finished fourth in the $500,000 Colonial at Chester, Pa.; won the $122,420 Zweig at Tioga Downs in New York; finished second in an elimination for the million dollar Canadian Championship; and then ran into disaster in that major race, finishing 10th. He came out of the Canadian race in good shape, training well since.

So where, what and when does racing address its newest problem, if in fact hypoxic training fact is one. Is there any reason to do so? Is hypoxic training a magic cure? Don Carmody may have answered the questions. “It’s a drug-free technology whose by-product is better health,” he said.

Noel Daley thinks the unit helps some horses, but not others. He says if a treadmill could be installed in the units, so that the horse could replicate actual training during his stay in the chamber, it would be a big step forward.

One thing seems certain. News that Broad Bahn won the Hambletonian after simulated high-altitude training, and that Big Bad John, winner of the $600,000 Little Brown Jug in Ohio for 3-year-old pacing colts, also did some thin-oxygen training in a unit in Lexington, Ky., back in July, will lead to others using and buying the machines, and that “others” includes Thoroughbred trainers. Big Bad John’s trainer, Ron Potter, says he had sent his charge to Kesmark, across from Keeneland and primarily a Thoroughbred rehabilitation center, for swimming and general overall improvement from a few respiratory problems, back in late June and again in late July. That overall rehab program included a hypoxic chamber there, but it is doubtful high-altitude training would affect performance one way or the other seven weeks after the fact.

When innovation occurs, breed lines – otherwise an unfortunate detriment to racing – disappear. As a very wise racing man once said, “If they tied a balloon to a horse’s tail, and he won by six lengths, the next morning the training track would look like barrage balloons over D-Day in France.”

Fred Pope’s creative thinking based on faulty logic

Fred Pope is back.

As if he ever left.

Pope, a determined Lexington, Ky., advertising executive, racing commentator, and iconoclast, issued another lengthy commentary on the state of the game this week – this one taking up six pages of single-spaced copy on a PC printer – continuing his decades-long effort to convince racing it is following the wrong road.

Writing in Thoroughbred Times, Pope once again made his case for what he calls a “talent-centric” sport, rather than a “facility-centric” one. He says the track-centric approach is “the real tragedy of racing, so flawed it has made those in the industry believe there is little hope for the sport’s future.” And he says that simply isn’t true.

If racing only would do it his way, Pope argues, it could be saved. His way is major league racing, where horse owners would control medication rules, provide a central authority, and provide control of distribution of horses and purses.

This is not a new Pope idea. He still smolders over the rebuff racing handed him almost two decades ago, when he formed a National Thoroughbred Association – the NTA – to provide a vehicle for major owners in the sport in North America and overseas to create a “talent-centric” league to provide top racing everywhere on weekends.

Pope blames the New York Racing Association for undercutting his idea, and accuses the NTRA, which was formed instead, of taking hundreds of millions of dollars from breeders and owners while rebating fees to track operators.

Unfortunately for him and his league, racing in this country has for most of its history been presented by track operators, providing the stage for the talent to perform. It had huge investments in facilities and their upkeep, and was not about to forfeit them.

In a switch difficult to understand, Pope thinks his league idea would also solve the medication problem. He blasts 2-year-olds racing on medication – an idea we have bitterly opposed since it was first allowed, and which is one of the great disgraces and hypocrisies of the game today – and he ignores the fact that racing is finally moving in precisely that direction, admittedly years after it should have. He also suggests that rule be expanded gradually to older horses, another proposal which is a natural and logical progression. But it is primarily horsemen, including owners, who have in the past resisted such changes – and still do, in large part – so how his league would change this is problematical. There are major owners today who actually gravitate toward horsemen with bad reputations within the sport. Converting them, league or no league, will be a difficult task. Greed beats league any day, unfortunately, and only chemical research and stronger testing will break that wicked truth. There are many major owners and breeders today who bitterly oppose destruction of the breed and the game thru chemical warfare, but only the ability to find substances undetectable today and oust those using them will solve the problem.

We have known and followed Fred Pope and his ideas for years, with interest and admiration for his creativity, courage, and persistence. We still do. But his insistence that the “Build it and they will come” theory of Field of Dreams, with which he opens his current essay, died 60 years ago, is not true.

On the same day his piece appeared, one of the most successful of all of the overseas operations he admires – the Hong Kong Jockey Club – announced it was spending $7 billion to add new construction to its already hugely impressive plants to keep them state-of-the-art. The South China Morning News reported in its headlines that “a dazzling grand entrance is planned for Sha Tin and exclusive corporate boxes for Happy Valley.” The improvements include 1.8 billion Hong Kong dollars for a new, modernized Telebet center and advanced IT and audio-visual production facilities.

On this side of the world, nine “suits” in hard hats, with spades, were shown in the very magazine printing Pope’s piece in a story telling of Hialeah Park breaking ground for its $150 million casino, due for completion a year from now. And of course NYRA itself, the evil empire of Pope’s essay, is building a huge casino that will, like it or not, increase NYRA purses incrementally.

“Build it and they will come” did not die 60 years ago. It simply has transformed itself and evolved, Darwin style, into survival of the fittest. Purists like Fred Pope and others in racing will not like it. But horsemen will, when the clinking of casinos and whirring of new machines pour monies into purses.

How long this artifice will hold up is an open question. But for now, with the appeal of racing challenged by a new generation of humans and their drives and desires, racing had better take what it can get.

Young man presents sage document

Ed Martin, the president of Racing Commissioners International, has made some wise moves in the last year.

None was wiser than his hiring Steve May as vice president and business manager of the organization of racing commissioners.

I know May, since he is one of the many bright young men who worked for me at Harness Tracks of America and Harness Racing Communications and moved on to high rank jobs in American racing, harness and Thoroughbred. They include people like Chris McErlean, formerly general manager of racing at the Meadowlands, now with Penn National and president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and Charlie Leerhsen, who went on to work for Newsweek and became an editor at both People and Sports Illustrated. He now spends his time writing fascinating books on interesting people and events.

McErlean and Leerhsen and 15 or 16 more like them who attended my “finishing school” – including briefly Steve May – all shared common attributes. They were smart, inquisitive, restless and aggressive. And all possessed a trait uncommon with many of today’s college graduates: They could write and spell.

May came to me after the death, at 27, of one of the most promising of all, the brilliant Brody Johnson. Like Johnson, he was brought to Harness Tracks of America by Paul Estok, the association’s general counsel and now executive vice president. Paul said, “You’ll like this guy. He’s sharp and interesting.” He was indeed.

Steve was born in Miami, Texas, a west Texas town with a population of 588. He graduated in 1999 from Amarillo College with an Associate’s Degree in Surgical Technology, then worked in operating rooms in Dallas and in Dayton and Columbus in Ohio. While there, he graduated from Ohio State with a degree in microbiology. He went to work in Williamsport, Pa., and a few poker buddies gave him an introduction to horse racing. After hearing a radio interview with Doug Reed, coordinator of the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona, Steve was enraptured, and enrolled there and graduated last year as the Distinguished Student in the class. He went to work for Harness Tracks of America, then moved east to Tioga Downs in New York, and then Ed Martin grabbed him for RCI.

This week May issued version 2.01 of the RCI’s Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances and Recommended Penalties and Model Rule.

It is not for reading at the beach or bed. But if you want to see how far an important racing group has come, and where matters now stand, reading the opening and close of the 41-page technical work gives you a good idea. Reading it all gives you an insight into the complexity of drug testing.

The Preamble, not new, reveals the purpose of the paper: that it “is intended to assist stewards, hearing officers, and racing commissioners in evaluating the seriousness of alleged violations of medication and prohibited substance rules in racing jurisdictions.” It points out that the exhaustive list of drugs and illegal substances in the subsequent pages are guidelines, not mandates, and are ranked on their pharmacology, their ability to influence the outcome of a race, whether or not they have legitimate therapeutic uses in the racing horse, or other evidence that they may be used improperly. These classes of drugs are intended only as guidelines and should be employed only to assist persons adjudicating facts and opinions in understanding the seriousness of the alleged offenses. The facts of each case are always different, and there may be mitigating circumstances which should always be considered.”

In a perfect world the recommendations of racing commissioners would be the final word. But, as you may have noted, we now live in something far less than a perfect world, and the next sentence in the RCI paper reveals why in racing.

Under notes regarding the guidelines, you find this: “Where the use of a drug is specifically permitted by a jurisdiction, then the jurisdiction’s rules supersedes these penalty guidelines.”

That inability to mandate uniform rules is created, of course, by the individual members willingness or ability to follow them. It some cases it is a matter of state law, with commissioners generally reluctant to push too hard for change. They are, for the most part, political appointees, and vulnerable to the sways and swings of political party and power.

In other cases it is the intransigence of commissioners and others who resent outside intrusion in their state domains.

But the new guidelines can be extremely helpful even with those caveats. The report ends with four pages of highly detailed and helpful charts that give the RCI’s recommended penalties for licensed trainers and owners, and recent changes. The charts are broken down by the rating of the drugs deleterious effects, from high to low, on racing performance. In Class 1 offenses, the most serious, the first offense carries a minimum one-year suspension for the trainer, plus a minimum fine of $10,000 or 10 percent of the total purse, whichever is greater. For owners a first offense would bring disqualification and loss of purse, and sidelining of the horse for 90 days and the requirement to pass a commission-approved examination before being allowed to return to racing.

The report includes eight pages of currently known drugs, their ratings for serious effects, and their recommended penalty class.

If illegal medication interests you – and it should – you can read the full report at http://arci.com/druglisting.pdf.