By T. D. Thornton
Last week's headlines had little to do with on-track action. This coming week though, we awaken from the sport's annual post-Breeders' Cup snooze with an eye toward decent Thanksgiving weekend racing and on-the-horizon stakes that could add a touch of intrigue to the tail end of the 2020 season.
But before you feast upon the holiday fare, chew on these side dishes that anchored the last seven days of the news cycle (plus a few other tidbits that didn't land on the front pages):
Last Tuesday we learned via federal prosecutors that more doping charges could be in the pipeline for existing and new defendants in the alleged years-long drugging conspiracy involving now-barred trainers Jason Servis, Jorge Navarro, and a wide-ranging cast of enablers that includes veterinarians.
A key takeaway from that Nov. 17 court hearing is that the lead prosecutor said he now believes that two of the alleged performance-enhancing drug (PED) suppliers were pushing at least some sham pharmaceuticals to Servis that didn't really do anything to make a horse faster or stronger.
But, the prosecutor added, the government will still be treating those substances as if they were actual PEDs, because the true intent on the part of Servis was to allegedly pump horses full of illicit drugs.
The other main point gleaned from last Tuesday's hearing is that this case isn't likely to go to trial until the second half of 2021 because of the voluminous amount of evidence that is surfacing in the discovery process.
So it's conceivable we could still be batting around this court case over next year's Thanksgiving turkey.
Meanwhile, on the western front…
The day after the federal doping case hearings, TDN asked California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director Rick Arthur, DVM, to identify what under-the-radar substance might be likely to next surface as drug of abuse.
Arthur replied in the Nov. 18 Q&A that “It's not really under the radar. We are concerned with SARMs [selective androgen receptor modulators]. Those are a class of drugs that have anabolic-like activity, but they are not really anabolic steroids. We've seen some of them in testing already [and] that is a group of drugs that I think that we have to pay attention to.”
The following day, during the CHRB's monthly meeting, Arthur brought up a separate topic about an abused substance that hasn't been in the headlines lately: Thyroxine.
In introducing a new rule proposal Nov. 19 to curb thyroxine “to the point that it really will not be used any longer within CHRB facilities,” Arthur revealed that since the start of this year, veterinarians on the Southern California circuit alone have reported 287 prescriptions for thyroxine. Incredibly, he added that “over half of the prescriptions” were written for just two trainers, and 80% of that thyroxine was “prescribed by just three veterinarians.”
This despite a CHRB advisory against thyroxine that has been in effect for more than six years warning against its use in horses that don't legitimately need it because of the drug's nasty reputation for producing cardiac arrhythmias and atrial fibrillation. Arthur added that “while we cannot assert a cause-and-effect relationship, one sudden death already in 2020 occurred five days after the horse was prescribed thyroxine.”
The CHRB did not disclose the names of the trainers, veterinarians, or the horse that perished after receiving thyroxine. The motion to advance the rule passed, 7-0.
Fixed-odds experiment coming to NJ…maybe
Dennis Drazin, the chairman and chief executive of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park and its sports book, predicted to the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) last Wednesday that within five years, fixed-odds betting has the potential to comprise “a significant portion of the handle” in horse racing.
Several commissioners expressed fears about fixed-odds betting cannibalizing the existing pari-mutuel system. Yet despite their repeated lamenting about “last rites” to a model that “will lose out in the end if it has to compete” with fixed odds, no one on the NJRC inquired about what a realistic pricing structure might look like for the new model so it could benefit bet-makers, bet-takers and the horsemen.
Fixed-odds bookmaking, which allows a customer to lock in pricing at the time of the wager, does indeed have theoretical promise to revolutionize, reenergize, and even replace traditional straight wagering in this country (while leaving exotics to be better handled by pari-mutuels).
But when the NJRC voted 4-0 Nov. 18 to approve a fixed-odds pilot program for 2021 that would be limited to bets on out-of-state Grade I races, it didn't even raise the issue of how the bets would be priced in terms of takeout so that the tracks that fund those races get paid for their product.
Granted, the pilot program wasn't even the NJRC's idea. It was handed down by the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement, which has the authority to regulate fixed-odds wagers. The NJRC was only involved because a provision in the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 requires approval from the receiving state's racing commission before wagers can be taken on imported signals.
What's in a name?
It's great that a smaller track laden with no-frills charm like Fairmount Park will have its lifespan extended thanks to 2019 legislation in Illinois that granted it the privilege to host slot machines, table games and sports betting.
Not so enthusing was last week's announcement that Fairmount's corporate gaming partner is “rebranding” (read: obliterating) the name of the storied oval 12 miles east of St. Louis so it will now be known as “FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing.”
Apparently, 95 years of history are getting tossed into the nearby Mississippi River. Sure, the corporate backer is putting up millions of dollars. But FanDuel wouldn't be there in the first place if it wasn't for Fairmount hanging in there long beyond most expectations for it to survive.
In the Nov. 16 press release that heralded the erasure of the Fairmount name, the partners also announced that the company will “fund the renewal and running of the $250,000 St. Louis Derby, the track's signature event, which has not been conducted since 2006 due to financial constraints.”
Actually, the 2006 St. Louis Derby was the only edition of the race ever conducted. It was the legacy of the old Fairmount Derby, which was run inconsistently between 1926 and 1996, with decades-long gaps between some runnings.
But that one and only St. Louis Derby did produce a good trivia question. Can you name the winner of that 2006 stakes? He was a colt who won six straight races leading up to the GI Kentucky Derby. He ran 12th behind Barbaro, and it was discovered post-race that he had been hindered by an ankle chip. After surgery to repair it, this chestnut was pounded to 4-5 favoritism when returning to his winning ways at Fairmount on a muggy Saturday night in August.
Need another hint? A year later, that colt flourished as a Grade I force, sweeping both the Whitney H. and Woodward S. at Saratoga.
Lawyer Ron is the answer. I'll be rooting for Fairmount to lure another high-profile horse to the St. Louis Derby in 2021.
I just won't be referring to that appealing old track by its unimaginative new name.