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Friday, January 26, 2001
Updated: February 5, 11:04 AM ET
What horse racing needs

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

Not that anybody asked, but here's what I would do if I were czar of horse racing:

See to it that no two major races are ever run simultaneously. They ran the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and the Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita at the exact same moment last Saturday. That meant that fans at simulcast outlets could watch one or the other but not both. Racing should give maximum exposure to its most important races, not run them in conflict with one another. That both tracks are owned by the same person in Frank Stronach only made the situation more absurd.

On the same subject, better coordinate simulcasting schedules so that races from major tracks never interfere with one another. Why not have a carefully planned schedule so that there is a race every five minutes from a major track, with 25 minutes between races at every track taking part in the rotation.

See to it that no one ever pays to get into a racetrack again, with the exception of Triple Crown events and the Breeders' Cup. Charging people money to gamble is nuts. Imagine a casino doing so. It would be out of business within a week.

Organize all major races in the country into a scheduled format. How can people follow the sport when there are no standings, no schedules and no coherent relationships among major races? The old American Championship Racing Series was a start. That idea should be extended to every division so that there is a mini-Breeders' Cup held once a month with the series concluding in the actual Breeders' Cup. Do what NASCAR did, which is to have every race count toward something. To have the Jim Dandy and the Haskell, two major races for 3-year-olds, run on the same weekend and draw top horses away from one another, is obviously not good for the sport.

Work toward eliminating all race day medications, starting with an immediate ban on legal substances for 2-year-olds. How can anyone claim that the proliferation of legal medications has been a good thing for the sport? Lasix was supposed to allow horses to run more often. Instead, fields have never been smaller and horses are starting less than ever on average.

Get serious about eliminating the use of illegal drugs. The problem is out of control and racing isn't doing enough to stop it. All horses should be placed in a detention barn at least 10 hours before they race and anytime a horse tests positive the horse, as well as the trainer, should be suspended from racing. That way owners would be discouraged from using trainers who insist on cheating. The public must have every reason to believe that the game is 100 percent on the up and up.

Lower the takeout. It's simple economics. Whenever a business is having a hard time selling its product it lowers the price of the product. Racing has done the opposite. It has raised the takeout, or the cost of making a bet, while it has struggled to lure new customers and maintain the ones it has. As it is now, the game is all but impossible to beat. Broke horseplayers are ex-horseplayers.

Encourage the Southern California tracks to run fewer days and races. The problem of short fields in California is a serious one and bettors will continue to flock to other simulcast signals as long as there are a glut of four and five-horse fields in California. The only way to solve the problem is a four-day racing week and a two-week gap between meets.

Ban the use of the whip. As severe a measure as that may seem, the sight of jockeys thrashing their horses with whips as they are running down the stretch gives racing a black eye it doesn't need and can't afford. If the whip is taken away from each and every jockey, all horses would be on equal footing and the game would seem kinder and gentler to people who are uncomfortable with some of the animal cruelty issues.

Spread the word that racing's fascination with attracting a younger fan base is a waste of time. Racing is run in the afternoon and playing the horses requires a lot of discretionary income. Young people don't have the time or the money, which is why racing always has and always will appeal to an older fan base. TVG's packaging itself for a young, hip audience, which alienated hard core racing fans, was just dumb. Do the opposite. Have ad campaigns and promotions designed to attract old codgers to the track.

Funnel more money toward equine retirement. No former race horse should ever have to face such a grisly fate as a trip to the slaughterhouse. All it takes to solve the problem is money. Plenty of the people and organizations in the industry are very generous, but too many others just don't care.

Rename the Belmont Stakes the Secretariat. I'm serious. The Belmont is named for some old, rich guy who's been dead some 150 years. Secretariat is the most recognizable figure in horse racing and renaming the race after him would give the final leg of the Triple Crown even more name recognition. Secretariat turned in the single best performance in the history of the sport in the 1973 Belmont and was one of the greatest horses ever. Changing the Belmont to the Secretariat would be a fitting way to honor a legend.