Wednesday, January 12, 2011
It's time to embrace higher standards
By Claire Novak Special to ESPN.com
Next week when horse racing's elite gather for a swank dinner at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, the winners of the 40th Annual Eclipse Awards will be made known. Most anticipated among 17 categories is, of course, the announcement of whether Blame or Zenyatta will be named Horse of the Year. Two human categories, however, raise an alarming question about the integrity of the sport.
These are the trainer and jockey titles, honors for individuals whose exemplary accomplishments make them simply outstanding, worthy of great respect. Doubtless, the top three horsemen (Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, John Shirreffs) and the top three riders (Ramon Dominguez, Garret Gomez, John Velazquez) earned their nominations for one reason or another. In the trainer category, for instance, Pletcher tops the leader board in earnings and with victories in 85 stakes races, 45 of them graded including a score in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert provided 2010's best 3-year-old, won the Preakness and other key races with said runner, and ranks third by earnings. Shirreffs, of course, campaigned 6-year-old Zenyatta through a history-making tour de force the likes of which will never be seen again.
Yet two of the finalists in both categories -- Pletcher and Velazquez -- were involved in one of the sport's blackest incidents last season, the Life At Ten debacle that remains under investigation by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Last Friday, Nick Kling of the Troy Record brought these thoughts to mind:
"Among the interesting sidebars of the voting is the lack of consequences as a result of the infamous 'Life At Ten' incident in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. As you recall, the heavily-bet filly was practically eased after jockey John Velazquez told television viewers she was not warming up properly.
Despite some observers, your narrator among them, believing Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher should be subject to sanctions for their part in the debacle, both were named Eclipse finalists.
The failure to acknowledge Pletcher and Velazquez' part in an event clearly definable as anti-fan indicates a significant percentage of voters are out of touch with the everyday horseplayer."
John Pricci of Horse Race Insider had this to say in response to comments on his Dec. 20 column "Just One Man's Opinion":
"There are bigger issues at stake and messages needed to be sent so that it doesn't happen again This man has one opinion -- one vote that means very little in the bigger Eclipse picture. But I cannot, and hopefully never will, in good conscience reward actions that are not in the best interests of the sport we love."
The argument could be made that every potential award winner who has been involved in the sport for some time is likely to have also been involved in one altercation or another, whether it be a jockey who takes a 5-day suspension for a riding mistake or a trainer who gets a drug violation in one state but not in another due to the lack of uniform medication rules. Eliminating potential finalists from the ballots based upon such penalties incurred throughout a career would be highly impractical and a nearly impossible endeavor. However, the question remains: should individuals be excluded from consideration for the year-end honors if any of their activities in the past 12 months reflect poorly upon the sport -- in spite of otherwise award-worthy accomplishments for the season?
Historically, the majority has decided not to make an issue of ongoing or recent violations or incidents. In 2004, Pletcher received a 45-day suspension and $3,000 fine when the prohibited substance mepivacaine was found in one of his starters in August at Saratoga Race Course. He also received his first Eclipse. In 2008 when voters named Asmussen Outstanding Trainer, he was under investigation for a positive of the anesthetic lidocaine in one of his runners at Lone Star Park. He continued to make headlines in 2009 while fighting a six-month suspension and $1,500 fine for that situation (legal battles for which, according to attorney Karen Murphy, are "still pending" at this date), yet he took home his second straight award at the season's end.
Consider jockey Paco Lopez, named Outstanding Apprentice of 2008 in spite of the fact that he had been handed more than 60 days of suspensions from stewards at Calder Race Course and had been barred from Calder and all other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. from November to January of 2008-2009, the very period in which Eclipse Award voting takes place. And to borrow from another human category, who could forget Michael Gill being named Outstanding Owner of 2005, the same year he announced that he was "getting out of racing" after being denied stalls in numerous states and even being banned from entering horses at one location? Those are only recent examples. One could go on.
As an Eclipse Award voter through the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, this party admittedly used those recent patterns to justify a selection of Pletcher for leading trainer -- an honor he statistically deserves. Not only did he saddle his long-awaited Kentucky Derby winner in 2010, but he holds a clear-cut place in earnings atop the North American standings. He had 274 wins from 1,082 starters with purses of $23.1 million, a 25% win rate, and a 56% in-the-money finish compared to runner-up Steve Asmussen's $16.3 million in earnings and lower percentages (although Asmussen won 506 races, he had to send out 2,412 runners to do so). To put it bluntly, under the current voting philosophy, he was the default selection.
For various reasons, this sport's human leaders should be held to even higher standards than top figures in other arenas.
This is because trainer and jockey honors are awarded with an extremely high regard for purse earnings, win percentages, and victories per number of starts. It's not always the case -- in 2006, Garrett Gomez led the nation with earnings of $20.1 million and 260 wins but lost to Edgar Prado, who had ridden Barbaro to victory in the Kentucky Derby and finished the season second with earnings of $19.7 million and 248 wins -- yet it is extremely difficult to justify voting for an individual who simply did not turn in big numbers when others did (example: Shirreffs, who, in spite of everything he did with Zenyatta, won only 14 total races in 2010).
It is prevailing opinion that to top the financial leader board and win key stakes races is to have the greatest, most award-worthy impact upon the sport. It's almost as if human categories should simply be renamed -- "Top Trainer/Jockey by Earnings" or "Trainer/Jockey with Most Statistically Impressive Season" or "Owner with Most Winners for the Year." But is that really best for racing?
For various reasons, this sport's human leaders should be held to even higher standards than top figures in other arenas. First, the obvious -- equine athletes have no say over their own training and competition, therefore owners, trainers, and jockeys must practice not only personal accountability, but true responsibility for each and every horse they campaign. Second, gambling is the lifeblood of this game, and the principal players are theoretically required to provide bettors with a clean, honest wagering product. This is why integrity and transparency are almost more important in horse racing than in any other sport, and those components should be given equal weight when the sport selects its' honorees.
In the future, this reporter's voting philosophies will change to embrace such higher standards. I urge my fellow voters to consider the same. Imagine what a statement could be made if potential finalists for all human Eclipse Awards were required to have a completely clean record in order to make it onto the ballot for the season under consideration.
If so, the message we're sending about racing and its key players is a sad one indeed.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.