Every now and then, the black-sheep uncle slips through the back door bearing gifts, even though it's not a holiday.
Sometimes, that gift is a stunning and welcome surprise though not appreciated by everyone.
A spate of breakdowns last winter at Aqueduct moved the governor of New York to order an inquiry. Undoubtedly he was anticipating a scandal that would have made his cynical governmental seizure of the New York Racing Association appear at least a bit more acceptable within the context of the great American capitalist republic. NYRA's number has been flashing for months but in the end while all involved expected a burning at the stake, it was determined that there was no egregious foul. In fact, the claim flirted with frivolous.
The task force did not find a single factor to account for the injuries, but rather a perfect storm of superimposed layers of factors.
”-- Dr. Scott Palmer
Ultimately, though probably to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's chagrin, release of the commissioned report long delayed -- presumably for its lack of malfeasance or indictable crime on the bloodied hands of NYRA -- was in fact even-handed, logical and forward looking.
There was no lack of human stupidity involved as a crush of "racino" money landed in the NYRA purse account at the end of 2011, which was initially administered by people who treated a windfall of new wealth like a lottery winner in a trailer park. There was most certainly an element of greed-motivated misjudgment on the part of some owners and trainers who sensed an opportunity to turn red ink to black.
But, to the dismay of the New York Times, a tireless crusader against almost everything related to racing, and many politicians, the report stipulated that in 7,106 post-race samples tested from horses competing last winter during the period of increased breakdowns, there was not a single positive for an illegal or prohibited medication, and just five positives for overages of legal therapeutic drugs. The principle failure -- human misjudgment among owners and trainers of the lowest level of claiming horses with ample opportunity to compete for unrealistic purses and compliant racing officials. The imbalance of purpose was remedied at the end of last winter, when sanity reasserted itself, the two lowest claiming levels were eliminated and purse restrictions were imposed upon all claiming races.
"The task force did not find a single factor to account for the injuries, but rather a perfect storm of superimposed layers of factors," said Dr. Scott Palmer, the chairman of the panel that conducted the probe and a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
The circling vultures were undoubtedly left unsatisfied by the absence of a smoking gun in dirty hands. There reason for optimism in the report's aftermath. Vultures hate optimism.
Positive change is in the wind. Dozens of recommendations were made by the panel ranging from lengthening the withdrawal times for some corticosteroids and other medications including clenbuterol to changes in the balance of authority between the racing office and association veterinarians and record-keeping practices. The report stressed, however, that the panel's recommendations addressed problems not specific to New York. Ultimately, the inevitable and most-important result will be long-overdue medication reform, the structure of which was raised earlier this year by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which has been ahead of the curve on this issue for some time. The panel's recommendations have been widely embraced by horsemen if not the veterinary community.
Perfect storms are unmanageable by definition and NYRA, while not wanting for shortcoming, has never been accused of intentionally placing horses at mortal risk. Essentially, though they were cited prominently in the announcement of Cuomo's premature decision to seize control of the association for a period of three years, the panel held NYRA, at least institutionally, blameless for the rash of breakdowns last winter and exposes the governor as having either no clue or another agenda. A ludicrous trial balloon floated last week in the New York Post by Cuomo's official biographer that cited, not surprisingly, anonymous sources, claiming that the governor is considering sale of the franchise to a for-profit entity suggests the possibility of either or both. Good luck with that.
The black-sheep uncle's gift to racing in New York, though perhaps inadvertent, will likely be a retooling of medication regulations that will provide a reasonable model for state-by-state reform.
For that, misguided or not, the racing industry has Cuomo to thank.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.