Talkin' Horses - Live Discussions

T.D. Thornton Turf Writer

Thursday June 28, 2007 at 12 p.m. (ET)

T.D. Thornton is the author of the newly published and highly acclaimed “Not by a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track”. A personal, literary portrait of a year at Suffolk Downs, the book focuses on the behind-the-scenes daily doings of minimum-wage stablehands, jockeys who battle to make riding weight, and the hard-luck horses with immeasurable tenacity who all function in unheralded fashion.

A New York Times reviewer wrote of “Not By a Long Shot” - “The grim pleasures of Mr. Thornton’s book lie in the details of the daily racetrack routine, and the oddities of life at the gritty East Boston oval…Mr. Thornton describes horse races with great flair, even when they involve no-hopers like Lonicut, a 10-year-old looking for his second lifetime win after 34 races. This is racing too. They can’t all make it to Churchill Downs in May.”

Thornton grew up in a New England racing family and has written for several newspapers, most notably the Boston Globe and the Racing Times. His work has appeared in an array of literary journals, and he often comments on racing on television and radio. He is the summer track announcer at Suffolk Downs, and lives outside of Boston.

Charlotte, NC:
I have been reading in the papers about slots revenue not helping a few states raise enough tax revenue. The articles are suggesting slot money is NOT the answer for race tracks. What do you think is the answer to help race tracks across the country in generating revenue and fan base?

Lexington, KY:
TD, thanks for a well written book on a year in the life of Suffolk Downs. 'Not by a Longshot' brought back a lot of memories as I used to live within walking distance of the track. Now, I've retired to "horse heaven" and enjoy racing at Keeneland (a model for how a racetrack should be run). Do you think the addition of slots will really help racing at Suffolk in the long term? Current evidence shows that while slots may boost purses and benefit horsemen, new racing fans are not created and, in fact, may decrease when slots are a major distraction at the track. P.S. Say hi to Howard "the Rocket" Lanci for me. A great character and fan favorite. - Dewey from Revere

Thornton:
These two questions are similar, so I’ll tackle ‘em both with one reply: Racinos can be PART of the game plan for a healthy future of Thoroughbred racing, but slot machines can’t be THE ONLY game plan. Although you hear about it all the time in theory, I have yet to see anyone execute well-balanced plan that incorporates VLT gaming as a complementary product alongside enhanced live Thoroughbred racing. The sport is going through an odd growth phase right now as expanded gaming is being worked into the mix, and there are clearly some racinos that are minimizing or marginalizing the very same product (live racing) that slots were meant to save. Obviously, this is not good.

As far as what could help the game instead, I would like to see some forward-thinking entity within the sport spearhead an effort to usher in a new paradigm for betting, because I think that pari-mutuels and their self-consumptive pricing structure have pretty much run their course after serving the industry well for some 80 years. Market-based betting (ie making playing the ponies more like trading stocks) and P2P exchange-wagering platforms are the wave of the future as far as I’m concerned, because both emphasize marketplace transparency and a higher degree of price control/odds options for the average bettor.

People say racing is dying. It isn’t. It’s changing. But those tracks that do not change will eventually die off.

Las Vegas, NV:
What is your opinion on the Hall of Fame voting and are you a voter? I truly feel it is pathetic and someone such as Randy Romero is a forgotten man for all his accomplishments and it seems like younger jockeys are all voted in and the older yet retired are forgotten.--Mark

Thornton:
I must admit that while I respect the Hall of Famers and pay a visit to the National Racing Museum every time I visit Saratoga, I have never been one to argue or write columns about who deserves to be in and how the voting process needs to be retooled. I realize there is a large segment of racing fans and journalists who are deeply passionate about this topic, but it just isn’t my bag and there are plenty of other turf writers to carry the torch on this. And no, I don’t get a vote.

Merrick, NY:
First off, what a wonderful book you have written! T.D.- As a graduate of a New England College in 1980, I was afforded the opportunity to watch both Gambardella and Baez ride. How do you think they would have done against the big boys in N.Y. if they had ridden there.

Thornton:
You hear this type of “big fish, small pond” argument all the time in horse racing. In New England, Carl Gambardella and Rudy Baez dominated from the 1970’s through the late 1990’s, but I think you also have to consider that both of these jockeys had a strong sense of place and deep family ties to New England, and that no amount of money was going to lure them away from home.

Gamby retired in 1994 and Rudy—whose tragedy is detailed in Not by a Long Shot—was paralyzed in a 1999 racing accident. But the guy who rarely gets mentioned with the top two from that era but who deserves to be is Michel Lapensee, who did have the backing of a strong outfit at Gulfstream Park for a season or two in the 1980’s, but who quietly chose to return home to Rhode Island because he felt it was the right thing to do for his family. In some ways, Michel faded off into a lesser limelight that other jockeys might not have chosen, plying his trade aboard cheap claimers in New England. But he was the oldest active rider on the circuit and a happy, likable person who was doing something he loved—riding a racehorse—when he died in an accident at Suffolk Downs in October of 2005. There’s a big difference between being a “leading jockey” and simply being a “leader,” and Lapensee was definitely a guy racetrackers looked up to and admired, even though his name was rarely at the top of the standings page.

Houston, TX:
Over history, sports like golf, tennis, NASCAR racing, bowling, and others have increased participation and interest through creative marketing techniques and increased unified sponsorship and television airtime. They played down elitist sentiments and built up a solid and popular multilateral fan base. What do you believe the NTRA and the thoroughbred racing industry- even the equine industry as a whole- can do to increase visibility and prominence with the American consumer, and some how return to the gloriful equine heydays of earlier times like the 70's and before? How can we allow and enlighten Americans to see the same promise in equestrian endeavors that the Europeans do, and how can we do this before the racing and equine industry has an untimely demise?

Lexington, KY:
What do you think second-tier tracks can do to attract new people to the sport/game? Many tracks don't have the luxury of hosting a Triple Crown event or the Breeders' Cup. And many don't have a popular graded stakes horse like Lava Man that can draw people.

Thornton:
Please allow me to answer two similar queries with a single reply: There is a niche for the grass-roots smaller venues, and I think the minor-league tracks play an important role in growing new fans.

By way of example: The now-defunct Northampton Fair in Massachusetts, which ran only for a week or so each year, was a racing marketer’s dream—but it never really tried to be, nor did anyone ever take the opportunity to capitalize on the hordes of enthusiastic newcomers who attended. The county fair half-miler was a throwback to horse racing of yesteryear, with families and amateurs who lined the length of the grandstand with lawn chairs and coolers, everyone so close to the action that they could reach out and touch the horses or high-five the jockeys in the post parade. The mutuel tellers and program sellers were not the quickest, but they were exceedingly polite, and every customer got a genuine “Thank you!” whether they bet two dollars or two hundred. Most of the fans in attendance couldn’t tell the difference between Secretariat and a stick pony, but that wasn’t the point.

Yet it was unlikely that any of these laid-back novices would ever frequent the cavernous environs of a modern, urban betting factory. Why? It’s too intimidating. The intimacy is not the same. We’re a difficult sport to figure out, and there’s often a stigma that the game is stacked against the novice. Although some tracks try, there is really no comprehensive program in place on a nationwide level that addresses basic newbie questions like “How do I learn how to handicap?” or “What is some practical, sound advice about owning a racehorse?” A few years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for the Blood-Horse based on a study in which I anonymously emailed every track in the country and asked how a novice could learn about horse betting. Amazingly, over 50 percent of tracks could not be bothered to reply. Sadly, I don’t think the percentage would be all that different if you repeated the study today.

Broomall, PA:
Mr. Thornton, since Invasor has been retired, do you think there is an older horse with enough talent to take down this year’s crop of 3-yr olds in the Breeders Cup Classic? I personally think Curlin is now the frontrunner with Rags, Street Sense and Hard Spun being the main competition.

Thornton:
The Invasor/Corinthian matchup that was supposed to happen this weekend in the Suburban would have gone a long way to answer your question. Until Corinthian loses, he’s at the top of my list for East Coasters. I had a long losing skein of trying to bet against Lava Man at short prices, so I’ll concede him the crown out West going into this weekend’s Gold Cup, but I don’t think his connections will be keen on shipping him to Monmouth for the championships. As a betting man, if you gave me even money right now on whether the BC Classic would be won by a 3YO or an older horse, I’d take the 3YO side of that wager. An already intriguing cast of characters in that division will be fresh and more mature by October.

Palm Harbor, FL:
As a member of this Thoroughbred industry, it was great to have an insider expose the realities of the SPORT OF KINGS. Very well written and true. Needs a movie?

Thornton:
Before Long Shot was released in April, I was contacted by two Hollywood agencies inquiring about the film rights. They had heard about the book based on advance reviews, and were looking to make a pre-emptive strike before the title was released. I’m holding on to the film rights for the time being; I think the stock is going to rise on this particular project and I’m willing to wait it out.

A humorous sidebar: These Hollywood inquiries have generated a raucous debate in the Suffolk Downs press box over which actors would best play which local racetrack degenerates. Nick Nolte as legendary press box wiseguy Jim Bishop gets a lot of votes.

Concord, NH:
As someone with an affinity for gutsy older geldings, I was moved by the story of Saratoga Ridge. Do you know what horse holds the record for finishing second the most --is it Shannon's Hope?-- and who is your favorite horse running today? Thanks for a terrific read and please don't ever lose your "sarcastic flair"! -Wendy & Rasor

Thornton:
Wendy has me stumped on the record for finishing second, but I recognize her partner “Rasor” as the eleven-year-old gelding she adopted from Suffolk Downs after his racing days came to a close last season. He is now living out his days as a pleasure pony in central New Hampshire, where I trust he is strutting around like a king and living the good life amidst lots of attention and apples.

Boston, MA:
A month ago at the book store I was excited to discover a book written about my home track of Suffolk Downs, but was disappointed to find that it was written about a season that took place 7 years ago. Why the wait?

Thornton:
Long Shot began as a personal journal during the 2000 racing season, and it was not until about midway through the year that the storylines began to converge enough to realize that I had a fascinating book in the making. I then spent the next six years culling and shaping a 700-page beast of a manuscript into a workable book of half that size.

And yes, truth be told, there was this little matter of convincing some publisher to take on the project, and I have a big, fat file full of rejection letters to prove that Long Shot itself was a long-shot endeavor. I plugged away without a literary agent, which is not the recommended route into the book business. I got a lot of similar replies from major publishers who all seemed to agree that my manuscript was a nice piece of racing literature, but the bottom line (as always in our society) came down to whether they thought they could money with it, and those publishers didn’t view the topic of horse racing as a huge cash cow waiting to be milked.

PublicAffairs out of New York took a gamble on Long Shot, and I have to admit that judging by some talks I’ve had with other first-time authors at other publishing houses, they treated me exceptionally well. I retained a generous amount of editorial control over the finished product, and even had a hand in a lot of behind-the-scenes publishing decisions such as the book jacket design and the marketing plan for its launch.

If you are an aspiring writer, the bottom line is this: If you believe in your craft, don’t let all the “No’s” discourage you. It only takes one person to say yes to bring your hard work into the light of day.

Louisville, KY:
Mr. Thornton, First, I haven't read your book because I wasn't aware of it - but it sounds fascinating and I plan to pick up a copy as soon as I get a chance. My questions are: How did you get your start in equine journalism? What is your academic background, and what advice can you offer a journalist who wants to write about horses?

Thornton:
My twin passions were always horse racing and writing. By the time I went to study journalism at the University of New Hampshire (while cutting many classes to educate myself at Rockingham Park), I figured out that if I could ever con some employer into letting me write about horse races, I would be in Heaven. I wrote as a general assignment reporter for a few New England newspapers, and even though I had to be in the newsroom by five a.m. and out covering school board and town meetings at night, that left me plenty of time to try out life as a full-time racetrack degenerate during my afternoons. My big break came when Steve Crist hired me for the upstart Racing Times in 1991, and it really was an exciting time in racing journalism, because we were the edgy, hip, aggressive new paper that gave a voice to the little guy in the game.

The key to getting your foot in the door in the racing industry is to be persistent without being a royal pain (that's a great skill for life in general, but especially so at the racetrack). If you go to write for a newspaper as a general assignment reporter, ask if you can also submit a weekly racing round-up in addition to your other duties. You could also volunteer with the PR department at your local track. You will have to work a lot of volunteer/low pay/no pay gigs to get on someone's radar screen, but hopefully, your enthusiasm for this type of work will establish you as someone who doesn't mind paying dues for the privilege of landing a position in a press box.

Getting involved in racing media right now is a tricky time with several advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, press boxes around the country are emptying at record rates as newspapers consolidate and cut their staffs. As a result, smaller tracks have been forced to cut their media relations positions, and even entry-level jobs are hard to come by. But on the upside, this is a time when more electronic media opportunities than ever are available to anyone who wants to pursue them on their own. By this, I mean it is relatively easier for an aspiring racing journalist to get noticed (you could start your own betting blog, do your own unique video/audio Internet reporting on racing, etc...) than it was 17 years ago for me when I graduated from college (ie, I had to pass through far more "gatekeepers" in the traditional media to get my ideas published).

It might interest you to know that when I was 21, I once wrote a letter to a guy whose horse racing books really made an impact on my formative years as a press box wannabe. That guy was Andy Beyer, and to this day, I still have the (manually typewritten!) reply Andy sent me. The most important advice he gave me still rings true today: "No matter what kind of credentials you compile, you still have to be very lucky—being in the right place at the right time."

Newport, RI:
Great book ("Not By a Long Shot"). Please explain to how "expanded gaming" is driving down handle and will ruin horse racing in the long term.

Thornton:
It seems that you are a pariah around the racetrack to say this these days, but I really question whether the concept of full-blown slot machines at racetracks is going to be a wise move for the sport in the long run. I believe that when historians look back at the era of our game circa 2000-2015, they will deduce that it was silly that such a unique, captivating, and vibrant pastime as horse racing didn’t fully believe that it could stand on its own four feet without the assistance of something so mechanical and empty as video lottery terminal gaming. Yes, I understand the raw economics of racinos, and yes, I will hold my nose and walk through the slots parlor on my way out to the apron to watch the races if I know that (some) horse people are benefiting from the increased purse revenue that slot machines generate. But at the same time, it makes me very uneasy to see how Thoroughbred racing has essentially embarked down a path on which the lust for easy money blinds out everything else: When I read accounts about how horseplayers at Philadelphia Park feel they’re being treated as second-class citizens because they are inconveniencing the slots players, or see how a beautiful, historic track such as Gulfstream Park has been razed and replaced by a glitzy VLT venue that also happens to house some horses, I really can’t fathom how this is “improving” the game. Sure, the immediate money is better, but at what overall, long-term cost? I would feel much more comfortable knowing there was an over-arching “Plan B” in the pipeline, one that focuses on deregulation of the industry while simultaneously embracing new forms of market-based and “P2P” exchange wagering.

Fitchburg, MA:
Hello, T.D.! Why do you think New England racing fans are so slow to embrace Pick-3 & Pick-4 wagers? With short fields, these type of wagers can help create value not available betting such races vertically!

Thornton:
This is a valid point. The pools are often so thin for Pick Threes and Fours that you will see a fair amount of “2-of-3’s” and “3-of-4’s” being paid and in some instances the numbers are way out of whack with projected parlays. I think a lot of this has to do with New England being one of the first regions in the nation to really go whole-hog on the whole “expanded exotics” thing when exactas/trifectas first became all the rage in the 1970’s, and it’s an inherent, entrenched trend for many old-school horseplayers around here simply to play the races in this fashion. We’re all creatures of habit, but if hunting for value in multi-race exotics is your thing, you can often poach an entire pool in New England with just one savvy long shot on your ticket.

Northampton, MA:
I really enjoyed your book. That was the first year I had become a full-fledged racing fan and I remember with great fondness many of the races and situations you discussed. I found it all very interesting, but I could see where the track wouldn't want one of their employees airing out some of the dirty laundry, so to speak.  Did the management of Suffolk Downs object to any of the "behind the scenes" details you wrote about?

Thornton:
You raise an interesting point. Not by a Long Shot deals with a number of “taboo” topics—Thoroughbred welfare, race fixing, insider politics, and the overall integrity of the sport—that are, at best, disquieting issues for both Suffolk Downs and the industry in general. When I was writing the book, there was never a question in my mind about whether I had to shed some light on these touchy topics, but I did have to think long and hard about how I would explore them in a manner that was tactful yet still caustically honest. Eventually, it came down to my loyalty and respect for the game trumping the personal loyalties I had with some of the characters in the book, because I firmly believe that the more open and transparent racing writers are, the better off the entire sport will be in the long run. Yes, I’ve taken some flak from certain individuals portrayed in Long Shot, but their discomfort largely seems to stem from them being uncomfortable with the truth. I chalk this up to horse racing in general being a thin-skinned beast unaccustomed to probing questions, and these insiders are a product of that environment.

As far as management at Suffolk Downs is concerned, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the level of support and enthusiasm that track officials have shown me considering that their permission was neither sought nor granted for the publication of Long Shot. I got a call very early on from Joe Fatalo, the general manager, and when I saw his number on my caller ID, I said to my wife, “It looks like I’m about to get the summer off.” But instead Joe was calling to congratulate me rather than relieve me of my announcing gig, and he said he hoped that the book would serve as a wakeup call for everyone at Suffolk Downs to move forward and recognize that things needed to change. In one of those stunning ironies that can only take place in the world of horse racing, on the very same day that Long Shot was published (April 2), Richard Fields (of Excelsior Racing Associates) bought the controlling interest in Suffolk Downs, and the track changed ownership for the first time in 15 years. So far this season, I must admit there is a welcome bit of fresh air being breathed into the East Boston oval, which many skeptics had left for dead. The Massachusetts Handicap is back on the calendar for September 22, and there seems to be a genuine effort to upgrade the facility and place an emphasis elevating the quality of day-to-day racing. The publicity department recently ordered several dozen copies of Long Shot to get into the hands of the new investing team, and if my book can help bring about some change by shining a spotlight on previously closeted issues that no one wanted to address, then I’m all for it.

Portland, OR:
Hi, T.D. Do you have a feeling for what percentage of horses on our smaller tracks have wound up in slaughter houses; and more importantly how we can impact the lives of these "champions" after they are done or worn out from racing? Thanks, Jim

Thornton:
When we discuss the issue of animal welfare as it pertains to Thoroughbred racing, I would respectfully submit that the emotionally charged concept of slaughter gets a disproportionate chunk of the attention, while the core problem has much more to do with the industry’s business ethics and the everyday grind that takes its toll on horses. By this I mean that while the very word “slaughter” connotes a willful, graphic destruction of equine life, far greater harm is occurring every time some down-on-his-luck trainer knowingly (or ignorantly) enters the same unsound steed week after week after week just because he needs the fifty bucks (or whatever) to run fifth or sixth. Racetracks themselves are complicit in this cyclical degradation, because there is an immense pressure to churn out a betting product brought on by the burdensome glut of year-round racing. When you send horses out to race who clearly can’t or don’t have what it takes to compete safely, you not only imperil that one animal, but also other Thoroughbreds in the race and the (often desperate) jockeys who ride them. How many times have you read a story about a horrific racing accident and wondered if the root cause was the soundness of the horse in the first place? This problem could be alleviated to some degree by raising the bar for what it takes to get a trainer’s license, and focusing on quality rather than quantity when it comes to the allocation of racing dates. But these are uncomfortable topics within the world of horse racing, because both mean the loss of jobs, and I don’t think the industry is yet ready to embrace the concept that less just might be more.

From a historical perspective, you have to give credit where it is due, and I must say that the Thoroughbred industry has done more in the last 15 years to raise awareness for racehorse welfare than it did in the previous 50. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Old Friends organization are just two of many “second career” placement groups that do excellent work, and even largely unseen practices like having an on-call veterinarian available to comment intelligently and frankly on injuries during major race broadcasts helps to show TV viewers that, yes, there is a coherent plan of action in place for when injuries occur. And of course, even the tragic tale of Barbaro has brought about positive, immediate changes to the industry, such as the growing number of tracks that are installing safer synthetic surfaces and upgrading their on-track emergency veterinary services.

Oceanport, NJ:
T.D. I remember when you were booted from the Rockingham press box. Can you talk about that experience?

Thornton:
As a 23-year-old racing writer, that was my 15 minutes of fame, so to speak. In 1991, I had written a series of hard-hitting articles for the upstart new Racing Times, which encouraged its reporters to be aggressive. Management at Rockingham took exception to several of the stories, particularly one which detailed the narcotics bust of the track president’s son who was arrested for operating a drive-up cocaine service as Rock’s director of valet parking. I was told to clear out my belongings from the track’s press box immediately (the sordid details are recounted in Long Shot), but my boss, Steve Crist, refused to allow one of his reporters to be bullied by the old-boy network that thought it could stifle legitimate news. Steve told me to stand firm and keep doing my job, and the incident blew up and was reported around the country as a “freedom of the press” issue. I ended up working out of the clubhouse as a paying customer for the rest of the race meet. Steve’s strong reaction and support taught me a great lesson very early on as a writer, and I think it also sent a message all around the industry that horse racing journalism was about to undergo a substantial shift in the way news was reported.

Simpsonville, KY:
Being in Boston, I assume you were happy when Mom's Command was voted in to the Hall of Fame. Did you see her run?

Thornton:
I can recall being in high school in 1984 and being at Rockingham the day Mom broke her maiden—at something like 44-to-1 in a stakes race. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of what I had seen, and she really was a big deal in the Boston media back then.

I later had the privilege of working on the Suffolk Downs broadcast team with Abby Fuller (Mom’s Command’s jockey) and I got to meet her dad, Peter Fuller, as well. They are by far the classiest racing family I’ve ever met, and the game has been better off because of their involvement.

Before Mom’s Command, many people might also remember Mr. Fuller as the owner of the only horse ever DQ’d from a Kentucky Derby win (Dancer’s Image in 1968 in an extremely controversial decision over an alleged Bute overdose). I live about 20 miles from their family farm on the seacoast (which is where “Mom” was recently euthanized), and it’s kind of neat to be driving along these back country roads in New Hampshire and all of as sudden you come upon this huge, regal paddock with a big sign proclaiming the property as home to a Kentucky Derby winner. Certainly something that is an unexpected sight in my neck of the woods!

Midland, TX:
Who is the most colorful character you have met at the racetrack? Who is the best horse you saw run at Suffolk?

Thornton:
Every time I think I’ve seen the most colorful character ever, someone else pops out of the grandstand at Suffolk Downs and amazes me, so that award is a work in progress.

In terms of most electrifying horse, Cigar, no question. One of the greatest privileges of working behind the scenes at Suffolk was that every year, after the MassCap, management, the winning connections, and some members of the press would all go out for a big celebratory dinner. Around midnight, when everything had quieted down, a couple of us from the press box would go back to the stakes barn to check in on the MassCap champ, and I recall standing in the dead quiet of a summer night under the shed row in East Boston, feeding Cigar a handful of hay while he acted like a gentle pleasure pony.

In terms of the day-to-day workmanlike type of horse who grabs your attention and never lets go, I recall two: One of ‘em was Playing Politics, who started (I believe) over 200 times and once won a race at age 16 at Suffolk Downs. When he retired in 1998, we gave him a huge send-off, complete with a big media celebration and a basket of his favorite food—oranges. The other was Saratoga Ridge, a gritty gray who seemed to enjoy running second rather than first. The Ridge gets a lot of well-deserved ink in Not by a Long Shot.

North Andover MA:
When one speaks of 'The King' in NASCAR circles it's a given they're referring to Richard Petty. When one speaks of 'The King' in New England horse racing circles it's a given they're talking about Carlos Figueroa[The King Of The Fairs]. Can you share a story with us about one the most colorful figures in New England racing history?

Thornton:
In 1963, Carlos purchased a no-hope horse named Shannons Hope for $70 because he knew the animal would otherwise meet an untimely demise (or so the story goes). Perhaps thankful, Shannon went right out and won five races over the span of six racing dates on the old county fairs bullring circuit in Massachusetts. Midway through the amazing winning streak, the state animal welfare agency got word of Shannons Hope, and sent a representative out to check on the well-being of the horse. The horse was sound, The King insisted, and to further augment his argument, he pointed out that he had history on his side: Paul Revere, the Revolutionary War patriot, once rode a horse across the entire state with 200 pounds on his back to warn everyone that the British were coming, and the country made a hero out of him. Figueroa, of course, insisted that horse racing should likewise make a hero out of him because The King only sent Shannons Hope around an even dirt strip with a light jockey on his back.

Peabody, MA:
When I went to the MassCap when Cigar ran there was a MassCap monkey. He was not there when Offlee Wild won the race. Can you tell management to bring back the monkey?

Thornton:
If you ever see one of these Blood-Horse chats and wonder if acquaintances of the guest ever try to sneak through an inside joke or two, this is your proof right here. This is a strange-but-true press box tale from the days of yore at Suffolk, when we actually did hire an organ-grinding monkey to roam through the crowd and entertain the fans on big racing days. We used to have a rather nice (but somewhat batty) old lady who constantly called the track to ask—of all things—when the monkey was going to be back for a repeat performance. It was a riot, because we had just delivered the best horse in the world (Cigar) to the Boston fans two years in a row, and here was this woman, very insistent and earnest, about how the “MassCap Monkey” was the star of the show. Gotta give the people what they want, I guess.

Tottenham, England:
I have heard that Revere, Massachusetts - where Suffolk is located - has the first public beach in the United States. Could you recommend a motel for my visit to the MassCap that is on the beach? I figured a good way to experience some American history on my trip.

Thornton:
Revere Beach was indeed the first oceanfront common land dedicated specifically for public use in 1896. In the 1930’s, when Suffolk Downs first opened, trainers used to walk racehorses across the street and over the sand dunes to bathe the animals and even take them swimming. In its heyday, Revere Beach was known for its huge amusement park, but by the 1970’s, the area began to decline, and the roller coasters and carousels were razed to make way for a rather bland, unattractive condominium complex. I doubt if there is even a single motel left on that stretch of beach, so I think you’re out of luck.

Old Danvers, MA:
Who taught you more about calling races, Jim Hannon or Larry Collmus?

Thornton:
Larry Collmus taught me everything I know about calling horse races in our first season at Suffolk together in 1992, and I don’t just mean the mechanics of the job. When you work with Larry, you also get a pretty hefty dose of what it means to be a true broadcasting professional from someone who has a deep respect and love for horse racing. The great thing about LC is that he is just as excited and enthused to jump on a plane and head for France to take in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe as he is to round up the troops in the Suffolk Downs press box for a road trip 150 miles into the backwoods of Maine to see some really tiny county fair harness racing. In fact, I think he likes the minor-league excursions even better, and he always drives us back and forth safely while the rest of us get to be the designated drinkers.

I never did get to study per se under Mr. Hannon, but “Big Jim” (as he prefers to be called) was the longtime voice of New England racing from the 1950’s until 1994. A true showman, he still visits the Suffolk Downs press box every day, and he is a great source of racetrack wisdom, not to mention a supreme source of raucous tales from the good ol’ days. Big Jim kind of got a raw deal at the end of his long career: He said something he shouldn’t have over an open mike one afternoon at Rockingham Park (you’ll have to read Long Shot to learn exactly what) and was rather unceremoniously dumped from his job. He’s a pretty  humble guy though, and he once imparted to me perhaps the best racetrack advice I’ve ever heard: “Treat everyone with respect, because you meet the same people on your way down the ladder of success in this game who you once passed on the way up.”

Hialeah, FL:
I think Rocking Rolly Hoyt at Gulfstream is one of the best paddock presenters in the game. Didn't he work with you at Suffolk and what is he like? How does he stay so thin, he must eat very healthy?

Thornton:
Rolly (AKA thinnest man on the planet despite consuming copious quantities of fried food) was indeed a student intern, and later an integral employee, on the Suffolk Downs PR staff during the 1990’s. Now you see him handicapping the races at Gulfstream, and he also works as the ace researcher for the ESPN and ABC broadcasts of races. Any time you hear one of the talent team coming up with an offbeat or obscure statistic on TV, that’s Rolly working his research wizardry behind the scenes. We had a great run of college students who interned in the press box in Boston, and it’s a testament to the fact that if you want to work in this industry, you are better off cutting your teeth at a smaller track where you will get the opportunity to take on many different projects. We hired a slew of press box interns at Suffolk who have gone on the bigger and better things, including one who is now a bloodstock manager for Centennial Farms, another who is a consultant for various international wagering companies, and several who have started their own media-related businesses outside of the industry.

Toledo, OH:
In your estimation, what percentage of trainers pay attention to each horse's individual needs and alter the training method accordingly? What percentage apply basically the same method to every horse?

Thornton:
I could never hang an accurate number on this percentage, but it is enough to bother me when I see certain trainers’ names in the entries. If it was just a matter of knowing that cookie-cutter conditioning methods don’t win races, I could ignore them for betting purposes, but I do question whether certain trainers are acting in a manner that is in the best long-haul interests of their animals. There was a question elsewhere in this chat about the bar needing to be raised in terms of what it takes to earn a trainer’s license, but I unfortunately don’t see this issue being addressed by the industry in the near future.

Armidale, Australia:
G'Day T.D, Just wondering what is the one thing that keeps you frequenting Suffolk Downs and the New York/ New England tracks, rather than the bluegrass or west coast? Thanks for your time.

Thornton:
When I first started out at the racetrack, my grand plan was to move on to bigger and “better” circuits as fast as I could. But then I began to meet and talk to other people in similar media positions in New York and California, and you know what? I found they had the same work-related gripes I had back home in New England, their pay wasn’t all that much better, and the cost of living was far higher in the big cities. I eventually decided that I didn’t have it all that bad. When I moved on to do technology consulting for a British racing company and began to pick up more and more freelance writing, I learned I could work from home and still get to travel to some really neat places, so I had the best of both worlds. And here in New England, I have to admit I’m a sucker for the natural, four-season beauty: I can drive a couple of hours north for some excellent skiing, and walk two furlongs from my front door and be out sea kayaking in Plum Island Sound, one of the largest open-water wildlife preserves in the region. So I think I’ll stay put.

Richmond,VA:
In light of this year's passing of the great Barbaro, do you think it's fitting that Barbaro's final resting place is still unnamed? That is, whether or not the Jacksons will ever disclose the location of a columbarium or suitable site for his remains, don't you think the great horses of the world, the Barbaros, deserve a final resting place where fans who were loyal to his every movement can come and pay respects? Isn't this the least we owe our beloved Barbaro?

Thornton:
This is an interesting point. Essentially your question boils down to whether the needs and desires of the general public outweigh the private wishes of Barbaro’s owners. Ordinarily, I think I would come down on the side of the fans in such a case. But this is a unique scenario, because (in my opinion) the Jacksons have already been extremely forthcoming, open and generous with their time and with Barbaro, affording the general public way more of an intimate, inside connection with their horse than other owners would under extremely stressful conditions. How about this compromise: Allow Barbaro’s final resting place to remain private, but let’s erect some sort of memorial in a public location to celebrate Barbaro’s life in a fashion that does not dwell on his death.

Marcos Island, FL:
Many writers who have received prizes for stories about horse racing, but few have captured the life of it as you have. The cult film "Let it Ride" in pictures come to mind as being really at the race track, even if that was only a fantasy comedy. My question is, what is the future of horse racing as you see it? Will it survive and prevail? Or will it resemble a circus like curio surrounded by slot machines?

Thornton:
Horse racing will soldier on, and over time, it will thrive. But if some people’s idea of “thriving” is to simply turn the clock back to the 1940’s when tens of thousands of people packed racetracks on a daily basis and everyone was fat and happy, they should seriously consider coming to grips with that notion being an unrealistic fantasy. That idea is not grounded in reality, and it isn’t going to happen.

Let’s examine your question from a historical perspective: Throughout time in this sport, great, sweeping change has almost always been preceded by periods of great strife. At the turn of the 20th Century, horse racing saw hundreds of tracks close nationwide because of the temperance movement against gambling. Thirty years later, when the nation was rocked by the Great Depression, the “sin” of gambling on horses became legalized, and pari-mutuels exploded on the scene as a way for states to raise revenue. Look ahead another half-century, and you’ll see how OTB’s (first thought of as a cannibalistic threat to live racing) eventually morphed into the simulcasting that now pumps about 85 percent of the lifeblood through the sport’s betting windows.

So now, here we are in the early 21st Century, and the big issue is expanded gaming. Some tracks (eventually) will get the mix of live racing and gaming right, others won’t, a few will be devoured by the big corporations, and a few other independent entities will go their own way, hopefully in a contrarian fashion that spurs new, not-yet-imagined ways for the sport to evolve in a beneficial fashion.

I have to admit, that even though there’s nothing like the electricity of a packed grandstand and I love a day at the races with all the at-the-track action, I am also a huge fan of the convenience of at-home wagering—I can get all sorts of statistical betting info online; I can watch racing from around the world from the comfort of my own couch, and I can bet via phone or the Internet. None of these innovations were remotely possible just a short while ago, and I think there are lots of people out there just like me who are a new breed of fans who want it both ways: A rich, enhanced, convenient off-track experience that also serves to entice people to visit their local tracks by whetting their appetites for the real deal. Once this blend becomes seamless and fluid—it’s not quite there yet, but it’s on its way—we will see the sport start to make significant progress towards measurable growth.

Newark, Delaware:
Can you comment on your racing family? And do you own any horses?

Thornton:
My dad, Paul Thornton, began training one or two horses in 1968 as a hobby (in addition to his work as a schoolteacher and an NCAA basketball referee). From a young age, I followed him around the track (we grew up in Salem, NH, near Rockingham), and one of my first vivid memories as a child was watching him saddle horses in the paddock before the race from the grandstand (kids weren't allowed in the saddling ring), and I just knew that someday I HAD to be on the other side of that fence, too, where all the action was. He took early retirement from teaching in 1997, and expanded his operation to about a dozen horses on the New England/Tampa circuit, earning a reputation as a guy who could claim a horse for short money, then run him up the class ladder. In 1999, he trained a $6,250 claimer into a stakes winner, and that horse tied for the most wins in North America (Ben's Quixote). My old man was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and had to liquidate his entire stable. He went through surgery, chemo, the whole deal, and the one, focused thing that held it all together for him was his strong desire to get back and work hands-on with horses again. That was his motivation to get better. He's a survivor, and has been cancer-free for the past five years now, and last year his stable earned the highest win percentage at Suffolk Downs. He now has about 20 horses in Boston.

I don't own any horses myself. Never have, because I just live vicariously through my old man's stable. I get all the enjoyment when the horses win but none of the costs and headaches when the breaks are going bad.

Paducah, KY:
Loved the behind the scenes bits about race fixing. Any plans for a book tour?

Thornton:
Thanks. I often say racing is like Ivory Soap: It's 99 and 44/100 percent pure. But if that 56/100 touch of larceny didn't exist, the game wouldn't be any fun.

Next stop on the Long Shot book tour is Saratoga: I'm at the Barnes & Noble the eve of opening day (Tuesday 7/24) and I'll be at the National Racing Museum across the street from the track on the first three mornings of the race meet (7/25,26 & 27). Stop by, because by the third day at Saratoga, I'll have blown through my bankroll and will be looking for a loan.

Lexington KY:
I am from New England also. With Rockingham running harness and Suffolk fighting to stay afloat, do you think horse racing will survive in New England?

Thornton:
The lack of a circuit has hurt the region. New England used to have up to nine seasonal tracks--in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and numerous leaky-roof county fairs--and Suffolk Downs is the last man standing. It is refreshing to see the track's new majority owner putting equal emphasis on live racing and the pursuit of gaming legislation, because I don't think slot machines--at Suffolk or any other track for that matter---are the magic bullet for the sport that they were first perceived to be.

Eugene, OR:
Mr. Thornton, should the decline of racing be blamed partly on the excess of racing dates nationwide? The proliferation of cheap races and the need to run too many unsound, left-over horses? Is racing shooting itself in the foot? Is it time to prioritize integrity, transparency and horse welfare to make horse racing special and popular?

Thornton:
Yes, to a large extent, racing is just now paying for the sins of its excess in the 1960's and 1970's, when year-round racing became the norm. There has been a watering-down of quality in favor of quantity. From a fans' perspective, there is little social immediacy to attend the races these days if essentially the same show grinds on at one location for eight, nine, or twelve months a year. I don't think there are too many people who disagree on this point in theory, but good luck trying to sell the "less is more" theory to anyone who works hands-on with horses on the backstretch. To these folks, it's not a "for the good of the game" issue. It's the difference between being out of work, or having to uproot your family to find work. 

LAST UPDATED: 1:14 P.M. (ET)

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