Not On the Level

By Barry Irwin

Even though involved in an enterprise loaded with shaky fundamentals, racing folks are upbeat about the game, based in great part on the hope of improving its image with safer synthetic racing surfaces and the likelihood of reaching a greater audience on ESPN.

Like it or not, the viability of racing depends on gambling. Without sufficient handle, purses suffer and the equation that allows the game to exist no longer balances.

In order to maintain or grow betting handle, enough people have to be interested in gambling on racing.

Racing has lost some of its biggest gamblers because of a perception the game is not on the level. Hardcore gamblers are not interested in speculating on games of chance when the odds are rigged against them.

Furthermore, the remaining diehard gamblers have had to adjust their handicapping to include the likelihood that certain trainers take an edge.

Aside from losing big players and relying on jaded ones, the opportunities to capture new players are severely limited, when one considers that anybody introduced to the sport by the jaded players is apt to receive a tainted view of racing that is difficult for rational-thinking newcomers to embrace.

Hong Kong is the poster venue of prosperous racing. It is able to attract gamblers both big and small because it offers the prospect of a dead-honest contest. Officials in Hong Kong realize it is the sport itself that is king, not trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, or owners. If all of these participants were eliminated tomorrow, they would be replaced by others the next day. And bettors would respond positively, because they would know Hong Kong officials want to protect the integrity of the game.

In America, not one state racing jurisdiction or racing association or owners or horsemen's group is fully dedicated to firmly establishing the integrity of racing. Only lip service, to a greater or lesser degree, is practiced, because ensuring the integrity of racing is costly and not considered a priority, even though without it, survival of the sport is fragile. The message has been intellectualized but not internalized.

Our leaders must come to the realization that unless integrity is made the number one priority, the sport is doomed.

Those charged with the administration and regulation of racing must start by understanding that if they take steps to expose cheating and mete out harsh penalties to rid the game of its baser elements, the public will respond positively. Few insiders believe this for a millisecond.

For just one example of a short stroke that could be used to demonstrate that racing is serious about cheats, try this on for size:

Allow no vets or horsemen to possess any medication, legal or not. If vets want to prescribe drugs, they must buy them directly from the racing association and inform the state vet which horses will receive them and for what exact purpose. Anything found in a horse's system that did not come from the medicine chest of the track would result in harsh penalties for both the vet and the trainer.

Racetracks and racing regulators are utterly convinced that if trainers are banned, a loss of horses and business would result. This is preposterous. First of all, few if any trainers promoted the clients they have. Owners find trainers, not vice versa. For every trainer sent packing, literally hundreds are ready to take his or her place.

Racing right now is barely viable. In many places it cannot stand up on its own without help from slots. There is a real question about whether racing can or even should be allowed to survive.

So before we go out and try to promote the game, let's make it more viable and attractive.

Our sport is not ready for prime-time exposure because it is corrupt at its very core. The essence of racing is handicapping a race and betting on it. If one cannot present a level playing field, what is there to promote?

If you don't believe me, take a newcomer to the races, start teaching him how to read the Form, and listen to yourself when you start talking about having to cast aside everything you have ever been taught about handicapping because the four horse is making his first start for a new trainer that might have an edge.

(Barry Irwin is president of Team Valor)