The Gripes of Wrath

By Graeme Beaton
It may be one of the eternal truths that emerges on judgment day--that the cost of horse ownership is really a tax on stupidity.

This epiphany comes from someone who would be in the Hall of Fame if there were a category for horse-related losses as a percentage of income. However, as a hitchhiker in the galaxy of racing and an eternal optimist, I persevere in the hope that, when Jupiter aligns with Mars, there might be, to borrow another cliché, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But to get to that pot of gold, the scales of justice in racing have to be tipped more toward horse owners and breeders of small stature. Fields are shrinking because horse people become played out too quickly.

Without enough horses, the sport dies, with or without slot machines or off-track betting.

No one denies the sport has problems, but for years the situation has been evocative of Mark Twain's comment on the weather, that everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it.

Following is by no means a comprehensive list of gripes that have occurred to me as I have sat in grandstands in places like my native Australia, Hong Kong, England, Saratoga, Belmont Park, Laurel, and a host of other tracks too numerous to mention.

1. Who decreed that all Northern Hemisphere foals should have their birthdays on Jan. 1? How much money does it cost the industry and the health of the breed to cheat nature as we all try to ignore what the blessed mares tell us--that estrus is strongest in summer, not in the snows and short days of January? Could we not be sensible and change the date to be more appropriate? April 1 would seem more suitable for more reasons than one.

2. The registration process for breeders is costly, time consuming, and inefficient. And then we have to turn around and have the foals tattooed. Why not do them all at once? Record the birth, but have an expert at markings and identification, the tattooist, sign and file the registration papers, and save duplication, expense, and hassle?

3. How many injuries and other medications are masked by the routine administration of race-day Salix and bute? Is race-day medication damaging to the integrity of the breed and is it not responsible for erosion of confidence in our sport? Why are we making fundamental decisions regarding the future of our industry while shying away from the uncomfortable answers to these questions?

4. Why are cow farmers so smart and horse farmers and trainers so dumb? Go into a tack shop in cattle country or order a livestock catalogue and you will find hundreds of medications that cow farmers may buy and administer directly to their stock. But vets are required to administer similar medication to horses. Why is that?

5. Why do American owners have to fork out for ponies to lead their entries to the starting gate? I have not found these at other tracks around the globe. Are American horses unable to find the starting gate or American jockeys unable to control their mounts without a pony beside them? I have a theory about injuries occurring due to insufficient warm-ups like those afforded horses in foreign countries. Human athletes require extensive warm-ups for competition, why not American equine athletes?

6. Advertising on jockey trousers: Why can't a compromise be arrived at with the proceeds split between those who put on the show--the tracks, the owners, the trainers, the jockeys, and the grooms? I have yet to see an argument that convinces me that the jockeys should have 100% of this income.

7. Why can't we convince racing regulators to legislate a humane whip for uniform usage? As one singularly unconvinced that opening wounds on a horse's flank makes it run faster, I no longer find the revulsion of would-be fans surprising. It is an ugly part of our sport. Let's make it less so by protecting the animal.

8. Why are we so conservative when it comes to promotion? We shy away from the brash and daring like those ads that came with the launch of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. We lack courage when it comes to attracting a less traditional audience. Someone needs to tell us how to market to the MTV crowd, and quickly.

GRAEME BEATON, an international business journalist, runs a modest breeding farm in Pennsylvania.