By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) — With 20.8 million people watching, a man who dubbed his outfit “Dumbass Partners” went on national television and made himself look exactly like a dumbass partner.
And yet, maybe it was exactly what horse racing needs to get its head out of it’s own dumb ass.
You see, almost everything California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn said in his post-Belmont Stakes rant Saturday was wrong. In fact, on the list of things wrong with horse racing, eligibility to run in the Belmont is way down on the list. But horse racing is one of those niche sports that is enjoyed year round by very few, then explodes onto the scene anytime NBC runs promos during the Stanley Cup playoffs saying something important is happening.
The reality is there’s plenty bad happening in horse racing, too — you just don’t hear that much about it because most people don’t care and those that do are either named PETA or love the sport so much they are worried about what might happen to it if the full truth was out there.
The thing is, the dark side of horse racing has been detailed as recently as March, when the New York Times published a four-month undercover investigation by PETA that accused two of the sport’s top trainers of “subjecting their horses to cruel and injurious treatments, administering drugs to them for nontherapeutic purposes, and having one of their jockeys use an electrical device to shock horses into running faster.”
Some of the buzzwords and phrases from the investigation: undocumented workers, false identification documents, below minimum wage, workers sleeping in barns.
And those offenses don’t even involve the hurt, drugged horses.
At the center of the investigation is trainer Steve Asmussen, who ranks second in career victories, and his top assistant Steve Blasi, who has since been fired. PETA’s evidence is pretty damning, including what happened to Nehro, the runner-up at the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Nehro had to be put down at Churchill Downs on the same day of the 2013 Kentucky Derby after he developed colic from racing and training with holes in one of his hooves. The evidence indicates that at some point super glue was used to hold the hoof together.
“That is the most violent f—— death I have ever seen,” Blasi is quoted as saying on PETA’s undercover video.
An exercise rider adds: “We almost died just trying to get that motherf—– down.”
Ahmed Zayat, Nehro’s owner, is blamed by one rider, who said: “ (He) should have retired the horse a year ago.”
Blasi blamed Zayat too, using a certain four-letter word that starts with “C”.
But Zayat denied knowing anything about the treatment of his horses and immediately transferred the 12 horses he had in Asmussen’s care after PETA’s investigation was revealed.
Suddenly, Coburn’s rant on Belmont eligibility doesn’t seem like such a big deal, does it?
The reality is that horse racing badly needs reform. That may include the Triple Crown format, but it starts way above that.
First, the sport needs to be nationally regulated. There are 38 states that operate racetracks, and all 38 states have different rules. That includes drug rules, but it also includes the nonsense that required the New York Racing Association to give California Chrome special permission to wear a nasal strip during the Belmont.
There is at least one lawmaker trying to make progress on this issue. Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvannia introduced the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which would place the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in charge of drug testing horses nationwide. Of course, that was a year ago. The bill was assigned to a congressional committee on May 16, 2013 and is still sitting there waiting to see if it will be voted on by either the House or Senate.
What the sport really needs is a national horse racing league. Think PGA or NASCAR, with uniform rules and regulations and an easy points system that leads up to the Triple Crown and then to the Breeder’s Cup in the fall. The current system is a start, but it still has its issues, as evidenced by Coburn’s rant over the weekend that criticized a structure that allows a horse to race in the Belmont Stakes without participating in Derby or Preakness.
In general, the sport needs to make itself more accessible to potential fans. It needs to be easier to track horses and races so fans can follow along throughout the winter and not just be expected to read a past performances form — which might as well be in a foreign language to the average fan — on the day of the race.
How far behind is horse racing in relation to other sports? Non-NBC/NBCSN races aren’t even broadcast in high-definition. There are two horse racing channels (TVG and HRTV), and neither one is shown in HD. It’s 2014, people.
Through reform and regulation, Coburn could actually present his Triple Crown concerns in a non-threatening, reasonable matter that doesn’t paint him as a sore loser. He may actually have a valid point about horses eligible to run in the Belmont, but a three-horse field with California Chrome, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin — the only three horse to run all three legs of the Triple Crown — isn’t the solution. All horse racing fans know that when you dilute the field, you kill the odds, making it hard to win any money. Gambling will always be the lifeblood of horse racing, and hurting that aspect of the sport will do no good.
Of course, it’s the gambling and the money that leads to trainers super-gluing horses back together. Like most sports, there are always going to be cheaters, but there is a solution in horse racing with reform and national regulation.
“They’re a bunch of goddamn cheaters,” Coburn told Yahoo Sports on Saturday.
Ironically, by pointing and waving his finger at Belmont winner Tonalist on Saturday, Coburn was actually pointing at the opposite of a cheater. Coburn was upset that Tonalist didn’t race in either the Derby or the Preakness, but that was partially because the horse was scratched from the Wood Memorial due to a lung infection. The Wood was Tonalist’s last chance to earn enough points to qualify for the Derby, and instead of endangering the horse, trainer Christophe Clement allowed Tonalist to heal for more than a month and ran him in the Peter Pan, which he won, at Belmont the week in between the Derby and the Preakness. Always seen as potentially one of the year’s top three-year-olds, Tonalist was trained the right way and reached his potential in the Belmont, unfortunately at California Chrome’s expense.
But that’s horse racing. That’s what makes it so exciting and makes the Triple Crown so elusive. And that’s what made 20.8 million people tune in to watch Saturday.
A year ago I was in the infield at Churchill Downs watching Orb win the Kentucky Derby in person. While I was enjoying the pageantry and excitement of horse racing’s biggest day, little did I know that in a stable on the same grounds, Nehro was experiencing “the most violent f——— death I have ever seen,” as Blasi put it.
Those are the real cheaters. The sooner people like Coburn realize that, the better off horse racing will be.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.