San Diego Union Tribune

A bettor way?

What must handlers reveal about their horse's health before a race? Apparently, to the anger of the gambling public, not much. But would required full disclosure be ...

By Hank Wesch
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

April 27, 2005

At first glance, the controversy swirling around Sweet Catomine in the Santa Anita Derby appeared to be all about disclosure. It begged two questions.

How much, under California horse racing rules, were the connections of the celebrated filly obligated to make public regarding her physical condition in the week before the race? What rules did they break by not revealing things which were in their estimation minor such as pulmonary bleeding, a foot bruise and the 3-year-old filly showing signs of ovulating for the first time?

The answers to those questions: nothing and none.

When it comes to racing rules, disclosure is a lonely word.

"Very rarely is the word disclosure found in racing rules," said Jim Gallagher, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority and, before that, an official with the New York Racing Association. "The exception may be in the arena from where I'm speaking to you now."

A week ago yesterday, Gallagher was in the sales pavilion at the Keeneland select 2-year-old sale in Lexington, Ky.

When it comes to the selling of thoroughbreds, disclosure is the word. X-rays and veterinary reports are required to be made available and, as a matter of course, potential buyers have their own trainers and vets inspect animals before they enter the ring.

But once those horses are ready to race, the owners who purchased them have mainly their own conscience as a guide regarding how much information to let out, to their inner circle or the general public.

Sweet Catomine finished fifth as the even-money favorite in her first start against males in the Santa Anita Derby. When owner Marty Wygod revealed previously undisclosed health issues after the race, it triggered extensive media criticism, bettor outrage, a California Horse Racing Board investigation and charges, and even a class-action lawsuit.

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Is complete disclosure a necessity?

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, with much potential to mislead. And disclosure can be a double-edged sword with the capability of cutting anyone.

"People should realize race horses aren't like race cars. They have (physical) problems," Gallagher said.

Like human athletes, equine ones frequently compete, and win, when less than 100 percent. And deciding what is and isn't surmountable, is a subjective thing.

A rumor on the Churchill Downs backstretch during Kentucky Derby week of 1997 was that Silver Charm had bled in a workout. The lid that trainer Bob Baffert put on it came off only in the book Baffert wrote a couple of years later in the chapter chronicling Silver Charm's victory.

Two days before the 1990 Preakness, Kentucky Derby runner-up Summer Squall was observed bleeding from the nostrils while being grazed in the grassy area adjacent to the Pimlico stakes barn. Come race day, the little colt performed superbly and turned the tables on Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.

In such instances, disclosure would have meant many bettors going to other horses and coming away with the feeling they'd fallen prey to a disinformation campaign designed to boost the odds on the winner they failed to have.

And from an owner/trainer standpoint, there is a nightmare scenario: A horse with a disclosed minor problem is cleared by vets to race only to suffer a tragic breakdown. The fact that the two things were provably unrelated wouldn't dim the resultant outcry.

Wygod contended from the outset that he had done nothing wrong. Charges brought against him by the California Horse Racing Board, which included "making a material misrepresentation or false statement to the board or its agents" and "conduct detrimental to horse racing" were dismissed at the end of a three-hour hearing Saturday before the board of stewards at Hollywood Park.

Three-member boards of stewards are the first-level judges and juries of the racing industry. They rule on everything from grooms disturbing the peace in the stable area to, in this case, charges against a man who is a member of the Jockey Club, the board of directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and one of the most highly respected and powerful figures in California racing.

The hearing proved to be an embarrassment to the CHRB.

It showed that the charges against Wygod were brought after a hasty and inadequate investigation during which Wygod was never contacted. That there was no evidence connecting him to Sweet Catomine's removal from the Santa Anita stable area when she was identified as a "pony," the basis of the first charge.

The "conduct unbecoming" charge, for failure to be forthcoming about the filly's condition in two national forums before the race and revealing them only in the aftermath, wasn't pursued at the hearing. Prosecutors conceded they had little chance of making the case.

Upcoming hearings will involve trainer Julio Canani, who faces "conduct unbecoming" for alleged false statements regarding the filly's condition, and van driver Dean Kerkhoff, who transported Sweet Catomine from Santa Anita and has taken responsibility for the "pony" identification.

The affair has left bad feelings all the way around.

Wygod blasted the media for, he believed, stirring things up and the CHRB for bringing charges. He indicated it had driven him to contemplate getting out of the game.

CHRB Executive Director Ingrid Fermin responded on Sunday with a statement that said, in part:

"The California Horse Racing Board has a responsibility to pursue cases where there is probable cause that a violation occurred. We are committed to protecting the public interest and the integrity of horse racing . . . ... It is imperative that we treat all licensees equally."

Fermin further stated that she was "surprised, disappointed and, frankly, concerned" that Wygod was not personally interviewed. She said she intends to evaluate CHRB investigative procedures from start to finish.

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Jon Entine is an author and professor at Miami University in Ohio whose expertise includes ethics and sport.

Entine says he is not an expert in the "tradition and protocol" of horse racing, but he has commented on issues in the sport. His opinions on this issue echo those of many horse racing fans.

"Above and beyond the standard concept of fairness, the owner had an ethical responsibility," Entine said. "Should the owner have been more open about it? Probably, even though there is no direct legal requirement.

"It's hard to believe that it's not in everyone's best interest to be completely forthcoming in this case. What's most troubling is that these kinds of things go on all the time in horse racing. Pro football deals with it by having an injury report every week. There's no reason why horse racing shouldn't follow the lead of other sports.

"It goes to the integrity of the sport, the trust of the fans.

"This is ugly stuff. Frankly, the public should be outraged and the state regulators should be looking into it."

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The idea of a medical report for horse racing has been put forth several times since the Santa Anita Derby. Practicality is the problem.

NFL rosters consist of 53 players during the regular season and games are played once a week for 17 weeks. At any given time there are about 2,500 horses at Belmont Park in New York, 1,500 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, upward of 3,000 combined at the Hollywood Park and Santa Anita venues in Los Angeles. Race programs are conducted at least five days a week virtually year round.

Already in place is a marking system in the program to identify horses using the bleeding medication Lasix. State and track veterinarians on site every day inspect every animal before every race and scratch any they deem unfit to compete.

Could separate rules be instituted, and more complete medical information be required for only major races say Grade I events such as the Santa Anita Derby to prevent future such incidents?

"It's conceivable, but it would be very difficult," Kentucky director Gallagher said. "One thing that would have to be determined is what is and isn't discloseable?"

After Saturday's hearing, Wygod was asked for his thoughts on the subject of disclosure.

"There should be more transparency," Wygod said. "The question goes to what's material (for disclosure). And if it's done, it has to be on a national basis."