PA breeders, horsemen issue call for integrity, enforcement

Posted: Dec. 22, 2016

Breeders and horsemen, as part of an ongoing dialogue with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, on Dec. 21 outlined their concerns about racing in the state and placed an emphasis on integrity and enforcement of rules.

The Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association this year surveyed its members and also held a focus group to identify the primary issues. PHBA Executive Secretary Brian Sanfratello said the survey was well-received, with 124 responses for a 31% return rate, and that integrity was frequently mentioned.

“There is a perception of rampant cheating with trainers with extraordinary win percentages,” Sanfratello told the PHRC before its regular business meeting. “It has driven breeders, owners and bettors out of Pennsylvania. I don’t say this to grab attention but we know good trainers have moved their shops to Maryland. Control and enforcement is long overdue.

“Breeders are concerned with abuses because we have more of an interest in the horse because we are the ones in most cases who deliver the horse. Abuse of the horse hits home more than for someone who may just be purchasing that horse.”

Sanfratello said the survey revealed a recommendation to expand equine drug testing to include out-of-competition testing.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for some time now,” he said. “But we don’t want to talk about it and then just go away. We feel it’s time to dedicate resources to achieve the ultimate goal. Pennsylvania (isn’t viewed positively) as far as integrity is concerned. Our breeders, trainers, owners and racetracks understand that.”

Sanfratello discussed a policy at Meadowlands in New Jersey, where trainers must sign an application to race that gives permission for biological samples to be taken from horses and tested as well as allows the racetrack to monitor the health and welfare of horses. Sal DeBunda, President of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a PHRC member, asked if such an application could be mandated by the racing commission; Jorge Augusto, PHRC legal counsel, said it’s up to the racetracks to do so and he encouraged horsemen to discuss it with track management.

Representatives of the Standardbred breeding industry in Pennsylvania agreed with the PHBA assessment. DeBunda noted there is a coalition of horsemen’s groups and breeders’ organizations in Pennsylvania that regularly meet to discuss all matters that impact them; he called it “a very positive thing” for the state.

“Everything they said applies to us as well,” Joe Thomson of Winbak Farm told the PHRC. “We have a good (financial) situation here in Pennsylvania, but if we are doing so well what do we have to complain about? Well, I think the integrity issue is a big deal. Some buyers (at horse auctions) said they can’t compete and they are concerned about a lack of enforcement.

“I don’t think it’s rampant, but it can take 20 years to build a great reputation, and then you make one mistake and after 20 years it’s shot. The integrity issue is something we want to deal with.”

Jim Simpson of Hanover Shoe Farms also said the state needs an out-of-competition testing program, and he also suggested the PHRC look into licensing training centers so they fall under regulatory authority.

Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Executive Director Todd Mostoller said the racing commission needs to consider the competitive Mid-Atlantic racing market and recognize the cooperation that brought about uniform medication rules in the region. The Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, which has affiliates in four Mid-Atlantic states and New York, laid the groundwork for the National Uniform Medication Program.

“We need to adhere to that,” Mostoller said. “A positive (in Pennsylvania) needs to be the same as it is in Maryland and Delaware. We need to adhere to these rules absent mitigating circumstances.”

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, whose department oversees racing and breeding in the state, acknowledged the integrity theme in presentations made by stakeholders.

“I’m amazed it’s a lead point in these presentations,” he said. “I appreciate you putting that on the table.”

In a matter related to the integrity of racing, the PHRC during its regular session revoked the license of trainer Ramon Preciado, effective Dec. 22, for multiple clenbuterol positives. The commission ordered that Preciado, who is based at Parx Racing, disperse his horses within a week; he can access the barn area only under supervision from racetrack security personnel and a racing commission representative under the order. It was unclear whether Preciado, who alleged sabotage, would pursue legal action in light of the latest commission ruling.

In other comments to the PHRC on ways to recapture lost business, both Sanfratello and Mostoller urged a review of racetrack pari-mutuel takeout rates, which for some wagers at Pennsylvania tracks are set at 30%.

“We need a bettor-friendly environment,” Sanfratello said. “I’ve with some (bigger players) at the track. They say the takeout is too (high), and with the money they’re spending they can’t afford the returns.”

On-track pari-mutuel handle in Pennsylvania has steadily declined to the point where only one of six tracks—Parx—handled more than $10 million on live races in 2015, according to PHRC statistics. So even though a Pennsylvania track may set its trifecta takeout rate at 30%, it derives little benefit on track; the outlet receiving the signal keeps the bulk of the takeout after a modest host fee is paid.

“Takeout is a problem in Pennsylvania,” Mostoller said. “The business model created by (high takeout rates) is being exploited. The worst place to place a wager is at the racetrack. That’s a problem we need to solve from a pricing standpoint.”

(PHRC meeting photo by Tom LaMarra)