Musing on racing justice

So it’s been a July of suspensions: Steve Asmussen we know about; Rick Dutrow we’ve discussed; and last week Ramon Dominguez served three days for careless riding.

Having been in the business for about a decade of assessing infractions and administering consequences, I note these cases with interest. I’ve helped to create discipline policy and I’ve worked closely with students and families as they navigate the procedures. I learned early that any system, regardless of its details, needs to be understandable and comprehensible to all involved, even–especially–when disagreements arise about individual decisions. Any system has to be both predictable and flexible: predictable enough so that those who go through it can have a reasonable and reliable expectation that they’ll be treated as those who have gone before them, and flexible enough for individual circumstances/situations to be considered. And those who oversee the system need to be able to listen to the people on the other side of the table, and adjust when circumstances warrant it.

Now, high school discipline is not racing discipline; perhaps most importantly, one of our main goals at school is education: how can students learn from this experience? How can whatever decisions we make help them to become the people we believe they can be, acting in accordance with the values of our institution? How can we help them avoid making this mistake again, and understand why their behavior is considered unacceptable?

Such factors don’t seem to be at play in the Asmussen/Dutrow/Dominguez cases; I’m not arguing that they should be, though I probably could. I do think, though, that these recent decisions reveal, deliberately or not, some troubling and inherent lessons about what happens if you get in trouble in the racing world.

Dutrow: I’ve made this point already, but the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission was quite explicit that they were not happy that Dutrow chose to try to take advantage of (manipulate? Depends on one’s perspective) the system in place, to take his suspension at a time when it would be least inconvenient to him. According to the Associated Press report in the Saratogian, written by Jeffrey McMurray, the stewards at Churchill Downs (where the infraction occurred) and an officer who heard the appeal both recommended a 15 day suspension; the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted for the 30 day suspension.

Commission executive director Lisa Underwood explained the harsher penalty was
due in part because they felt he was dragging out the process. “He flagrantly
worked the system,” Underwood said.

Matt Hegarty in the Daily Racing Form wrote:

Lisa Underwood, the commission’s executive director, said after the meeting that
commissioners were concerned about comments Dutrow had made last year indicating that he had appealed the suspension in order to avoid serving the days because of his desire to start horses in several stakes races.

“It’s offensive to the betting public to hear that,” Underwood said, adding, “At some point we need to draw a line in the sand and say we have to protect the integrity of the sport.”

Lesson: We don’t mind if you appeal, but keep your mouth shout about why you’re doing it. If you “offend” the racing public, we’re going to nail you. The bad PR is way worse than the initial infraction.

Asmussen: Steve Asmussen’s horse tested positive for an overage of lidocaine; he maintained that he never administered the drug to the horse, and requested that a blood sample, which would be more conclusive than the urine sample that was taken, be submitted for consideration, because the amount of detected lidocaine was minute. From Gary West:

The test results on the urine sample taken from Timber Trick after she won at
Lone Star in May, 2008, suggest contamination, according to Steven Barker, the
chief chemist for the laboratory at LSU. Testing the blood, he said, would be
conclusive. But a request to have the blood tested was denied. A request to
quantify the level of the metabolite in the urine was denied.

From Karen Johnson in the Blood-Horse:

[The Texas Racing Commission] maintained that the amount of lidocaine in the
system was not of consequence because of Texas’ zero-tolerance policy for the
medication, which is rated as a Class 2 violation by the Association of Racing
Commissioners International.

Lesson: We’re the bosses; we have rules; details don’t matter; we’re not interested in finding out the truth and assigning appropriate consequences, just in meting out consequences and holding a hard line.

Dominguez: As reported in the Daily Racing Form by Dave Grening on July 9th, Ramon Dominguez, leading rider at Belmont, was suspended for three days for careless riding.

Dominguez will take the days Wednesday through Friday. The suspension was
reduced from seven days for Dominguez waiving his right of appeal.

The article appeared on a Thursday. Presumably, the decision had been made at the latest earlier in the day; the suspension took effect nearly a week later, and Dominguez didn’t miss that Saturday’s racing—including his mount on the favorite and eventual winner of the Grade I Man o’ War.

Lesson: it’s OK for jockeys in New York to arrange suspensions to have the least deleterious financial effect, but not OK for trainers in Kentucky to do the same.

And: if you admit that we’re right without a fight, we’ll lessen the penalty. If you agree with us, we’ll make sure that you lose less money than you otherwise would.

I recognize that there’s quite a bit of apples to oranges to pears here—two different types of medication violations; one trainer who admits the overage, another who doesn’t; med violations and riding violations; the regulations of three different states. As we all know, apples to apples comparisons are impossible.

But it’s useful, I think, to look at these three cases and ask whether their results are in the best interests of the sport; whether they do anything to address the underlying problems that led to the infractions and prevent future such infractions; and whether the systems in place fairly and adequately deal with the complex situations brought before them.

10 thoughts on “Musing on racing justice

  1. Teresa: I really enjoyed your thoughful insight into these 3 high profile suspensions. I think your personal point of reference working w/HS students serve you well here. The biggest difference between school and racing is at schools everyone knows the rules, as well as the consequences of breaking them. At the racetrack it's different rules for different people at different venues. I just can't help but feel if racing would organize itself and have one central authority, then the "different strokes for different folks" you cite so well here would cease to exist. And I know it's not as simple as it sounds, but this industry must come under some type of central authority if it's going to continue on into the future.

  2. unfortunately your premise is flawed. my high school has one particular set of rules and procedures. they probably differ from your school's rules. nevertheless, my school's rules and procedures, which have the same goals as your school's rules, are my domain and you have no right or authority to change them. nor should you. my school is free to "educate" and discipline as we see fit. as are rules are the domain of various states in which the races are held. each jurisdiction is sovereign.

  3. Thanks for the comments, folks. Interesting that in both the idea, of common regulations comes up. I deliberately didn't raise that issue, because, as Anon points out, each of these states is acting within its own set of procedures.What struck me is that, even as each state operated within its own rules, each also made decisions that could be seen as pretty questionable. I see your point, Brooklyn, about the need for a common system…but unless it's good system, we might even be worse off than we are now.

  4. Teresa,Punishment should not be meted out when it is convenient for the convicted, otherwise it's not much punishment is it? What if Michael Vick had asked to have his sentence suspended until he finished his NFL career, and then he'd serve the time? With regard to the Dutrow case, it's hard for me not to side with the Commission. The relevant word is CONTEMPT. Dutrow showed his contempt for the commission by publicly talking about how he was gaming them and the system. Now his attorneys are claiming that his public comments can't be considered by the commission in rendering their decision?!

  5. Idea for TV execs: live Reality TV showing a Rick Dutrow medication positive hearing start to finish! Awesome!

  6. Anon 1:07 I wasn't trying to espouse or reject the idea that suspensions be timed conveniently–just note that it seems to be fairly common practice (Mullins's suspension, for instance, was timed to allow him to train I Want Revenge through the Derby) unless you're Richard Dutrow in Kentucky, and then you get punished for it.

  7. Interesting discussion, Teresa. A related point is the question of whether trainers should lose their horses if they're suspended. Indiana and Kentucky, I believe, require a suspended trainer to sever all financial ties with his barn while suspended; most states do not, leaving the trainer's assistant to continue to run the barn just as it always was run. If trainers really lost business, the way jockeys do when they're suspended, the sanctions might have more bite.

  8. In paragraph 3, the phrase "most importantly" is an adverb modifying an adverb which is a no-no.I am embarrassed to be making this point because this is the first post I am making on your otherwise very fine site and I do like to make friends.Good luck and thanks for your hard work and fun site.

  9. Anon 11:03–I am always happy to have other language obsessives visit my site and make suggestions–thanks for your attention, but I fear that I must point out (at the risk of seeming unwelcoming) that adverbs do in fact modify other adverbs.The bigger problem is that, upon review, I'm not sure WHAT "most importantly" is modifying at all! It appears to be modifying "one of our main goals," and an adverb modifying a noun is indeed a no-no.Come back again–and let me know who you are.Steve: there are so many elements of the systems at work here that bear scrutiny–you bring up yet another good one.

  10. Discretion is packed into the system. And, yes, contempt can factor into it. Most regs have a whole list of factors that commissions can consider when giving a penalty, including contempt. Honestly, I think that even if there were truly a uniform system of regs, you'd still have to buffer the regs with administrative discretion, and so even then penalties would differ state to state. Also, Kentucky did time Biancone's suspension a couple years ago to let him finish up the Keeneland meet, I think. Or at least part of it. So they've done it before. And remember the Dutrow thing came after that letter from the Illinois congressman, when everyone was on Kentucky's tail. Anyway, I pat Kentucky on the back for it. And also, as Steve mentioned, for staying on top of the whole trainer-horse-transfer issue. They came down hard on Biancone when they figured out he was still financially tied to his training ops in KY. I have written 12 essays today and apologize if this comment isn't coherent.

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