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Sport of Kings Needs National Oversight to Survive

May 20, 2019

Whether you agree or disagree with the steward’s ruling in the Kentucky Derby that disqualified winner Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez which resulted in the first disqualification for interference in the 145-year history of the race, we can all agree that “The Sport of Kings” is in need of serious reform.

History will record Country House as the winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but a large percentage of people who watched the race will always consider Country House to be nothing more than the lucky recipient of an egregious decision by the racing stewards at Churchill Downs. In addition to the disqualification, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has suspended Maximum Security’s jockey Luis Saez for 15 racing days. A typical suspension under the similar set of circumstances only lasts three to five days, but Saez is suspended for 15.

The late, great Frank Sinatra said, “The greatest revenge is massivesuccess.” This writer like so many others was looking forward to a rematch between the two champions in order to finally put to rest the question of who is really the best. There will be no Triple Crown this year because Maximum Security and the appointed Derby winner Country House will not be competing in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, however, the cloud of controversy surrounding the verdict of the Kentucky Derby and the fragile state of horse racing remains.

As a child in the 1980s, this writer would watch his parents compete as professional horse-racing jockeys in front an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of people. Times have changed in the world of horse racing. Many people have wondered what is behind the decline in horse racing’s credibility and popularity. After all, it is one of America’s oldest and most prestigious sports. Horse racing once was among the most popular U.S. sports, but its popularity faded in the second half of the 20th century.

A Harris poll underscored the problem. It found that only 1 percent of Americans listed horse racing as their favorite sport. It ranked as the 13th most popular sport, just behind swimming and track and field. In 1985, horse racing ranked eighth, with 4 percent calling it their favorite. In the 1950s, horse racing was considered to be one of the top three sports in the U.S. along with baseball and boxing.

The increase in casinos and other forms of gambling, tragic accidents on the track that injured horses and jockeys, questionable medication administered to the horses, or a lack of effective public relations in the sport, there are several reasons why horse racing is on life support. While many of horse racing’s problems are on the surface, the most important underlying issue is not being addressed.

Federal oversight is needed. The lack of a central authority in a sport with 38 racing jurisdictions and large race track owners like Churchill Downs, which owns the Derby, may be holding the industry back. It is hard to imagine if there were no such governing bodies in other high-profile sports such as the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. It makes no sense that horse racing is not governed by a national commission that ensures that the same set of rules are applied regardless of where the game is played.

At the present time, horse racing is governed by a different set of rules depending on what state the racetrack is located in. This is because each individual state is governed by a separate racing commission where the officials are politically appointed people that make decisions according to their interpretation ofracing and their state’s socially constructed culture.

Currently the horse racing industry is represented by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). It is a coalition of horse racing interests that consist of the leading racetrack owners, trainers, affiliated horse racing associations, horse owners and breeders. The organization sees itself as a body to “serve the industry as a consensus builder around solutions to problems of national importance to the horseracing industry.” This organization is not capable of fixing the problems that face the industry on its own because of its lack of authority, as it can only recommend certain reforms.

Without a centralized authority to govern the sport, horse racing’s problems will not get fixed and only become worse. This lack of uniformity has created a need for central governance that can research and mandate a consistent set of rules that will assure an even playing field.

A central authority will also be able to respond to issues more effectively than the current organization allows, which will ensure that all of the parties involved in the sport are further protected, including the fans that wager billions of dollars per year on the industry.

Eric Estevez teaches at Lasell College in Newton. He is a former member of the state of New Hampshire House of Representatives. Estevez is a graduate of Barry University and Northeastern University.

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