137th Preakness Stakes (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

A lust to win, an incentive to cheat: The stain on American Thoroughbred racing

Researched and Written by JANE ALLIN

Unlike some other organized sports in America, such as baseball, football and basketball, horse racing differs in several ways. Not only does it lack centralization in the form of a governing body to oversee regulatory policies and mandates, but it also does not provide its players with contractual salaries. Take for instance the average annual salaries for the following professional sport leagues in 2011[1]:

National Basketball Association (NBA) $5.15 million
Major League Baseball (MLB) $3.31 million
National Hockey League (NHL) $2.4 million
National Football League (NFL) $1.9 million

Indeed these are lucrative and rewarding salaries for something one loves to do.

A racehorse steps onto the track during training. Image by Clarence Alford.
It is the racehorse who is the athlete, the single entity that sustains the industry; an athlete who is owned and controlled by people. Too often the individuals who own and train these animals make profits central to the sport rather than the welfare of the horse. Image by Clarence Alford.

While it is true that these professional athletes must uphold the terms of their contracts in order to receive their dues, there is no similar guarantee in the sport of horse racing that profits of any kind will be had.

Moreover it is the racehorse who is the athlete, the single entity that sustains the industry; an athlete who is owned and controlled by people. And sadly, too often the individuals who own and train these animals make profits central to the sport rather than the welfare of the horse.

Horse racing is a game of ego and fame for those who race these magnificent creatures but it is also one fraught with uncertainty insofar as profiting from the game. Those wealthy enough to expend fortunes are unmistakably aware that it is certainly not a guaranteed profit-generating proposition but rather a celebrated privilege within effortless grasp from a financial perspective. In contrast, others will struggle and some will lose great fortunes albeit comparatively minor relative to the deep pockets of the truly wealthy. Vanity and renown however have no monetary boundaries.

Nonetheless, for those who either strive to emulate the rich or simply find horse racing exhilarating the potential for wealth and celebrity is equally mesmerizing if not more so. Indeed the prospect of owning and racing a horse instills passion and euphoria parallel to none for some individuals. And that is perfectly understandable. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than gazing upon these creatures pre-race, the thunder out of the gates, nostrils flaring, ears perked with a determination that defies defeat.

137th Preakness Stakes (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Baltimore, MD – May 19: The field makes their way toward turn one in the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 19, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But passion overcomes sensibility whether it is related to ego, money or fame and in the end it can overshadow accountability. This is particularly so in the case of recouping losses and maintaining a positive bank account. For the multi-millionaires and billionaires perhaps it is insignificant but for those outside of this realm even owning a single horse can make or break you. Thoroughbred ownership and racing is more a hobby than a business venture.

Consider the cost of purchasing and maintaining a race horse and all without the guarantee of making even a dime.

The annual expenditure to properly care for and race a Thoroughbred is considerable. On average in the United States and Canada, a Thoroughbred costs about $40,000 a year to keep in training at major race tracks. This does include the cost of purchasing the horses, whether it be a million dollars or only several thousand. The only difference is that costlier “select” Thoroughbreds race for a much higher purse, yet the bottom line is that expenses are the same despite the level, at least at the major tracks.

What’s more is that anecdotal observation has estimated that the chance of making even one dollar profit after all expenses is about 15% regardless of the performance level of the horse, whether a Kentucky Derby contender or one inexpensively acquired via a claiming race.[2] And, of course, this is something the bloodstock agent will fail to disclose.

As a general overview, a breakdown of the typical distribution of purses earned at the racetrack follows. This may vary somewhat from state to state and race to race and is much more complicated in reality but will serve as example.

  • First place, 60% of the total purse
  • Second place, 20% of the total purse
  • Third place, 10% of the total purse
  • Fourth place, 6% of the total purse and;
  • Fifth place, 4% of the total purse

Per industry standards, trainers receive ten percent (10%) of any purse earnings. Jockeys receive ten percent (10%) of a winning purse, five percent (5%) of purses earned for finishing second or third, and a flat fee of $60 to $100 per mount for finishing off the board.[3]

So obviously the better the horse does the better the payout to the owner, trainer and jockey.

What else becomes very clear is that the owner takes home the bulk of the winnings. This has a direct and profound effect on the earnings of the trainer and the jockey. In some cases such as large purse Graded Stakes (> $75,000) — in particular a race akin to the prestigious Kentucky Derby — this is a definite windfall for the trainer and jockey. At the other end of the spectrum and a world away from these celebrated races the pot at the end of the rainbow is radically much leaner.

A basic comparison of the payouts for this year’s Kentucky Derby winners and for example an allowance race where the total purse is only $30,000 will serve to underscore the disparities and sometimes grim realities of what those in the racing industry face in the name of competition and the desire to win.

For simplicity, let’s assume that the “typical” payout guidelines apply (i.e. prize money distribution for the Kentucky Derby not exactly as shown, only hypothetical).

Total Purse $2,180,000 $30,000
Total Payout (60% of total purse) $1,308,000 $18,000
Owner (80% of total payout) $1,046,400 $14,400
Trainer (10% of total payout) $130,000 $1,800
Jockey (10% of total payout) $130,000 $1,800

Clearly not everyone makes a pretty profit when it comes to horse racing and these figures are only for the winners. Those who fail to take the blue ribbon per se stand to make far less profit particularly those who do not place within the top five. Many of these individuals will take home nothing apart from the exhilaration of the race and the subsequent let down of defeat.

Is it any wonder why cheating exists especially given the use of race day drugs and lax regulation of the horse racing industry in America? Not every race is the Kentucky Derby, nor is every race a Stakes race, nor is everyone autonomous from a wealth perspective. Reality is that horse racing is a thankless business for some and often one without rewards.

Getting to the top can also be a precarious experience particularly for the trainers and jockeys as well as those owners who get by on pin money. For those at the bottom if you aren’t effective and you don’t win races you simply can’t compete. And in reality it is not difficult to understand why people who make their careers in horse racing would use whatever advantage they possibly could. Why? Because everyone else is doing it.

Above all in today’s American horse racing atmosphere it is the ubiquity of drugs and other medications that plague the industry and more often than not it is the trainer at the center of the controversy. With the prospect of a Triple Crown winner this year after 33 years of drought the media is abuzz with the prevailing drug culture and its stain on the American industry.

Before we delve into that, let’s consider why and how this culture of drug obsession has evolved.

The life of a trainer is not easy. Typically trainers are not hired on to a payroll or such but rather they are self-reliant contractors who establish client-trainer business relationships with horse owners.[4] Like jockeys, thoroughbred trainer’s salaries vary and depend on the performance of the horse, purse size, race and track. Moreover, the trainer has to supplement their income through a percentage of a horse’s earnings.

In 2010 the day rate for a trainer in Kentucky was on average about $82 per day per horse meaning that each month the trainer would gross about $2550 per horse.[5] However a trainer is also subject to significant costs involved in training a horse; payments to grooms and exercise riders, feed, straw for bedding, saddles and other equipment which in 2010 approximated $65 per day.[6]

If one does the math this means that over the course of a month the net payout to the trainer after expenses per horse is about $525 per horse, a far cry from $2550 or a meager $6300 a year apart from any purse money that is garnered. The bottom line is that the need to win races is paramount to surviving as a trainer. Of course the more experienced and successful a trainer is the more they can charge for their day rate. Obviously the more horses in their stable the greater their income will be. Nonetheless winning is the key to the top.

This brings us to the difference between the average trainer and one that has made it to the Graded Stakes echelon. There is a huge disparity between these two classes and very few ever have a glimpse of races such as the Kentucky Derby. However, many of the so-called top notch trainers have at one time been at the bottom rung of the ladder. How did they make it to the top? This is an unsettling question.

Graham Motion holding 2011 Kentucky Derby trophy aloft. Michael Conroy/Associated Press.
Trainer Graham Motion holds aloft the trophy for winning the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Graham is one of two top-earning trainers not cited for a single drug violation, the other being Christope Clement. Michael Conroy/Associated Press.

One need only look at a list of the frequency of drug violations for horses of the 20 top-earning trainers in the United States.[7] Only two on this list are without sin – Christophe Clement and Graham Motion. Many of the others are all too well known for their clandestine affair with performance-enhancing drugs. One need only mention names like Ness, Dutrow, Baffert, O’Neill. You get the picture.

The latter individuals have obviously fallen prey to the lust to win fueled by the irresistible incentive to cheat at all costs – costs for which they pay no price – rather it is the horse who inherits this burden. But this lust is aberrant and omnipresent in the racing industry and without boundaries. Despite the fact that high-profile races such as those that comprise the Triple Crown attract the most attention the substance of racing in America is at the lower tier level.

It is here in the lower ranks where horses are more vulnerable due to permissive regulations and where cheating is, for the most part, more prevalent at these smaller venues. It is also here where trainers are struggling to reach that pinnacle. Yet even success at the track does not extinguish the relentless hunger to win that is the engine that drives the motivation to cheat.

“The failure of regulators to stop that cheating is reflected in the numbers. Since 2009, records show, trainers at United States tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times, a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested.”[8]

It is unlikely that cheating in horse racing is apt to go away. There is money to be had, however intangible that may be to some, and people are greedy. With the temptation to cheat ever present, the saying “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” is most applicable to the current state of horse racing in America.

Then again, why not cheat?

Take for example the year 2007.

“When 2007 opened, the trainers of the three biggest stables in the nation all were serving suspensions for medication infractions — Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen and Doug O’Neill. Pletcher and Asmussen would wind up winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown with their Rags to Riches (Belmont) and Curlin (Preakness), respectively.

And as Curlin prepares for a shot at the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic next month at Monmouth Park, two of his owners, William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, Jr., sit in a prison cell awaiting an Oct. 15 trial date for allegedly milking $46 million out of clients that the embattled lawyers represented in a fen-phen diet drug lawsuit.”[9]

What a fine exemplar to set for the “Sport of Kings”. What a joke it all is, trainers and owners alike. And the blame cannot be exclusive to the trainer. Accountability is required on the part of the owner unfortunately however this is does not apply in the U.S.

“Other than a small loss of some respect, owners who hire trainers with a suspension-riddled past lose little by employing the otherwise unemployable. They pay no penalty when these employees veer off course and gain much when their wayward path leads to success on the racetrack. When the trainers get caught doing something they shouldn’t have done, it is business as usual for their horses. Life goes on uninterrupted as an alter ego fills in while his exiled boss vacations. Customers representing the horse’s future, namely breeders, and profiteers representing the horse’s past, namely bettors, watch idly. By the sin of omission, they’re complicit in the crimes being committed“.[10]

An emotional Kent Desormeaux hugs Big Brown after winning the Preakness. Google image.
An emotional Kent Desormeaux hugs Big Brown after winning the Preakness. Trainer Rick Dutrow caused a furor when admitting he administers the anabolic steroid Stanozolol to his horses, including Big Brown, on the 15th of every month. However, Dutrow stated to ESPN that Big Brown did not take the May 15th shot for the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown did not win the Triple Crown. He was pulled up. Stanozolol is banned in 10 states but not where the Triple Crown races are run. Google image.

Horse racing is an anomalous sport; one that seems to compensate those that seek any measures to secure an advantage whether legal or not. The drive to win is all-consuming it seems and without reproach.

Particularly disturbing is the unknown.

How many trainers and owners have walked away with the purse money, pockets bulging and egos glowing, all because an illegal substance went undetected? I shudder to think about those numbers.

Drugs, horse racing and ego – unquestionably a bad mix.

In the United States the lure of quick cash and the absence of rules banning race-day medication undermines both the integrity of the sport as well as those who participate in it. As it has been said before, the punishment does not fit the crime. Undeniably there is an urgent need for uniform rules and a centralized governing authority, a universal regime that would recognize trainers and owners as a single entity. Separating the trainer from the owner simply allows this misguided sport to continue.

Sadly, as the industry currently exists, there really is no reason not to cheat apart from honesty and horsemanship. This speaks volumes for what was once the “Sport of Kings”.
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