This story originally ran in the May 5, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe to SI and read a digital version of the magazine, go here.
For most of America, this year's thoroughbred horse racing season started at 6:24 EDT on May 3 and ended a little more than two minutes later when winner California Chrome crossed the Kentucky Derby finish line. Once a daily component of American sporting life, horse racing is now an afterthought. You can find it in the shadows, fighting for attention with its old friend boxing.
The sport seems to be reduced to a sad litany of tragedy and scandal. Drug cheats. Mismanagement. Small-time corruption. Lousy television deals. Feeble marketing. Grimy grandstands. A thousand self-inflicted- wounds. Today's news is an undercover PETA investigation alleging callous indifference to the welfare of horses in the barn of champion trainer Steve Asmussen. Yesterday it was the heartbreak of Barbaro's valiant fight for survival. Tomorrow it might be the Derby trophy returned because of a positive drug test.
From 2008 until January of this year, I had an up close and personal look at the carnage.
I was part of it. I was one of the seven commissioners on the California Horse Racing Board. It was our job to assure the safety and welfare of horses and humans; to regulate, police and promote the sport; to maintain its integrity and secure its future. Like similar boards in more than 30 other states, and like the dozens of voluntary organizations of owners, trainers and jockeys, we took our job seriously and tried to do the right thing.
Still, we were more a part of the problem than the solution, because when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. For horse racing there can be only one solution: A central, national organization with the authority to run the sport in all participating jurisdictions, just as the NFL, NBA, MLB and, most similarly, NASCAR run their sports.
The state-by-state regulatory model has to be scratched like a lame colt. For more than 100 years, only one other sport has been run this way: boxing. How's that working out?
Since 2008, Congress has had at least three hearings on the business of horse racing. The next time Washington calls, the sport needs to ask Congress to create strict federal laws—with a criminal component for animal abuse and corruption—that supersede all the relevant state regulations and allow the sport's private interests to create Major League Racing, for lack of a better name.
Then the New York Racing Association, The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs, Inc., our largest racetrack operators, need to set aside their petty differences and work together.
They represent 11 of the most important tracks—from Belmont and Saratoga to Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Churchill. Supplement those with five -independents—Del Mar, Keeneland, Oaklawn, Hawthorne and -Woodbine—and you reach critical mass. Include the Breeders' Cup, and you'll have every important race in North America.
More important, you'll have the power to impose national standards for the administration of drugs, veterinary care, safety, working conditions, racing conditions, wagering take out, licensing, discipline and care for retired horses. Everyone in the sport will have to comply or find another line of work. Smaller tracks initially not part of MLR will comply or lose their financial lifeblood: the television signal from MLR tracks.
Under the current system, disputed suspensions wind up in court, and cases often drag on for years. It's a waste of judicial time and public money. Under private sector governance, discipline will be swift and fair. Just as the other sports have collectively bargained penalties, so would racing.
Plus, MLR can create two coherent racing seasons: One, from January through the first week of June, would culminate with the celebration of the Triple Crown races. The second, from June through November, would build to the Breeders' Cup.
Horse racing will have two Super Bowls a year. Kings, from what I hear, like to have a good time. They didn't make racing their sport because it was a bummer. The sport can be strong again. All it will take is a little horse sense.