You think Roger Goodell has his hands full in the National Football League legislating what to do with alleged inappropriate photos from Brett Favre? Try being Greg Avioli for a day. The head honcho of the Breeders’ Cup should be basking in a glorious, post-event sunbath right about now, but instead sees his main event marred by a public relations nightmare.
You could blame any number of folks for the wrongful appearance of Life At Ten in the $2 million Ladies’ Classic at Churchill Downs. Trainer Todd Pletcher sent out a horse who was physically off and he admitted he knew before the race; jockey John Velazquez didn’t put his foot down and refuse to ride when she failed to warm-up properly, and even told an ESPN worldwide audience as much; Kentucky’s chief steward John Veitch didn’t intervene, and basically ignored what essentially was a nationally televised plea from the rider to take a look; and no one brought the veterinarians into this whole mess, much less did they take it upon their professional responsibilities to do so without outside prodding. Blame anyone from any number of organizations and I’m with you.
But let’s just take the entire A through Z out of the alphabet soup organizations, all of which have blood on their hands in this disaster of compromised competition. One guy can make it right moving forward: Greg Avioli has the power to finally be a commissioner in a sport wandering aimlessly without central command.
Get tough, Greg. Take a page out of the Goodell playbook. Now is not the time to tuck your head in the sand like so many racing leaders before you. Make your mark. Be firm. Be historic.
Avioli, and the Breeders’ Cup organization he heads, has spent the past few years retooling the event more as a consumer-driven business than what used to be a horsemen-driven event fueled by foal nominations and supplemental payments. With a declining foal crop and revenues in free-fall for funding the Breeders’ Cup championships, the event has been more of a Bettors’ Cup in recent years, with a much larger percentage of the bottom line coming from the horseplayers.
The Breeders’ Cup added more wagering-friendly menus, dropped minimum pricing on popular wagers, created a big-money handicapping tournament and more. Everything with the consumer in mind. All of that was resonating so well with customers.
And then the 2010 Ladies’ Classic came along to hose the public in a manner never-before-seen on a grand racing stage. The very people who have sustained the Breeders’ Cup and are being relied upon to carry more and more of the strain, horseplayers, were one-thousand percent neglected by those in place to protect them.
John Velazquez did his best to protect Life At Ten once the gate opened. John Veitch should have protected the betting public before she was loaded. Now the chief steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is principally not only the accused, but the judge in the matter. That’s not a savory situation no matter which side of the discussion you lean. The investigations probably are going to turn up useless and all involved will hope the fervor just goes quiet.
Right now, Avioli needs to step in and be iron-fisted that his event will not tolerate the failures of the Kentucky officials and veterinarians. He must admonish the trainer and rider for not alerting the proper professionals of their concerns, as the Ladies’ Classic is not about just the horsemen involved, but the millions of dollars invested in the wagering pools. Avioli needs to go to bat for the wagering public, who now are his organization’s primary source of revenue. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the financially right thing to do.
Keep screwing the public and see where the Breeders’ Cup ends up. Funds from foal nominations already have contracted to a point that they can’t come close to supporting a championship day on their own. While it’s true you need horses and horsemen to have a Breeders’ Cup, those people better get it in their heads loud and clear that they are entirely dependent on the betting public. And with that dependence comes responsibility to do right by those supporting your product. Trainers, owners and jockeys have responsibilities to the public as well as themselves.
If you don’t think the Breeders’ Cup has the power to make a difference, remember that the event took a hard-line stance on drug offenses in 2009. Any horseman found guilty of administering a prohibited substance on first offense would be barred from the next year’s event; not only the horseman, but any horses directly or indirectly in said trainer’s care. A two-time violator would be benched two years from the Cup, and a three-timer would incur a lifetime ban. That’s the most aggressive bit of legalese ever brought into horse racing circles — and it came from Breeders’ Cup.
I’m not saying Avioli should legislate backwards and penalize the Life At Ten conspirators with some heavy-fisted reaction to laws that didn’t exist. I’m saying he needs to come up with effective, firm and stout standards and practices moving forward that ensure this never happens again. And if it does, it will be dealt with in a manner that won’t soon be forgotten.
Roger Goodell and his National Basketball Association peer David Stern have gone a long way in protecting the integrity of their sporting institutions by setting hard lines on what can and can’t fly. Personal actions detrimental to the reputation of those leagues are dealt with seriously in both public relations and discipline. Believe you me, if jockeys Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano pulled their winner’s circle melee complete with vocalized death threats under either Goodell or Stern’s watch, there would be serious ramifications, not the piddling $2,500 fighting fine handed down by the Kentucky racing commission.
Any conduct detrimental to the Breeders’ Cup brand should be scorned and slapped back with strong ramifications. Sure, the BC does not have the power to impose fines and suspensions across state lines. But the Breeders’ Cup ought to be looking at further ways that it can protect its championship days like it has with the super-stern medication policies.
Might tough love from the “commish” find the Breeders’ Cup embroiled in some costly court appeals? Sure. But that’s a small price to pay compared to a potential class-action lawsuit from tens of thousands of horseplayers who were unequivocally ripped off by the situation surrounding Life At Ten.
And even scarier in terms of denting the pocket book, what if horseplayers just throw their hands up in the air en masse and say, “I’ve had it.” Good luck when it’s just a “breeders” cup
Originally Posted on ESPN