OPINION / Cleaning Out the Ole’ Muck Pit: Why Doesn’t “The Press” Question The Safety of Kentucky’s Football Field?; Who Was At Fault in “Justify-Gate?” It Wasn’t Justify!; & I Guess We All Know Now Why the Breeders’ Cup Wasn’t Moved From Santa Anita

Every so often, we will be addressing a few things: comments, decisions, people, whatever that – for one reason or another – should be tossed into the literary “muck pit.”

It is in the spirit of cleanliness, recycling, and protecting the environment that we offer this service of “addressing the muck” – free of charge. After all, someone has to do it, right?

And, it didn’t take long for us to find a few pounds of, well, manure.

Here is a look at our 18th Edition”:

(The full moon hangs over Kentucky Lake this weekend. Is it friend or foe? / Photo by Gene McLean)

Where Is The “Hue & Cry” About the University of Kentucky’s Football Field’s Playing Surface? If It Was a Racetrack? OMG!

On Saturday night, with nearly a full moon flashing as bright as a neon in the background, I watched the University of Kentucky’s football team’s meltdown with more than a passing fancy (pun intended).

After all, I am an unabashed fan of our great Commonwealth’s flagship University. And, I don’t apologize for wearing my support for the University’s sports programs on my Orvis’ shirt sleeve.

Yet, while my, er, our beloved Cats were in the midst of a complete downward spiral (pun intended) that eventually led to us losing another football game that we should have won, I was both perplexed and troubled by the consistent and constant breakdown of the players on what is supposed to be a state-of-the-art playing surface.

By the way PETA, for your information, the University of Kentucky does play on a synthetic surface, and it looks so very pretty — much like the crap you want horses to run over.

Not real dirt and grass, mind you. You remember, don’t you? The stuff that God actually made?

But this stuff is pretty. Especially on TV. Especially at night. One set of 10 yards of the plastic grass are a dark green. Another set of 10 yards of the artificial sod is a lighter green. The white numbers stand out like a poor man trying to buy a beer at the concession stand, while the rich ones guzzle them by the mug-fulls up in the corporate boxes. Yet, we digress.

Over the past two Saturdays, I have watched, witnessed, or have been told of at least — at a minimum — four major, devastating, and potentially life-altering leg injuries that have occurred while some of the bravest and most fit young men have been running over the surface.

That’s the number of injuries that we know about, mind you. There may have been more. But unlike what the Kentucky Racing Commission does now — in the spirit of full transparency — the University of Kentucky and the Southeastern Conference don’t reveal the number and extent of the these significant leg injuries.

Still, we know about Terry Wilson — the young, fledgling quarterback for the Wildcats who looked like he was just ready to hit his best stride(s) and carry this Wildcat team to another significant Bowl season.

A week ago, while playing against Eastern Michigan, he was grabbed around the collar and yanked to the ground like a calf at a rodeo show. His left foot apparently stuck in the webbing of the artificial turf and Wilson’s patellar tendon snapped. In excruciating pain, Wilson was loaded onto a golf carted and removed from the field after his leg was wrapped in a brace. Come to find out, he will have to have major knee surgery. Come to find out, he is out for the remainder of the season. Some sports guy even wrote about how gruesome the injury is and how difficult it is to recover from — even with time.

We also know that Kentucky’s huge defensive lineman Phil Hoskins suffered a leg injury before Saturday night’s game with Florida in pre-game warm-ups, for goodness sake. The University has not released the extent of his injury, but it was apparently so significant that he couldn’t even come out for the game itself. No word on his prognosis. None. Zero.

We know that Kentucky defensive back Taj Dodson, a freshman from Union City, GA., apparently sustained a leg injury of some kind while playing against the Florida Gators on Saturday night, as well. Before you knew it, he was carried off the field, loaded onto that darn golf cart and escorted to the locker room. I texted a couple of UK insiders on Sunday to check on Dodson’s status. Only thing I got back. “Unknown.”

And, of course, we all know what happened to Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks on Saturday night. Can’t get that picture out of your head. In the third quarter, Franks was trying to escape a pressure sack when he ran smack into a couple of Kentucky defenders. His leg went one way. His ankle another. According to Florida Coach Dan Mullen, Franks either sustained a “break” or a “dislocation.” He, like Wilson, is done for the 2019-2020 football season.

And, that’s just in the last two weeks.

That’s just at two college football games.

If truth be known, how many more injuries have there been?

In Lexington? In Kentucky? All over the SEC? How about in college football alone?

If anybody knows, they ain’t saying.

And, guess what?

Nobody seems to even care enough to even be asking, either.

Not Timmy Sullivan from the “Louisville Courier-Journal,” who has written ad nauseam about  the number of horses that are injured in sports activities and why Kentucky doesn’t play “HORSE” on artificial, wax surfaces?

Not John Clay from the “Lexington Herald-Leader,” who takes every chance he can get to critique the Thoroughbred industry and how safe the racetracks truly are.

Not even the maligned Pat Forde, of “Yahoo Sports,” who was banished to the sidelines by his own employer — “The Louisville Courier-Journal” — on two — count ’em, two — occasions for “ethical violations.” He is the ambulance chaser of sportswriters, mind you. He can find the time to write about “…2019 as the beginning of the end for horse racing,” just a week ago, but can’t seem to muster the nerve or the interest in finding out why college athletes and their respective health certificates are less important than their equine counterparts.

Bet you can’t find one “journalist” that has even asked Mitch Barnhart if the University of Kentucky is concerned about the safety of its’ playing surface. Or if the athletic training staff has looked at the cleats being worn on the surface to see if they are safe.

Bet you can’t find one “sportswriter” or “sports columnist” that has the nerve to even ask the question of Kentucky officials or the manufacturer of the playing surface? Is it coincidence? Or is it something else that can be fixed?

Bet you can’t find one person willing to peek under the tent on this one.

But if all of these injuries were occurring down the road?

Let’s just say, perhaps, at Keeneland?

Or, perhaps, Churchill Downs?

Bet those writers — led by Joe Drape — would be standing in line to see what the tracks were going to do, right? Arm in arm with the lunatics from PETA, who obviously could care less about human athletes who run. All the while writing furiously about the “hue and cry.”

Just find it ironic and interesting.

Hypocrites meet double standards. You make such a beautiful couple.

(Justify parades at Churchill Downs after winning the Triple Crown / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Don’t Blame Justify — Not His Fault; All He Did Was Kick Some Serious Ass

Ever since Joe Drape wrote his “expose” in “The New York Times” about Justify and the positive drug test that came following the colt’s win in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, I have waited and bided my time before wading into the waters of this “story” and “so-called journalism.”

I waited, and bided.

I wanted to see what the “sensationalists” would do with “the story.” Guys like Forde. Guys that are hell-bent on creating sensationalism and chaos, and less on facts.

Predictably, he wrote:

“Go ahead and mark down 2019 as the beginning of the end for horse racing.”

And, he scribbled (I doubt he has learned how to type):

“…in terms of its ability to maintain an already tenuous position in the American sporting hierarchy, horse racing’s days are numbered now.”

What a joke.

I waited and bided.

I wanted to see what the “buzzards” would do. You know the type. The birds that sit on the top of the tree and wait until something bad happens, and they swoop in for a quick and disgusting meal. The ones that use someone else’s unfortunate circumstances to make themselves look better. The ones that capture the moment of misfortune to capitalize on it, and use it to prove some misguided point.

You know them. The Ray Paulicks of the world.

Paulick wrote:

“Anecdotally, I have heard about any number of prohibited substances purposely given to horses for ‘off label’ use, and there have been positive tests for some of those drugs. I have never heard of anyone giving scopolamine to a horse to enhance performance. Nevertheless, as recently as 2008, CHRB has fined a trainer and DQed a horse from a win for a scopolamine positive, even if source was contamination. So CHRB has some explaining to do over why this positive test was treated differently than previous ones – if that is what happened.

“In my opinion, this is not a story about a Triple Crown winner being ‘drugged’ in a qualifying race (though that is how mainstream media will play it up) but about how a regulatory agency secretly handled a case behind closed doors and has left the appearance of a coverup.”

Any time you hear of a “drug-related” incident in the horse business, you can count on ole’ Ray to pick up the baton and carry it. After all, he is a self-proclaimed expert in the field — banging the drum for some bogus federal governmental agency to take over control of the entire industry; and prohibition of all race day medications — even the therapeutic ones.

But it was his “tweet” on Saturday night that was the most telling. He hit the social airways with a photo of Bob Baffert standing on the sideline of the Kentucky football game. Paulick wrote, with a snide remark, that the Hall of Fame trainer is now the new poster child for “Hay, Oats and Water Boy.”

Childish.

Amateurish.

I have waited and bided.

I wanted to see what Baffert had to say. I wanted to see what his explanation was and is. I wanted to hear — or read — his side of the story.

After the story broke, Baffert’s attorney released a statement:

W. Craig Robertson III wrote to Drape:

“Your article is long on sensationalism, short on facts, and does a great disservice to Mr. Baffert, JUSTIFY, and the entire horse industry. As a result, I am compelled to set the record straight.”

Robertson went on to write that it would be not be prudent to administer scopolamine to a horse:

“No trainer would ever intentionally administer Scopolamine to a horse. It has a depressant effect and would do anything but enhance the performance of a horse. There is zero scientific evidence to suggest that Scopolamine has any performance enhancing properties.”

Finally, in an attempt to explain why Justify would ever test positive for scopolamine in the first place, Robertson wrote:

“…Scopolamine is a known environmental contaminant. It is contained within Jimson Weed, which is a naturally growing substance in areas where hay and straw are produced in California. As a result, hay and straw frequently become contaminated with Scopolamine in California. There is a long history of environmental contamination cases involving Scopolamine in the state of California. In the past, the CHRB has even issued official advisories concerning contaminated feed to horseman. There is no doubt that, with regard to JUSTIFY, the alleged positive was the result of environmental contamination from hay or straw.”

All made some sense. Rational thoughts.

Understandable. Every trainer — worth their salt block — would do the same when they think they are wrongly accused.

Still, I waited and I bided.

And, then I decided that a few things needed to be written:

One, as Baffert’s attorney pointed out, Justify ran in three different jurisdictions across his Triple Crown run: Kentucky, Maryland and New York. Justify passed every test conducted over that period.

All the horse did was kick butt. And, take names. Fairly. And, he won the Triple Crown. Period.

Two, I have never known Baffert to ever duck and run. Some days are better than others. Granted. But, as far as I can tell, the guy is a stand-up trainer. See no reason to believe otherwise now.

Three, if there is a story here, and I think there is one, it has to do with the California Horse Racing Board — not the horse; not the Triple Crown; and, certainly, not the trainer — who defended his horse, his barn operation and himself against what he thought then and now was and is a false accusation. You would do the same thing. So would I.

But…

Did the California Horse Racing Board act properly, professionally, correctly and above reproach?

No.

It didn’t.

And, it should be admonished.

Sternly. Strongly. To ensure that it never acts in this manner again.

How did the Board fine one set of trainers who had a “positive test” for the same drug, and disqualify their respective horses for the same overage, and then rule differently this time?

Fair question. Deserves an answer.

How did the Board meet privately, after the positive test results became known to some, with a quorum of the Board members present, and not issue public notice?

Fair question. Deserves an answer.

Why didn’t someone with the California Board alert Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Racing Commission and give them the heads up? After all, the Kentucky Derby is now based on a “Points System,” and there are many ramifications if a horse that has accumulated the necessary points to gain admission subsequently is disqualified from a major race and loses those points?

Fair question. Deserves an answer.

And, did the fact that some of the Board members also own horses that were in training with Bob Baffert pose either a serious conflict of interest — or the perception of a conflict — that should have required them to recuse themselves from deliberating on this case?

Fair question. Deserves an answer.

And, there is one more big question for me.

Who leaked this story?

Some 17 months later?

Who?

And, why?

Why now?

Had to be someone with knowledge of the “positive test,” right? Had to be someone who had some axe to grind, or so it seems, right? What was the motive? Had to be someone with something to gain, or you would think, right?

Who is that person? And, what was the motive.

Has to be one.

Maybe that’s a fair question. Maybe not. But it is a damn good one. Sure would be interesting to know.

May explain a lot.

Truth is that the California Horse Racing Board must do better. Must be better. The Governor should demand it. The horse racing industry deserves it.

(The 2018 Breeders’ Cup was held at Churchill Downs. For awhile, it looked like the 2019 version would be held there, too. / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

Well, well, well…Breeders’ Cup President Lobbies to Keep Championship Event at Santa Anita & Then Takes a Job with Belinda Stronach…Coincidence? 

Back in the Spring and early Summer, when Santa Anita was besieged with horrific and tragic deaths on its’ racetrack, it certainly seemed as if the 2019 Breeders’ Cup would and should be moved to a different venue this year.

It was obvious that there was a serious problem with the racing surface.

It was obvious that there was no way that the current management team at Santa Anita was going to acknowledge and fix a racetrack that many questioned its’ safety.

And, it was obvious that the World Championships could not, should not and would not be held at a venue with such glaring questions and outstanding issues.

Obvious to all except its’ chief executive, Craig Fravel, who lobbied the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors that it would be a, ahem, “death blow” to California racing if the event was moved.

Obvious to all except the man whose mission was to convince the Breeders’ Cup Board that the problems would be and could be fixed.

Obvious to all except for the one person who argued — successfully, as things turned out — to the Breeders’ Cup Board that the world truly does love racing at Santa Anita — no matter what.

So, shockingly to some, the Breeders’ Cup Board decided to stay the course. Stay committed. Stay at Santa Anita.

After an all-day meeting confab in Lexington, it was announced that the Board voted unanimously to stay in California at Santa Anita.

Now, we may know why Fravel was so adamant.

Last week, Fravel announced that as soon as this year’s Breeders’ Cup is concluded, he will be taking a job with Belinda Stronach as Santa Anita’s newest chief executive of racing operations.

Seriously?

Soon after he got the job with the Breeders’ Cup, Fravel — who once held a similar job at Del Mar — convinced the Breeders’ Cup Board to hold the annual Championship extravaganza at his former racetrack near San Diego.

Conflict of interest? Probably.

But, luckily, that decision turned out to be good.

Now, this?

Are you kidding me?

Is there any end to the conflicts of interest that surround Santa Anita?

Really?

Too late to do anything about it now, other than hope and pray that the Breeders’ Cup is truly safe and fair and half as good as the one that Del Mar put on.

But if I was sitting on that Board?

There would be lots of serious questions for the out-going boss.

Lots.

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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