THE TUA TAGOVAILOA INJURY CONTROVERSY IS ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR TO HORSE RACING

Horse racing and college and professional football are sports in which injuries to athletes are often severe.  Also in common between the two sports is how the world reacts when a horrific injury occurs in front of a nationally televised event. 

Before elaborating, here is a recap of the injuries suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in two NFL games that provoked a firestorm of controversy and widespread second-guessing. The first game was on Sunday September 25, 2022 and the second four days later on Thursday night.

In the Sunday night game against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa hit his head on the turf after being tackled.  Dazed, he rose on his own power, then stumbled and nearly fell.  He went to the sideline, where he went through the NFL concussion protocol.  A physician cleared him to return to the game, and the head coach promptly put the quarterback back in.

Between the Sunday and Thursday games, the Dolphins listed Tagavailoa as having a back injury rather than being observed for a possible concussion.  Then on Thursday night he was again cleared to play and started against the Cincinnati Bengals.  On a tackle by a Bengals lineman, Tagovailoa was whiplashed to the ground and hit his head.  He left the playing field on a stretcher.

The outcry from the sports media and social media was immediate and somewhat reminiscent of the visceral reactions to the death of Eight Belles due to an injury suffered in the Kentucky Derby. In both instances, there were lots of finger-pointing and Monday-morning quarterbacking.

The accused culprits in letting Tagovailoa play were the Dolphins head coach, medical personnel, and the NFL. The Players Association fired an independent doctor who cleared Tagovailoa to play. The NFL Players Association and the NFL promised investigations (this always seems to be the case).

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the Dolphins mistreatment of Tagovailoa was ”astonishing” and the worst he has seen in 40 years of coaching. The NFL Players Association threatened legal action against the Dolphins and its team doctors.

Sponsors of sports invite and deserve harsh criticism whenever an athlete is injured and it turns out that safety protocols may have been compromised or that doping was involved.  In the case of horse racing, for example, a trainer may have run a horse with borderline lameness and it broke down or a track veterinarian was complicit by letting such a horse run. 

In the wake of the Tagovailoa injuries, there was considerable talk of the danger of playing on artificial turf.  The Bengals stadium has this surface, overlaid on concrete, rather than natural grass.  This is similar to the outpouring of criticism and anger about Santa Anita’s turf courses a couple of years ago when numerous horses died while racing on them.

A commentator on the Tagovailoa situation stated the obvious truth: safety measures can reduce injuries, but violent outcomes cannot be eradicated from a violent sport.  Another predicted that there would be no NFL in 50 years because of the physical and cognitive damage done to players that they frequently carry all their lives, as well as the fact that concerned parents increasingly are dissuading their boys from playing football.

Many of us won’t be around to find out if the prediction about the demise of pro football comes close to being correct. However, I do know now that sports in which athletes are at risk of life and limb—football, horse racing, boxing, auto racing, rugby, and others—can, deserved or not, expect to receive a hail of criticism and outrage whenever a severe injury occurs on a national telecast, especially if negligence is suspected. The strategic question for the longer term is whether a sport can answer with continually improving safety measures that assuage concerns of athletes and the public. 

(The view here is that an injured Tagovailoa should not have been put back into the Sunday night Buffalo game and it was also ill-advised to play him only four nights later against the Bengals.) 

Copyright © 2022 Horse Racing Business

CHEATING IN HORSE RACING, OTHER SPORTS, AND, YES, EVEN CHESS

This past weekend, media reported that the Pennsylvania Racing Commission had stopped several cars entering PARX racetrack in Philadelphia and discovered syringes and an electrical device.  Déjà vu: this is eerily similar to an incident at PARX in 2021 that resulted in a two-year suspension of a trainer. Earlier in the week, a harness racing trainer was sentenced to federal prison for 30 months for doping horses.

Out of curiosity, I ran a Google internet search for the phrase “cheating in sports.”  A flood of results appeared. A sampling:

  • “The Pros and Cons of Cheating in Sports
  • The 40 Worst Cheaters in Sports History
  • 9 Doping Scandals That Changed Sports
  • The 10 Greatest Sports Cheaters of All Time
  • The Most Infamous Professional Sports Cheating Scandals
  • Before the Astros, 7 Other Cheating Scandals That Rocked the Professional Sports World”

The International Review of Psychiatry in 2016 published “Cheating and Sports: History, Diagnosis, and Treatment.”  I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to figure out how to rehabilitate cheaters.  The concern here is that horse racing regulators must rigorously monitor for cheating with state-of the-art testing and appropriately sanction offenders, especially repeat offenders. No matter whether cheating is revealed in the Kentucky Derby or in a claiming race at a nondescript racetrack, horse racing’s image is tarnished.

Besides turning off bettors, doping of a racehorse is animal abuse. Horse racing is unique among sports in that medicating the athlete is done without the consent of the athlete.

While researching material for this post, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Behind a Chess Scandal: How Would a Player Cheat And Get Away With It?”  19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Moke Niemann is suspected of defeating Magnus Carlsen, the world champion chess player, twice, by cheating through high-tech chicanery. (Previously, during the pandemic in November 2020, Chess.com detected widespread cheating going on in online tournaments and closed 18,000 accounts, including those of average players as well as grandmasters.)

Bettors and fans of horse racing have (unfortunately) become inured to reports of cheating, but pervasive cheating scandalizing the genteel game of chess?  Really?  Chess and serious horse-race handicapping are intellectual pursuits, but chess does not depend on the patronage of bettors for its viability.

Copyright © 2022 Horse Racing Business

“I’M NOT A PEDIGREE GUY,” KENNY McPEEK

While reading a media report of 30 yearlings being auctioned for more than a million dollars each in the first week of the Keeneland fall sale, I thought of what trainer Kenny McPeek said in an interview during the recent Saratoga meet about his approach to buying racehorse prospects: “I’m not a pedigree guy.”  I took this to mean that what he looks for most is athleticism rather than ancestry, or what coaches refer to as “physicality.”

McPeek’s website states that he is a “proven buyer of moderately priced horses with graded stakes success.”  Indeed, his record shows that he is.  Consider some of his yearling purchases:

Bought two-times horse of the year Curlin for $57,000.  Won over $10.5 million.  Paid $35,000 for Swiss Skydiver, who had $2.2 million in career earnings.  Take Charge Lady, with $2.48 million in earnings, was a $175,000 buy.  Tejano Run, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby, was a $20,000 bargain.  Pure Fun won $487,000 after being auctioned for $27,000.

A high-priced yearling, with impeccable conformation and close-up relatives that have won Grade I stakes, obviously has a better chance of being a top-class racehorse than a yearling with a pedestrian pedigree, nondescript relatives, and some minor conformation faults.  However, a seven-figure price shelled out for a yearling is hard to justify, given the expected value owing to the high percentage of million-dollar-plus yearlings that disappoint as racehorses. (Click here for a detailed analysis by Ray Paulick that corroborates this point with data .)

The potential value (the price vs. quality calculus) of a bargain-basement yearling purchase is compelling when the person doing the selection has the keen eye and proven record of a Kenny McPeek.  He and other skilled buyers have demonstrated that a Grade 1-caliber equine athlete does not have to come from a family of exceptional achievers or have a nearly flawless physique. Moreover, the downside monetary risk of purchasing a relatively inexpensive yearling that does not pan out as a racehorse is mitigated.

Copyright © 2022 Horse Racing Business