By: Frank Angst
Like most anyone else associated with horse racing for any amount of time, Parx Racing executive Sam Elliott is plenty familiar with the “backstretch wave” from stable gate security, a cursory review of an approaching visitor followed by a friendly motion of the hand to grant entrance.
While the gesture certainly is welcoming for workers arriving at the track each morning, Elliott and other racing executives believe it’s time for the friendly ritual to end, as it’s costing tracks an opportunity for increased integrity at what is literally racing’s front line.
With that in mind, Parx Racing is among the tracks using improved technology to ensure people granted backstretch access belong there and to track their visits. Parx, in Pennsylvania, and Sunland Park in New Mexico require those driving onto the backstretch have license bar codes scanned upon entering and exiting the barn area. The policy applies to trainers, riders, backstretch workers, and racetrack employees.
Compared with security efforts at a track such as Santa Anita Park, which has added video monitoring of every barn and other key areas of its backstretch, the bar code scans might seem like a small thing, but track executives already have seen an impact.
“When we first started it, it was a little onerous for everybody because people were used to the good old backstretch wave,” said Elliott, director of racing at Parx. “Now that people are used to it, they know it’s required of them to get in here. It’s smooth now.”
The inexpensive system—at Sunland it cost about $2,000 to install—has helped tracks make sure that only people who belong on the backstretch enter the barn area. Both tracks have noted traffic numbers have been reduced since systems were put in place, a trend suggesting some of the previous people milling about didn’t belong.
Track executives say requiring people to scan-in provides trainers some peace of mind about who is granted access and when they are moving in and out of the barn area.
Sunland director of racing operations Dustin Dix said the New Mexico Racing Commission discovered some counterfeit licenses and reported that license applications increased after the system was put in place before the 2016-17 Thoroughbred meeting.
Actual licenses require things such as social security information, photo identification, and fingerprinting to identify people. In terms of the license itself, the bar code adds some hurdles for potential counterfeiters.
“It’s more difficult to counterfeit a bar code,” Dix said. “And even if you did, we’d notice someone going in and out constantly or being in two places at once (if they shared a matching bar code). So that’s been another positive for the system.”
Dix noted that scanning licenses has allowed the track to address talk of illicit actions in the overnight hours.
“You know at racetracks you’d always hear rumors that so-and-so is out here at 3 or 4 in the morning,” Dix said. “We’ve never really had to go in and research anything like that, but it’s there for us. We just thought it would give us better control of everything.”
New Mexico Horsemen’s Association executive director Pat Bingham likes that license holders not only have to swipe in but also have to swipe out—creating a record that can be researched if necessary.
“I think for the most part it’s been successful. It’s not an intrusion because they check licenses to begin with,” Bingham said. “In going through the process, the actual scanners work very quickly and people get in and out quickly. It’s a minimal intrusion; that’s probably the best way you can say it. It’s usually something that maybe adds 10 or 15 seconds. I think that protocol has taken care of a lot of people who should not be on the backside.”
Sunland previously issued vehicle stickers that listed the license granted, “owner” or “trainer,” for instance.
Under that system there were accusations that people who were not supposed to be given stickers were receiving them. Suggesting that may have been the case, backstretch traffic has been reduced under the new system.
“I think it’s keeping some people out,” Dix said.
Parx has been scanning bar codes at its three stable gates since early 2015. The suburban Philadelphia track has taken the added step of including the insurance status of license holders in the information available through scanning. While that step may be more intrusive, the track said it’s a way to reduce liability by making sure trainers have up-to-date worker’s compensation and workers have proper insurance.
“My guess is we probably have as strict a protocol as anyone to get on the backstretch,” Elliott said. “Attached to your license would be all of your insurance information as well. If your insurance is expired, you’ll be denied access as well. We definitely use them. And it’s very effective at keeping out people you don’t want.
“It protects people on the backstretch and their horses. And it also protects the track. We know that everybody has their worker’s compensation, has their general liability insurance.”
Employees are attached to a trainer’s badge list. If a trainer’s workman’s comp happens to be expired, then the process would reject his or her employees too.
“It protects horsemen, protects the track; obviously, it’s much better when you know who is here,” Elliott said. “If there’s an accusation, one of the first things they do is look at the logs. It’s available for everybody.”
Sunland is the only New Mexico track accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance. Dix said Sunland will continue to think of ways technology can improve the track in those areas. He credited owner Stan Fulton with keeping an emphasis on racing at the track that added slot machines in 1999.
“With technology there’s stuff we haven’t even thought of. Anything that’s using technology to make tracks better integrity-wise, that is something that should be looked at,” Dix said. “In my 15 years here we’ve always tried to be a role model in terms of what slots can do for racing as a positive.”