(Above: Trainers Talk panel (from left): Jason Barkley, Ron Faucheux, Bret Calhoun and National HBPA CEO Eric Hamelback. Photos by Denis Blake/National HBPA)
Story by Tom Law, Editor Horsemen’s Journal
NEW ORLEANS, La. — The 2023 National HBPA Annual Conference closed Thursday with a lively discussion with three prominent horsemen who questioned the need, validity and overreach of federal legislation pitched as the so-called savior of racing while the industry heads into a challenging economic and logistical future.
Bret Calhoun, Ron Faucheux and Jason Barkley participated in the Trainer’s Talk panel moderated by multiple Eclipse Award-winning journalist and media specialist Jennie Rees and talked about everything from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, challenges facing small to mid-sized stables, finding and keeping help and what gives them motivation in spite of all of racing’s uncertainties.
HISA dominated the discussion – as it did much of the conference this week at The Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans – and the trio pulled no punches when it came to the controversial entity.
“The whole thing is a façade. It’s been all smoke and mirrors,” said Calhoun, a member of the Louisiana HBPA board who also maintains strings in Kentucky and Texas. “They sold this thing as the safety of the horse. It’s absolutely not about safety of horse. It’s a few people, with self-interest and they have their own personal agenda.
“If it was all about the horse we’d be spending a lot more time on racing surfaces. We could probably cure about 50 to 75 percent of the injuries if we had somebody overseeing surfaces on a daily, weekly basis. Not somebody taking soil samples before the meet and at the end of the meet and calling it good.
“They’ve been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial. They’re having the opposite effect of what they’re saying … safety of the horse and rider. They’re doing absolutely the opposite. Like I said, it’s all a façade.”
Faucheux, also a member of the Louisiana HBPA board and just two back of the leader on the Fair Grounds’ leading trainer’s list that he topped for the 2021-2022 meeting, conditions a stable of about 60 horses and hasn’t left his native state since HISA rules went into effect last summer.
“I haven’t signed up and I won’t sign up. I’ll get out of training if I have to sign up,” Faucheux said. “A stable like mine, 55-, 60-horse stable, I couldn’t afford the cost of having to hire somebody to do the paperwork for me. The added expenses of it all, it wouldn’t work financially for me. It’s a struggle to get by the last couple years. Feed costs have gone up 50 percent, hay, shavings, it doesn’t make financial sense for a trainer in Louisiana year-round to sign up and have to take on all those added fees because right now we’re barely making it as it is.”
Barkley maintains a stable of about 30 horses based at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park in the winter and in Kentucky the majority of the year. A member of the Kentucky HBPA board and a third-generation horseman, Barkley said he feels the impact of the regulations already and only sees them as potential obstacles for trainers hoping to grow their stables.
“A lot of my smaller clients they don’t want to pay the added cost of a per-start fee, the extra vet checks, and all the added fees they want to put on us,” Barkley said. “There’s added costs and the time to do all the work. Between me and my main assistant, who is my wife, Shelbi, we do the extra paperwork, keeping track of everything. We already kept track of what every horse got every day but to then have to put it into files, that doubles the workload. That is time taken away from actually working with your horses, which is what you should really be focused on.”
Rees steered the discussion away from HISA at several points but the new laws found a way back, much like many of the prior panels during the week-long conference in the French Quarter.
“What is HISA’s ultimate goal? I’m sure there is one,” Faucheux said. “To me it looks like about half the racetracks to close down and about half the people to get out of it. And I think that’s what will eventually happen if it’s implemented across the country, over the span of several years.”
“These are people sitting in offices and coming up with these rules and regulations that really aren’t for the benefit of the horse, the riders, the owner, the industry as a whole,” Calhoun said. “It’s not good for the industry. … To get this bill, to attach it to a Covid bill, an emergency bill, that’s something that should be stopped with every instance. No emergency bill should ever have anything attached to it. That’s how they got this going. … That’s how Congress works, unfortunately.”
The trainers also agreed on that another major challenge they face – finding and keeping good help. That situation was difficult well before the pandemic and exacerbated since.
“I’ve got a family of like 15 that work for me,” Barkley said, joking that his 2-year-old daughter was back at the barn mixing feed while he attended the panel. “A lot of it’s you get good people that know good people, and hopefully keep pulling them in that way.”
Calhoun called it an “impossible task” he and his colleagues face nationwide.
“Since Covid, there’s now a reduced number of employees that you can find,” Calhoun said. “That’s part of issue. Then you add HISA costs to this and our labor costs are through the roof. It’s the highest bidder and eventually you’re losing significant money to stay in business.”
The trainers still possess great passion for racing – and the horse – despite all the challenges lumped on them from the boardrooms and from lingering economic issues stemming from the pandemic.
“When I realized quite early that I wasn’t going to be the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints I said I want to do this,” Faucheux said. “This is probably second to that. But all jokes aside, I love it. I love being a trainer. I love my horses, the staff and I love the lifestyle. … There’s a lot that goes along with it that can sour you up. Recently, with HISA brought about, and the price increases of everything, it makes it hard to go on and do it the way you want to do it.”
Calhoun acknowledged that winning 20 percent of the time – which very likely might get a trainer consideration for the Hall of Fame over a long career – still meant losing bunches of races along the way. But it’s the winning that makes it worth it, he said.
“That’s what drives me,” Calhoun said. “And the horse is what makes you want to get up every morning and do it.”
Barkley agreed, and echoed sentiments of one of his colleagues with a large stable spread out in multiple states.
“I just love the action. It’s all fun to me,” Barkley said. “I heard Mike Maker say, ‘they’ll run out of stalls before I run out of horses,’ and that’s kind of how I think. Bring them on, we’ll fight the fight as well as we can for as long as we can. … It’s all fun for me.”