The Problem with a Reactive Racing Industry

In the last decade, racing has taken a fair few steps to improve how it interacts with the public and addresses their concerns. Most farms now have a tour guide to lead fans through the inner workings of places that were once considered “off-limits” and a privilege reserved for those in the right social circles. Some farms were closed off entirely to anyone other than breeders or were considered extremely fan unfriendly, so people avoided asking for tours to see the horses; even if their favorites lived there. While that slowly began to change for fans in the industry that knew who to ask for a chance to see these places, the general public did not and the idea of horse racing’s stiffness continued. The Horse Country organization set out to improve that perception and has created -in partnership with these same farms- exclusive access opportunities not afforded during general tours. You can see just about every farm in the Bluegrass through them.

If you happen to be in town for auctions, you’ll personally see a marked increase in consignors and sellers that now contribute a portion of the horse’s final price to aftercare organizations. Owners and breeders are stepping up more than ever to find their retired charges a safe home and the industry watchdog groups (the rescues) make sure that the efforts don’t become lax. There are many places where horse racing has made a conscious effort to change and improve but the industry by in large remains a reactive one on the governing stage.

What is a “reactive” industry? This means that racing waits until a scandal has grown into its own monster and now has to take remedial actions to calm the voices calling for heads to roll; rather than fix the problem while it is a small one (proactive response). Most people in and out of the industry justifiably wonder why -with as much economic power as we have- we wait until the last second to address vicious rumors or members that are blatantly breaking track rules by selling their horses to a slaughter line or by being a chemical trainer. Why do they wait or ignore the small, manageable issues?

Honestly? Politics.

The industry being reactive stems from the industry being fractured: every state has its own jurisdictions and no two rules are consistent from one to another. As an example, tack that was legal in California for years -the nose strip- was illegal at Belmont Park up until 2014 when the ban was lifted for California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid. Before then, horses who had spent their entire careers racing with one had to go without if their owners wished to compete at New York tracks. Where one state harshly punishes actions considered “race riding” to some, those same behaviors go ignored in another. This wide disparity in standards has never worked for any industry and former organizations that used this structure will agree that it isn’t the most productive way to address problems. Consider the case of the PMU (pregnant mare urine) ranching groups:

PMU ranching used to have several “districts” all throughout Canada and the upper states each with its own name. When animal rights activists came to town and began stirring up controversies, there was no response that carried any weight because everyone had a different level of involvement -or want to be involved- to the outcry. While some ranchers would proudly defend work that had been in their family for generations, others would ignore the questions entirely; when the responses were compared to each other, it raised debates on whether the silence meant guilt. To organize their information, the North American Equine Ranching Information Council was formed to provide all the media work and present the facts; keep in mind that the industry has only been in full production since 1942. Horse racing is one of the oldest sports known to man and is still functioning under the belief that “state-by-state basis” actually works in its favor.

Racing is in the same boat that the PMU ranching industry left by forming one governing body and having a way to actively address issues before they become unmanageable. It is a frequently talked about step (having a single voice for the entire US) but to unite an industry of this size would require quite a few people being okay with becoming a defunct position and finding a new job. Some of the most hostile reactions to the idea on social media -which has become racing’s bane and savior- are from the people that stand to lose the most if the multiple jurisdictions went away. It’s frustrating, but on the other side, we cannot seriously expect someone to be okay with having to give up their career and start from scratch. How would the horse racing industry aid such people if a single governing voice becomes a reality? Who would be responsible for what? Those are valid questions that will require serious thought and planning in the future if the sport wants to thrive instead of being relegated to the side as “in perpetual survival mode”. Advertising everything as an endless party or gambling opportunity will only go so far if the problems these things are intended to mask are not addressed.

Out of personal curiosity, I interviewed a racing fan that has been watching the sport evolve and change for almost 41 years. Terri Bey has seen four Triple Crown winners, and is an outside perspective as someone that has no financial gain from advocating for one position or another. One of the first questions I gave her asked for the one thing that racing currently does that she does not like seeing.

The industry tends to circle the wagons and like most industries, go into ‘cover their rear end’ mode. They attack the media, or try to deflect the problem to someone else, let’s say PETA. For example, when PETA went undercover into now Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn and into other places [sic], and released that video to spread their anti-horse racing propaganda a few years back, many in the industry attacked PETA. Many in the industry deflected it as an “anti-horse racing vendetta”. I didn’t approve of PETA’s tactics, either… people just wanted the subject to go away.

It’s not unusual to see these comments from others as well: frustration at the “blame game” that always erupts rather than a strong and articulated response from everyone in the industry. One for all was not our motto for the longest time and -while it is changing- it still isn’t to some extent. However, the problem still remains: how do we move away from reactive interactions and go into a proactive method of handling these things? Terri believes this will be fastest achieved via a racing commissioner, and that sentiment is a fast growing one. Many of the most prominent industry “insiders” are beginning to echo similar thoughts; just waiting for the next scandal to break so we can respond to it and change is not working in racing’s favor.

Reactivity doesn’t just get horse racing in trouble with their own fans, but it promotes bad press and allows it to flourish in an environment where we are stuck trying to slow the rumor mill’s momentum. After the breakdowns at Saratoga last year and Suffolk’s impending closure, I interviewed one of my friends (Katie Marie) that lived in New York to try and understand what her thoughts were on all she had seen. When asked what she believed contributed to Suffolk’s slow death, she wasn’t mincing words:

…we closed because we had no one coming to the track to bet, watch, or anything. All the bad media press on racing really hurt us which also made all our purses lower; we got the low life, cheap trainers who where just in it for the money and not the sport. [That] gave us an even worse name. When the survey went [out] to see who would get the casino (the only way we would have stayed open at that point) half the people voted for the other place strictly because of what I said above.

Granted, Suffolk didn’t have the capability to host enormous party-like events as their larger, grander counterparts can (think Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, and Keeneland) but a track shouldn’t have to host 90,000+ people in one day to receive support from their own industry or to benefit from the defense of the fans. Many will argue that Suffolk Downs had its own host of problems and that isn’t being debated. However, there should not be entire jurisdictions that fans in the prominent states write off because of “cheating, juicing, and crap cards”. No one remembers all the good you do if your weak links are never fixed; i.e. no matter how much good the Breeders’ Cup, Equestricon, TAA, and others like them do, the layman observer will only remember the one article that drags small tracks through the mud for corruption. The best remedy in this situation is to proactively fix the problems -whether that is through cleaning house or starting from scratch with new staff- before another track succumbs to its problems. New tracks are not being built every day and the industry must work together to save the ones we have not just from physical decay but from their own inaction.

Reactivity will not work anymore with the society we live in today and the industry is not shielded by money from the backlash if it continues to only ever respond to scandals rather than proactively working to snuff them out.

This article is serving double duty as a graded assignment for my Equine Issues class and as a blog post.