HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" last week aired a segment called “Raced to Death,” which caused a big stir. This week, Mark Berner and John Pricci examine the report in a point/counterpoint fashion to explain both sides of the argument. Gumbel and Goldberg are in the business of news and entertainment, aka infotainment. The footage was horrific, succeeding in a manner that was far beyond inelegant.

POSITED: HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” a hostile host, and hit-man reporter Bernie Goldberg, last week presented a segment, “Raced to Death.” It reprised the 2008 and 2014 Real Sports pieces with another one-sided story. It was a report with an agenda designed to motivate emotions.

Gumbel once again picked a perfect partner in Goldberg, who wrote the book: “BIAS, A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.”

The Thoroughbred industry gets a visit from Real Sports just about every five years and we make it easy for them because nothing really changes.

An example of how an HBO brain-storming production meeting might go:

Producer says the following: Horses are dying at Santa Anita. Let’s go out to California, get some new footage, mix in the stuff we have from 2008 and 2014 and we’ll have a story to broadcast during the Triple Crown. It’ll be an easy 22 minutes because we already have half the footage. Good ratings, too.

HBO anchored this piece around a few carefully picked interviews that told the story they wanted viewers to hear. People deeply rooted in racehorse retirement and aftercare, such as trainer Rick Schosberg and owner Maggi Moss, were interviewed but wound up on the cutting-room floor because their stories didn’t fit the narrative.

Gumbel began by saying this story has “gone underpublicized,” while Goldberg said “deaths quickly becoming a national story.” Were they talking about the same thing, or were they purposefully creating controversy?

Underreported, really? Horseracing deaths at Santa Anita hit the networks and people that don’t know anything about racing were talking about it, and had an opinion about it, too. In today’s parlance, it was trending.

Gumbel and Goldberg are in the business of news and entertainment. This time, per usual, news and entertainment were the same thing; infotainment.

Gumbel and Goldberg are good at what they do because they combine reporting with acting. Goldberg’s vocal inflections and facial expressions, along with Gumbel’s eyeglasses affectation as a pseudo-intellectual prop illicit the desired response; repulsive disgust.

Interestingly, the story line that got Real Sports excited started DEC 24 and ran through MAR 31 when 23 horses died in 98 days. The segment ignored the fact that no horses died in 46 days-- APR 1 through May 16. Unfortunately, there were three more deaths subsequently, from May 17 through May 26.

Goldberg said horse slaughter is illegal in this country. [Ed note] That’s correct. But slaughterhouses still exist, killing animals for the meet eaten by Americans. However, inspectors of horsemeat were defunded, precluding inspection, thus horses cannot be killed nor approved for use in the US or for export. Still, Real Sports showed a gratuitous scene of horse slaughter for its shock value.

Nothing was mentioned about the rate of horse deaths being decreased in recent years, nor was there reference to Belinda Stronach’s open letter which set a new benchmark for the American horse industry by restricting drug and whip use at Santa Anita.

Veterinarian Rick Arthur said the new measures help identify unsound horses because their problems are not be masked by drugs.

Also not mentioned was the Consortium of Racetracks, venues that account for 90% of betting handle in America. Those tracks banded together to end the use of race-day Laisx beginning with two-year-olds of 2021.

Instead, we got to view an interview with Stuart Janney, Chairman of The Jockey Club, who came off as smug in a statement made in response to Federal legislation that would bail out the industry that TJC cannot. Janney explained, “Powerful track owners and state racing commissions have blocked it.”

The legislation, now called The Horse Racing Integrity Act, aka Barr-Tonko, was first introduced in 2011 and has been reintroduced every two years since. It’s never gotten out of sub-committee, but TJC and other industry groups continue to hope, as they root for a 1000-1 longshot to get to the wire first.
--Mark Berner

REPOSITED: I surely assigned myself the more difficult task. I cannot fundamentally disagree with anything my colleague said. Indeed, I agree with the majority, if not all his points. But there are other dynamics at play to consider.

I spoke with four industry stakeholders, requesting anonymity, one from inside the harness racing industry. Like myself, or anyone tethered to race horses, I was repulsed by what I saw. My wife and I watched it together the first time it aired. We were speechless. I had a grapefruit-sized pit in my stomach.

The why of that is plain, easily understood, and remarkably it was the exact same view shared by the industry stakeholders I hold in the highest esteem. To a man or woman, none of what any of us saw was untrue. It was an unbalanced, incomplete, distortion of reality lacking context.

However, none of it could be categorized as fake video. What appeared on screen actually happened, and continues to happen, every day. Strides have been made but at a snail’s pace.

Everyone knows that hard, meaningful change takes time. But the industry needs to ask itself is why has it taken decades to move the needle? Why did it take all those catastrophic breakdowns at Santa Anita this winter to be the last straw that stirred evolutionary progress? Consider:

Despite recent industry strides that put in place protocols to increase the safety of horses and riders, what are the chances that those remedies would have happened without the newly found urgency created by recent events? Prior to DEC 24, the status quo continued to be preserved.

The industry could have taken action sooner, decades sooner. Instead, it kicked the can down the road. Things cannot be better for the best people with the best horses. Sales receipts are up, lofty purses continue to rise, but rather than seeking change to secure the future, racing’s elite sought only more.

With the deck stacked in their favor, power players had no incentive to move the needle. Yes, animal rights activists have an agenda, not the least of which is their own welfare. But beyond them, who speaks for the rights of animals, “doing what’s best for the horse” platitudes notwithstanding?

Horse racing needs to face the fact that not even the sporting public doesn’t care whether horse racing lives or dies, many preferring the latter given America’s love of planned obsolescence. They once cared about the circus, enjoyed family entertainment provided by whales, dolphins and sea lions, liked betting on and watching greyhounds race. Clearly, times have changed.

The industry effectively has closed its eyes to those realities. Seldom has there been meaningful proaction, only reaction. In the aftermath of the equine carnage this winter, the Chairman of The Stronach Group introduced sweeping changes at her track and was immediately castigated for it.

New standard operating safety procedures in California, including enhanced pre-race veterinary examinations, stringent post-race drug testing to go with its longstanding necropsy program, new rules regarding limited whip use--all in the name of determining cause for fatal injuries; identifying risk factors for injury prevention.

So how did the industry react as a whole? It circled the wagons with individuals and horsemen’s groups belittling the effort as being too extreme, for sleeping with the enemy, PETA, instead of heeding the sage advice of Vito Corleone; to keep your enemies closer.

Nearly 2,000 prominent horse people want raceday Lasix gone. But the majority considers the notion quaint, too expensive, unrealistic; especially veterinary organizations whose members feed at the Lasix trough and horsemen who argue that Lasix, not layups, is the right way to go.

Horsemen want to tailor horses to their “program.” They don’t know any other way and by their reactions it would appear that they are unwilling to learn until absolutely necessary. We care about the future but not if it costs us in the short term.

There is no question the “Real Sports” piece was a hit job. If it were balance HBO sought, the assignment would have gone to Mary Carillo or Soledad O’Brien or Andrea Kremer, reporters with the journalistic chops to craft a balanced report. Instead, they enlisted Bernie Goldberg to do what Bernie Goldberg does. As Mark Berner noted, Goldberg did write the book.

The footage was gratuitously horrific, intended to shock and awe. It succeeded in a manner that was far beyond inelegant. But has horse slaughter outside the U. S. been mitigated since 2008? Hardly, it persists. Has rehabilitation and retraining of retired race horses increased? Yes, but as currently funded cannot keep pace.

The segment showed recent examples. Goldberg interviewed a trainer who admitted to having sent a horse off to the killers that week. He’s still on the job and it’s highly unlikely he can afford to walk away, like one highly successful New York-based claiming trainer with a reputation for sending horses off to kill pens when racing was no longer an option.

Despite the worthiest intentions, it’s impossible for this industry—any industry--to weed out its bad apples, especially highly successful ones. Universal transparency has been an unenforceable ideal, the industry proving over and over it cannot effectively police itself because interests are in conflict and disparate states create disparate rules.

The public isn’t buying that the industry wants real reform. Why should it? A Board of Stewards recently suspended an owner 120 days and levied a $2,500 fine after one of the horses was found in a kill pen. It was a wrist slap—especially considering the individual was secretary/treasurer and board member of the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

To reiterate, the piece was biased. But to proclaim it inaccurate is a refusal to acknowledge what is, just as it was wrong for a prestigious news magazine to present a report without acknowledging progress in the areas of safety and aftercare. Not surprisingly, the Internet has been abuzz. Horse racing is under attack from the public and fans alike. Wrote one:

“What an astonishing and horrifying story. Oh. Wait. It's the same astonishing and horrifying story that has been told a gazillion times, about a gazillion different trainers and tracks and horses, for a gazillion years.

“Nothing changes really, does it? Poor f****** horses. This industry does not deserve you.”
--John Pricci

© Mark Berner, John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider.com, May 28, 2019, All Rights Reserved.