Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Ennui Over Racetrack Afterlife

(CHICAGO, IL – March 21, 2011) Very few stories by horse racing writers result in impromptu news teleconferences. But the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, with the help of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, invited the media to a party line only hours after Joe Drape’s scathing exposé was published in Thursday’s New York Times.

Drape implicated the TRF in equine cruelty by declaring that the charity neglected to pay farmers on their contracts to oversee retired horses. His article’s headline – “Ex-Racehorses Starve as Charity Fails in Mission to Care for Them” - guaranteed that the piece would be flammable. If the need to maintain industry friendships doesn’t get in his path, the Eclipse Award-winning journalist could wind up winning a Pulitzer Prize with work of this fervor.

Readers are entitled to draw their own conclusions about what was written. But Drape wrote a news story, reported without editorial embellishment. He confirmed his objectivity by implication when calling in on the conference connection to ask Tom Ludt, the TRF’s chairman, and George Grayson, the group’s president, with which of his points they found fault. Although the three men expressed disagreement, the dialogue was cordial. Was there interest among others in that which was spoken? Hardly. Only four media representatives asked questions.

“The TRF – a national charitable organization – asked for our help,” said Eric Wing, Sr. Director of Media Relations, when asked to explain why the NTRA hosted the presentation. To most people, where the NTRA’s charter begins and what it includes are unclear. Nevertheless, it is good that the sport’s most effective news clearing house realizes that sweeping dirt under the rug will result in an untidy living room. “If an issue of national significance pops up, one that directly affects our members and one that requires timely action, then we’re happy to help out,” Wing remarked.

Drape’s provocations didn’t lay open the important question about who really should pay for keeping horses no longer productive alive, but they certainly prompted it. In most consumer businesses, the manufacturer accepts the return of products that don’t live up to their promise or funds the process with a markdown allowance or damages fee. Many people believe that the industry, even without a commissioner, could enact a requirement that holds breeders and owners accountable for providing the horses a racetrack afterlife.

“In the final analysis, racing has to decide what it’s going to do about this,” commented Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends, which cares for about only a tenth the number of horses in the care of the TRF, but maintains a roster of former stars such as Marquetry, Tinner’s Way, Gulch and Sunshine Forever. “It’s a solvable problem, and it doesn’t even take that much money,” Blowen argued. “We have horses here that have generated $75 million in their careers, and they have no Social Security and no 401-k. It’s the fans that are taking care of them,” he noted.

Blowen believes equine retirement homes should be supported by the industry in the same manner as waste management companies are supported by garbage producers. As for the TRF’s finances, Grayson acknowledged an operating budget of $2.7 million, explaining that five percent of a $7 million trust established upon the death of Paul Mellon represents 13 percent of the total. Given reasonable administrative costs, this amount seems sufficient to care for the 1000 horses on the TRF’s farms, although it didn’t appear adequate last year.

In regard to investigative ennui, there are several reasons that explain why many turf writers are indifferent to controversial issues. In the first place, there aren’t many outlets for horse racing news, let alone news that is costly and hard to gather. The beat isn't sweet any longer. A writer with talent and ambition will do better by investing his time eslewhere. The few turf writers still on the payrolls of magazines and newspapers are asked to wear several hats. Their employers give them little time and money to produce work on a topic deserving of little coverage. One is only as good in his job as his opportunity allows.

As for those who do choose the sport, the knack for knowing on which side of the bread you'll find butter is attained quickly. Many writers learn that the people they cover are also a source of psychic income. An invisible line’s often drawn that becomes hard to cross when a subject reflects poorly on the benefactors. Harboring a love for the sport that’s extraordinary, some writers become star struck with trainers and jockeys. In addition, it pays not to bite the hand that feeds you. There have been notable cases in which racetracks have punished an individual for following the requirements of his trade by denying him access, ignoring his calls, making him feel like an outcast or cutting him off from free coffee.

Lastly, because only trade members support the sport's media with ad money, pressure is placed on trade press editors by publishers to watch out for what’s being published. Even the most successful Internet sites, including the biggest aggregator, owe their existence to the racecourses, farms and betting sites. Publications that run articles that reflect poorly on customers often lose the support of those customers. Outlets such as the Times have a broad-based, diversified advertising base to compensate when revenues are held back in protest by advertisers offended by editorial content.

When stories like Drape's hit, the industry's shocked by their impact and candor. People bristle. They affect damage control. Ludt concluded the teleconference by exaggerating to Ron Mitchell of that the story might serve as a blessing. He intimated that the TRF was receiving new donations as a result of what Drape had written. If that is true, a reaction came quickly.

In any case, defending yourself from a negligence charge is a strange way to fund-raise. Come to think of it, relying solely on charity to care for the horses' retirement is strange.

Drape reported on Friday that the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau will review the complaints about fiscal irresponsibility and shoddy horse care that have been leveled against the TRF, a Saratoga Springs, NY institution. Wing will be pressed into duty again if the Bureau finds impropriety.

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