Recently, The Blood-Horse Magazine asked 29 people for their suggestions on how to improve horse racing. It was the kind of question for which answers have been given time and again and, consequently, very few of the suggestions were original. The dearth of ingenuity expressed may be owed to the ease with which the people who were questioned were able to dispense with an answer by reprocessing suggestions that others, specifically those not invited to participate, had already given. The source, in this case, was suspicious.
Not one high-ranking representative of the Breeders’ Cup, National Thoroughbred Racing Association or The Jockey Club, or any of the organizations that are supposedly at the center of power, was asked. Neither, for that matter, was the media.
“We wanted to hear from people who are actually out there in the industry making a living, or more actively involved in some aspect,” Mitchell explained, after noting that industry leaders which his magazine neglected have a standing forum for ideas. As for the slight to the media, Mitchell indicated that after some deliberation his staff believed that it had selected the right people without them. Yes, he admitted that the chosen respondents might have offered nothing different. But that they were asked seemed sufficient to him.
The Blood-Horse divided its survey’s respondents into eight different categories. But the three individuals represented as Horseplayers/Fans were professional gamblers, thus suggesting that a third group was not included. Horse racing has a sizable following of non-bettors or casual bettors that crave an improvement for the sport. On the totem pole of influence, however, these faces are almost invisible, having neither money nor clout.
“Because horse racing is kind of a small enough sport and it still has a lot of intimacy, the media interacts with the fans. Many of the media are horse racing fans themselves,” noted Tom Law, president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. “I do look at the media as having a position to speak for the fans,” Law admitted, stressing that journalists who are doing their jobs properly have to mingle with all segments involved.
“Every member of the media has the responsibility to his readers to point out things that aren’t working and point out things that are working. That’s the role – to report the news, but also to put it into perspective and to point out what it means and how it affects the industry,” Law believes. Nevertheless, except for the rare exception, even the most conscientious turf writers haven’t influenced the sport to operate in many ways for its own good. They, like the survey’s respondents, seem to have their ideas entertained, rarely acted upon.
So, what was the purpose? Mitchell said that the survey was research. Aside from contributing eight pages of content to a wafer-thin 48-page publication, the article enabled people, accomplished in industry specialties but not often heard from, to sound off on issues. In addition, the survey revealed a consensus. Never mind that it’s unclear of who might have stated the ways to fix horse racing first, there was general agreement among 29 people. That, in itself, is unusual.
Although The Blood-Horse determined that the respondents settled on five ways to fix horse racing, there were really only four in the conclusion. Numbers four and five – both addressing the need for medication policy reform - were so decidedly intertwined that they’re hardly separable. If there was a long shot in the bunch, it was the recommendation that the sport should appoint a commissioner and organize nationally. It, too, was eerily similar to another suggestion; that suggestion was to market the sport widely and aggressively.
Ironically, in one sense, all five recommendations are nothing new. Horses ran drug-free before the expansion of racing dates. With Tim Smith directing the activities of the NTRA as a de facto commissioner, handle and attendance grew handsomely. Less is more was the principle that safe-guarded churn and guaranteed that the sport appeared precious. The emergence of endless horse racing burst the bubble. Greed put an end to the common sense that existed.
Now, regardless of how advisable reversing the clock is, temperance seems almost hopeless. The changes required won’t arise from the obvious. The sport has fallen too far, become mainstream irrelevant and dependent on competitors that bring no positive bearing on its value prop. The uniquely American love of money poses a persistent confusion. Considering its position, the business should behave as a start-up. Instead, it is harvesting revenues.
Managed properly, a start-up will prosper eventually. But who in horse racing has the patience? Moreover, who has the vision? What The Blood-Horse’s cover story substantiated is that the sport finds itself in the unenviable bind of adhering to presumptions that nobody can prove because nobody can implement. Characterize the survey’s respondents however you wish. Just don’t interpret their conventional wisdom as advice that can solve anything.
Vic Zast has been a contributor to The Blood-Horse for nearly a dozen years. He writes Vic Zast's Saratoga Diary for bloodhorse.com each summer.