More specifically, how long will racing go on looking at infractions such as doping horses and other illegal—or at least, dicey—practices, before we finally institute a national racing commission that has teeth? How many more years will be whine, “How do we market racing?” before we come to the realization that the answer to this question also finds itself in the long-overdue concept of a national racing authority?
Every other major sport in the United States has a governing board that regulates not just the rules of play but also has the right to oversee every facet of the sport (including athletes’ behavior). OK, you’re right: many infractions are overlooked. More often than not, athletes who “behave badly” (read that, “break the law”) get no more than a slap on the wrist when they ought to go to prison, keys thrown away.
But at the end of the day, it’s that sport’s commission that takes the heat for such bad decisions. Fans weigh in on blogs, on official commission websites—even on CNN. No American athletic endeavor gets to sleaze past the law of the land without landing squarely on the desk of said sport’s Commissioner. Someone, somewhere, is up at night because it’s their job to “…hold this damned sport together.”
Consider this, readers: We need a racing commission, with a strong, smart, ethical Commissioner. This solution covers many bases, will fix many problems, almost from the first day of business.
Follow the logic here, and I think that you’ll agree with me:
Given: American Thoroughbred racing is currently a disembodied spirit. Every state has a Racing and Wagering Board, or a similar government-run office.
Given: The majority of these government offices are run by those who know nothing about Thoroughbreds, or racing them. The majority of Board members are political appointees.
(Don’t get all in my face: of course I haven’t visited the Boards of every state, but I surely know about New York, and Pataki’s and Spitzer’s appointees. I attended a meeting three years ago during which a Board member asked, “What’s ‘milkshaking’?” No kidding. Also, it happens that I did a little 12-page research paper on the topic in January, 2007—so I may actually have some insight to offer.)
The majority of Board members were given their jobs because someone owed them a favor. Let’s say I wake up tomorrow and am named to the Board of Verizon, because I bailed the COO out of jail when we were co-eds together a hundred years ago. Hey, I’m not qualified to run a multinational corporation; I know nothing about telecommunications; and I get itchy and scratchy in the presence of all that polyester ‘round the Boardroom table. But the COO owes me, so…Voila! Suddenly, I’m an expert, and have a gig on the Board of Verizon. Nice.
Nepotism can be a beautiful thing—except when it’s deep-sixing the sport that’s the oldest of all American sports—and the most beautiful.
Well, American Racing and Wagering Boards (not ALL of them, but a large number) are, by-and-large, made up of sycophants and those who won’t balk at kissing up to whomever’s in charge, in exchange for their fat job and state bennies.
Given: This is a problem. We have a system that’s broke, broke, broke. So many states with impotent and/or ignorant Boards, overseeing every facet of our complicated sport. But those facets are made more complicated than they need to be, simply because there are too damned many people stirring the pot. Too many Boards, too many members, too many cooks in the kitchen. Like the Six Blind Men and the Elephant, every state’s Board is going to see The Problem of Racing from the perspective of their own State, its needs and the demands of the Governors breathing down their necks.
It’s like herding cats. So many Boards; so many people making decisions that are based in the need to keep their jobs. And since they’re making rules that relate solely to their individual states, no regard is given to the other states (and Commonwealths); the horses who run there; or their connections.
Given: Racing people lie awake at night, trying to find new and exciting ways to market this sport. This “marketing problem” drives me to distraction: the real marketing problem is that they want to market everything but racing.
We don’t need casinos.
We don’t need scantily-clad Barbie dolls.
We don’t need—or want—malls at racetracks.
How ‘bout, oh, I don’t know—actually marketing the sport in which beautiful, big, half-ton animals race each other faster than the speed of light--the sport that is capable of exploding a human heart at 12 seconds per furlong?
How about marketing said endeavor to the 51% of the population that’s already predisposed to fall in love with horses—and who already make up the majority of the fanbase in the sport?
So this Given is that we have all these racing executives, running around like lunatics, trying to find new, exciting programs to get more people to the races. And all we need are the horses, their riders and the opportunity to share one golden second of eternity and glory. The archetypal warrior horse and its relationship to the collective unconscious. It’s such a firmly-entrenched given that it’s entirely overlooked.
Introduce people to Thoroughbreds: the horses, themselves, will get fans to the track.
And new fans can be educated to become savvy, passionate bettors.
But, NO. The highly-paid, Madison Avenue consultants are marketing the sport from the back, forward. They’ve found a thousand other ways to get people to the track—waterslide parks and bouncy-bounces for the kids; Las Vegasesque ambience and car shows.
A thousand other frantic, wild-eyed, loudly-hyped ways to get people to the track.
They get them there—and yet—the authorities Don’t Get It, that getting them there and getting them to stay there and bet are two different concepts. We want them to stay, become passionate evangelists for our sport, and to spend their money betting on the horses. Witness the recent NYRA red-chair giveaway: 72,000 paid admissions. Not 72,000 attendees—these were “spinners,” going through the turnstiles 20 times to get chairs and sell them online. I saw more people walking out after they got their $3 chairs, than those who stayed on the grounds. They fairly ran back out the gates, to fire up their computers and get those badboys on eBay for $25.
Lots of paid admissions—but only a fraction of that number stayed and actually bet on racing that day.
So it’s the last Given, that we don’t need a slick, Madison-Avenue, digital, neon, whorish marketing plan. It actually hurts to watch these people flailing about like so many drowning sailors on a sinking ship.
We need a Racing Commissioner.
We need someone—a horsewoman, I propose—to rise up out of the mess and take the reins. A person who has actually touched a Thoroughbred; has experience, knowledge and education in racing. Let’s give her a big salary, a car, benefits galore—and a staff of bright, engaging, forward-thinking associates who can regulate, market and pull together all the facets of racing under one umbrella.
Right here, right now, I’m calling for a National Thoroughbred Racing Commission, headed up by a real, live, Commissioner. Someone who’s not afraid of responsibility. A person of integrity; grace under fire; intellectual acumen; passion for the horses; and the strong desire to Do the Right Thing.
Are we afraid that such a person exists? Our sport has a long and storied past of rapscallions, rakes and renegades. We love the lore about Diamond Jim Brady and his tartlet wife, Lillian Russell. We enjoy a tale in which someone “gets away with it”—but do we really want Diamond Jim to run the sport? Do we want to continue to see women treated as frosting on the banquet dessert table? Are we truly happy knowing that the horses who give their all for us are too-often mistreated, abused, doped—and then shipped off to New Holland on their fearful way to Texas?
Do we want to watch the sport die a slow, painful death that it needn’t experience—simply because we have Racing Boards with no experience; post-modern marketing dreams—and no unifying voice, no Commission?
If we’re content with things the way they are, fine. If cobra venom and milkshaking our precious horses is OK by you, great. If reality shows (which have nothing whatsoever to do with reality) and frantic, pseudo-marketing attempts satisfy you, dandy.
But…if you love this sport; if you’re nuts about our magnificent equine athletes; if you want to see this sport successfully sail into the 21st Century—then bang the drum for a National Thoroughbred Racing Commission. Let’s hire some great woman—Broad or Lady, I don’t care, as long as she’s a knowledgeable horsewoman—to be the first-ever Commissioner. Let’s set her free, a contemporary Wyatt Earp, to clean up this sport.
Rascals beware: I’m mouthing off and demanding that a new Sheriff ride into town—and if I get my way, she’ll be packin’ heat.