Jon Stettin beat me to the punch. Penciled in for today was a column catching up with stories that slipped through the cracks this week while life, history and wagers were made.
The item of note was to be a piece written by Donna Brothers entitled “PETA Is a Bully,” which appeared in the Paulick Report this week. And I had some good snark to go along with the review.
In short, it was well written piece that attacks the organization that attacks horse racing submitted, coincidentally, several days prior to the Eclipse Award media-submissions deadline.
As one would expect, the story got a lot of attention from racing fans and horse lovers, sparking over 300 comments on the website in less than 48 hours. Lots of “you go, girl” stuff, how PETA doesn’t play fair, etc., etc.
Well, of course PETA don’t play fair. How can it raise money unless it’s visibly active stirring the pot; bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Having picket signs and a sympathetic public willing to listen doesn’t hurt them.
PETA is a lot like pro-life organizations which, when one thinks about it, is off-brand. Pro-Life really means Pro-Birth, since these hypocritical so-called Christian organizations don’t seem to care about those fetuses once they’re delivered.
But say this for those Americans; they love their animals, treating and caring about them better than they do their fellow man. But I digress.
Ridding myself of pent-up snark, I will not that the Eclipse committee has rules. Stories must be submitted by editors from reputable publications, of course, along with documentation that stories are authentic and appeared within the voting year.
Judges are not told in which publication the story appeared nor name of the author. The stories are to be recognized on the merits. However, it’s not unfair to wonder whether the judges are aware of the author, given its wide dissemination on the Internet and social media.
For its part, HorseRaceInsider has not submitted a story of any kind since inception in 2007. When your tagline is “the conscience of thoroughbred racing,” you often write things the industry would prefer to ignore.
But then that’s racing’s problem, isn’t it? It becomes about the messenger and not the message. Not intended as snark, here’s an observation worth pondering:
Instead of a tax cut in the form of lower takeout lowering or reducing the cost of basic past performance information, it’s the tee-shirt and hat giveaways and skydivers landing in the middle of the infield on big race days that have become the staples of the industry.
The focus is now on entertainment: Somewhere today will be a podcast battle between Brothers and PETA vice-resident and spokesperson, Kathy Guillermo. I’m sure each will get their licks in but it’s exhausting to even consider it.
Stettin nailed it in Saturday’s Pastthewire.com offering: “We Met the Enemy and He Is Us,” giving one example of how racetracks populate their betting cards by any means necessary. That exchange goes something like this:
“You help this race go'” suggests the racing secretary to the trainer, “and if we have enough horses that afternoon we’ll let you scratch off the program.” And if that doesn’t work? “I’ll write an ‘extra’, that N2L for 25-claimers you asked me about; I’ll have no problem making that race go.”
Of course, if by race day that horse is a little “off,” there’s legal medication for that.
When it wants, racing is good at sending messages. The problem is that it’s speaking to dwindling choir by the day as big stables get bigger with every owner’s phone call. The result? Over-bet horses from a handful of barns dominate the outcome.
Engaging the customer is no longer about handicapping horses in the traditional sense. All one needs to bet these days is a good set of form-cycle figures and trainer stats.
I cut my teeth professionally in racing’s glory days, the ’70s: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, along with his trusty sidekick, Alydar. The result often was the same but it was compelling racing theater each and every time.
And to witness the wizardry of Charlie, of Woody, of The Chief, three of the greatest horsemen to ever walk the planet? Priceless. But rarely did their win percentages consistently hit 25%. Today, one needs to reach almost 30% before anyone lifts an eyebrow.
To combat the negative publicity that comes with fatal equine injuries, racing resorts to, as Stettin pointed out, platitudes about how much the backstretch community loves its horses–they’re like family pets–which is at once true but sad.
Sad because love of the Thoroughbred knows no bounds until economies of scale are factored into the equation. Just ask Kentucky’s “Lasix 600.” It’s the only example you’ll ever need to cite.
Take a haircut for the long term health of the industry? Some of these folks wouldn’t even consider a shave.
Times change but the best part of the game shouldn’t; the horses. But they have morphed, too. One of God’s most beautiful and enduring creatures has gotten prettier and faster because today they are bred to be sold at auction, syndicated, then re-sold and re-syndicated.
Horses no longer are bred to race as “old money”owners did back in the day. Racing is about collecting Grade or Group 1 victories, increasing and protecting shareholder value. It’s no secret that the sport has been reduced to that of a marketing arm for the breeding industry.
In the run-up to Breeders’ Cup 36, the great John Gosden, sans the great Enable, was quoted extensively in racing publications and in mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic.
Culled from those interviews are some observations and opinions worth noting. On medication:
“The therapeutic use of medication in training is not something that should be vilified, but is it morally right that an athlete should be receiving intravenous injections the morning of, or day before, a race?”
On racing’s popularity: “I realize with a more urbanized society there is an increasing disassociation with living creatures and certainly horses… At the same time, the world we live in now expects a higher standard of care. We have to live with that surreal contradiction and deal with it.”
On Santa Anita last winter: “There were two or three winters I was there [1980s] with rains of biblical proportions when Bobby Frankel, myself, and a lot of others were just jogging the wrong way on the training track… We backed right off a lot of horses…
“Alec Head always said to me ‘the most difficult thing is not to run’… So even though we live in a little bit of an instantaneous world now, inclined to value the short term instead of taking the long view, we must never forget we are responsible for the lives of horses.”
And so, like Brothers, Stettin and myself, we will continue to talk, write and argue about what’s wrong with racing and how to correct it. But we know that can’t happen because the game cannot fix itself from within, only from without.
The time for government oversight it at hand. Think not? Then consider this:
There are 20 million registered voters in California where the iconic Santa Anita and Del Mar stand. If roughly 600,000 of that 20 million back a referendum demanding that racing be banned, the proposition would appear on a future ballot.
In this climate, how do you think that would turn out? Then the talk and the written words would be about the beginning of the end.
People don’t need horse racing but horse racing sure needs the people. Racing must come clean, acknowledge its problems, and prove to all that the industry has made things better for the horses, actions that speak louder than platitudes.