Commentary: When Considering Racing’s Problems, Ask Yourself What You Can Do To Help

Soon, we will be able to close the book on 2019, and many of us who work in horse racing have never been so happy to see a year end. The start of a new year is often the time for reflection and hopes for a brighter future. 

The horse racing community is an engaged one which, if our comment section is anything to go by, spends a lot of time thinking and hoping for a better future for the industry. The racing community has all sorts of ideas about how to make the sport better (or, these days, how to right the ship). The problem that has stood out to me recently is that a lot of people spend their time yelling at each other on social media and in these pages about “what needs to be done here,” apparently in the mistaken belief that this is the most logical way to get something accomplished. 

It isn’t. 

It’s no secret that it’s going to take significant effort to turn racing around at this point. Public opinion of the sport is not great, California lawmakers and animal rights activists are glaring at Santa Anita while flexing their muscles, the national media spotlight is growing hot — all this even as major race days see increased handle at major races like the Kentucky Derby.

Really, we should have begun the effort to address safety, welfare, and public perception before we started getting negative attention. It may already be too late. But if, for the sake of argument, we say it’s not, then I would tell you this, dear reader – you need to ask yourself what you are doing to make the sport better. “Being an advocate for racing” doesn’t count if what you mean is you come to the Paulick Report to argue with people in the comment section under a fake name, and do absolutely nothing else. What are you doing? 

Are you worried about public perception? Have you ever brought a friend or neighbor to the racetrack with you? Someone who doesn’t already watch the races with you on Saturdays? Ever hosted a Derby party or office pool? If you’re a licensee, have you brought a non-racing person or racing newbie to the backstretch with you? Have you gotten them close to the horses and the people who care for them day in and day out? When your co-worker/stranger next to you at the airport/Uber driver/neighbor/neighbor’s dog asks you, (because I know they’ve probably asked you), ‘What’s the deal with those racing deaths in California?’ did you answer the question openly and thoughtfully? Did you tell them about the changes the industry is making to try to address the problem (whether or not you agreed with those changes)? And about social media — are you using it to enlighten and educate the non-racing public kindly? Are you acting as a positive ambassador for the sport? Are you using it to educate yourself about the perspectives of people outside our sport? After all, the world outside racing is far greater than the world inside it.  

Are you worried about aftercare? (If you aren’t, you probably should be.) Do you donate to accredited aftercare organizations? If you’re hard up for cash, do you volunteer your time or donate goods or services they can use? If you have friends with shares in racehorses, are you asking them what their retirement plan is for those horses? Have you spoken to your commission/racetrack/horsemen’s group/state breed association/national groups about the issue? Have you encouraged friends to donate their time, services, or cash to these groups? 

Do you worry that the racetracks and/or racing commissions aren’t doing enough to crack down on cheaters? Do you attend meetings of the racing commissions? Do you dial into shareholder calls of the companies that own racetracks? Do you submit public comments? Have you provided whatever ideas or tips you have to commission investigators, veterinarians, directors? Have you brought your concerns to trusted veterinarians or trainers at the track to learn more? Have you spoken to the local horsemen’s group? When you tried all of that and it didn’t work, did you stop giving that racetrack or jurisdiction your betting dollars?

Maybe you’re not someone with heavy involvement in the industry, but you have plenty of opinions anyway. That’s great! Have you considered whether your profession gives you any particular skills that could translate to racing? If you work in public relations, hospitality, law, another equine sport, or a variety of medical roles, you may be able to offer a relevant perspective that insiders don’t have. Are you making those connections with regulators, track operators, trainers? Do you have a great idea for a promotion the racetrack should try? Have you identified the right person in the marketing department who could take that idea and run with it?

And please, don’t tell me again that the solution to all these problems is a national uniform governing body. Of course it is, but if I based a drinking game around hearing that refrain, I would have been under the table within weeks of starting this job eight years ago. I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me how we could logistically go about creating a mandatory one. Figuring out the details is, apparently, someone else’s problem to solve.

It’s true that in racing, the fate of many is decided by a startlingly small group of key players. But blaming that hierarchy for your own inaction is a misguided, weak excuse. You, the public, have a voice. You can use it redundantly or you can use it productively. The choice is yours. 

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