Somewhere last week, someone who owns a Thoroughbred racehorse went to work and faced the questions.
“Did you see that video?”
“What’s up with racing and PETA?”
“That’s what you do on weekends? You really think that’s a good way to spend your money?”
“Were those your horses?”
“Who’s Scott Blayzee? You know him?”
And on and on and on.
That will be the biggest fallout from the latest Check Engine light to go off about Thoroughbred racing because the sport – ultimately – depends on people choosing to spend disposable income on a horse or a trip to the track or a wager. If that choice becomes too problematic, too unsavory, too questionable, then those people will make other choices. Maybe they’ll buy a boat. Maybe they’ll drive racecars. Maybe they’ll run marathons on weekends. Maybe they’ll do anything but align themselves with a sport that seems so out of sync with what the general public wants and so powerless to change itself.
The public wants to know the horses are OK, or as OK as possible. The public wants to know the sport is populated by participants who care. The public wants to have faith that cheaters will be caught and penalized, and that jerks will be marginalized. The public wants to believe racing is a noble pursuit, fairly governed by an even-handed entity.
The public does not want to see racing on an undercover People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals video, even if the public doesn’t trust PETA. The public does not want to hear that Thoroughbred caretakers give thyroid medication to every horse in the barn because it’s supposed to bulk them up or slim them down or make them eat or something. The public does not want to hear a foul-mouthed description of a horse, its health or its ability.
If racing can’t figure that out, it’s doomed. As a trainer told me last week, “Things like this don’t make you want to jump out of bed in the morning and go to work, do they?”
The fallout from the PETA video of trainer Steve Asmussen's barn and assistant Scott Blasi, accompanied by a New York Times article, has been vast and predictable. Columns like this one have been written. A disgusting lash-back website was created. A charming, grass-roots social media campaign (#fullstorypeta) showing hundreds of Thoroughbred horses being well cared for, and even loved, was launched. A national “racing league” was discussed. Calls to arms were declared.
None of it will work, not without fundamental change.
The foundation of American racing is weak and fractured. It can’t survive (well, it can’t thrive), not the way it’s constructed. Not in today’s instant-media, undercover-camera world. Not in the face of organized, well-funded critics. Not held up against the way other countries do racing. Not when compared to other sports. There’s just too much to overcome.
So what should racing do? It should start over.
You know what they say, if you really want to mess up something get the government involved. But it might be the only way through the morass.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2013 should be the hammer that convinces states that conduct Thoroughbred racing to cede control of horse safety and welfare to one agency. The act calls for the involvement of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and that’s OK, but USADA should in turn hand the job to some combination of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the Association of Racing Commissioners International and/or The Jockey Club's Horse Racing Reform program which already have model rules. Then, the Jockey Club or some other national organization with a plan should take over licensing of all Thoroughbred owners, trainers, jockeys and veterinarians. Maybe stable employees too, but we’ll get to that.
Wait a minute, you say? Gambling is a state issue. The feds can’t take over a sport which derives its income from pari-mutuel wagering. First of all, nobody said anything about a takeover (not here anyway). Second, this is no longer a wagering issue. It’s a horse- and human-safety issue. The horses are in danger. The people that ride them and care for them are too. How much danger? That's a good question, up for plenty of debate. It's nowhere near the danger PETA and other extremists want the world to think, but the perception is that it's dire and perception matters. That cannot be debated.
And state racing commissions struggle to keep up with the cheating, the regulations, the concept of national uniformity and so on. Yes, gambling is a state thing. In various states around the country, you can bet on cards, dice, slots, horses, NFL games, lotteries, dogs but how and where and under what conditions you do it is up to state regulation. Let states regulate gambling all they want. Horses are not dice or cards or slot machines, however. People care about what happens to horses, and rules governing their health and well-being ought to be the same across the country. Horses should not be more protected in one state than they are in another, and a state should not risk its racing product or its relationship with horsemen to enact new rules. Give that responsibility to the industry. States might actually be grateful for the help, and permission to stop devoting so many resources to horse racing.
Racing is allowed to simulcast and accept bets across state lines because of federal legislation (the Interstate Horseracing Act), and if you think that permission isn't threatened by the industry's lack of control and uniformity you're fooling yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, a green light for national racing rules will put power behind the well-meaning efforts in place now. That’s the crazy thing about racing. The sport has all sorts of potential ways to solve problems, but they’re optional or pending or implementation varies depending on the forms of state government, the power of horsemen’s groups and any number of other variables. There is great work being done, just not all at once or as sweeping, progressive steps. The NTRA accredits tracks for safety. Not all tracks mind you, just some. Applying is optional. The TRA and TRPB offer a variety of services to tracks. Not all tracks, just members. The RMTC, RCI and some intrepid racing leaders created standardized rules for medication usage. The move was historic, powerful, meaningful and overdue, but there it is again – racing has to make incremental, step-by-step progress rather than sweeping change. According to a recent statement by The Jockey Club, four of the 38 states with pari-mutuel racing have fully adopted the rules. A dozen are in the process.
To racing, that’s progress. To PETA, it’s ammunition. Racing recognizes something must be done, but has not been able to do it efficiently.
After Mark Howe nearly died when cut by the metal point at the bottom of a regulation NHL goal, the league changed the net design. Not on some nets in some rinks. On all nets at all rinks. After players shattered backboards in the NBA, the league created collapsible rims. Not just in Philadelphia, where Darryl Dawkins played. Everywhere.
It took awhile, and they should be ashamed, but Major League Baseball owners and players found a way to create an anti-steroid policy that protects the game and levels the playing field. Sluggers stopped hitting 60 home runs a year, and baseball won back the trust of fans. In a strong parallel, Congress held hearings about steroids in baseball and did so because of the Federally Controlled Substances Act (which regulates the use of performance enhancing drugs) and Major League Baseball's exemption from most federal anti-trust laws.
Congress didn’t take over baseball. Congress held baseball accountable. And baseball got the message.
Racing should too. With political help, create one licensing/regulatory body that can enforce rules, run drug-testing programs, suspend and ban licensees, run investigations, accredit racetracks, produce educational plans and so on. Again, there are already numerous credible options in place for various ways to do this. Enact them, everywhere, and let’s get on with it.
Read the March 28 statement from The Jockey Club Chairman Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps.
Read the March 20 statement Jockey Club.