I sat reading the comments under Paulick Reports piece and my eyes just grew wider and wider.
It was a story of an anchor on Sport Illustrated questioning why horse racing was still a thing. With how many deaths it causes – both horse and human – why do we have this sport simply for gambling?
The quote left me saddened. But the comments beneath the post left me angry.
Every single person commented was mad at the reporter.
She didn’t know what she was talking about!
We shouldn’t listen to someone who knew nothing about racing!
Look at football! At boxing! At NASCAR!
And with each comment read, my rage gained. Only that anger wasn’t pointed at Sports Illustrated, or ESPN, or the LA Times, or for once, even PETA.
That rage was turned inward. Towards something I loved. Towards something I admired. Towards something far more internal.
My rage was at my own people. My own industry.
Why do we do this every time something negative comes our way? Why do we deflect instead of defend? We have an entity that is so defendable, and yet we never cite the statistics. We never argue with purpose, or transcend the comments with poise.
Instead, we deflect. We point to other negative images and disgusting ideals. We argue that football players are also injured. That boxers are also left with lingering damage. That NASCAR kills.
But no one was reading that article to hear about the NFL. And no one reading the comments under an article on the Paulick Report doesn’t love racing. Their passion for the sport was obvious, but the target of their point was skewed.
Sports like football have also had their own black marks, and yet they have persisted. And you want to know how?
They have a league.
They have a governing body.
They have a public relations team who’s sole job is not only to put out fires, but to also educate the masses.
The NFL is an entity that now aims to the future instead of arguing the past. They showcase the improvements on helmet construction. The improved concussion policies where players must leave the game to be assessed. Their increase in penalties given for helmet to helmet contact.
All rational progress. Change. Sound bites offered when another trauma is seen. Public relations that leave the fans nodding their heads and thinking, “well, at least we’re trying.”
The public relations that is so key. So necessary. And so lacking in the sport that we all love.
I started this blog because of this dilemma. I saw a lack of outsider knowledge on this beautiful industry. And I knew what it was like to be wary of this sport, and have my eyes opened by transparency.
Because of that, I am blessed and cursed by a large following of non-racing horse lovers. Men and women who have alway thought of the breeding, training, and racing of Thoroughbreds as something dirty. Something compromised. Something tarnished.
And yet I receive messages time and time again about how the transparency of this blog has opened their eyes. Simple stories of small acts of kindness. Stories of breeders falling in love. Owners trying their damndest to save. And farms spending every last nickel and dime of income to secure retirement.
So it came as no surprise to me when my inbox flooded with comments and concerns about the current situation at Santa Anita. Could I answer their questions? Could I inform their naive minds? And more importantly, could I calm their fears?
But I didn’t feel comfortable. I am about as far from Santa Anita as you can get in America, and I have no insider insight. But I at least knew small things.
Like the fact that Santa Anita flew Dr. Mick Peterson out. A colleague and friend from the University of Kentucky, he is the director of our Equine Programs, and he is also the leading research on surfaces. Within days of realizing a problem existed, Mick was there. And that made me feel some calm.
I also knew that the retired track superintendent from yesteryear had come out of retirement just to help. Dennis Moore had spent 30 years working on this specific track, and knew it like the back of his hand. He was there to bring his beloved track back to its former glory, and I was thrilled when that was announced.
And then there was the fact that Santa Anita had closed. Something I had never seen happen in my relatively short tenure within this world without infectious disease. Something that so many considered a move too late – but hindsight is 20/20. To occur before a massive weekend of racing-both for older horses as well as those on the Derby trail. A decision that would lose them more money than I could hope to make in a lifetime. But a decision they committed to, and I applaud them.
But then even moreso, I was privy to the research that is being conducted to both study these breakdowns, as well as predict them. A study by Dr. Laura Kennedy from the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Lab who researches the “one bad step” hypothesis. A study by Dr. David Horohov and Dr. Allen Page from the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center who are attempting to find biomarkers in blood that can predict breakdown. Studies for progress. Studies for improvement. And maybe more importantly, studies that can benefit all breeds of horses, but funded by the thoroughbred industry itself.
And as I wrote these things to the people questioning it, I realized that these are points that the average American wouldn’t have access to. All they are seeing are the 60 second blurbs on NBC. The sound bites on Sports Illustrated. The vitriol of PETA.
Things as simple as a bullet list of what we are doing now. What we have done in the last 10 years. And what we are preparing to do in the future. Change. Progress.
Is it perfect? No. Losing 21 horses in 60 days is devastating – I think we can all agree with that. No one, and I repeat, no one, is taking this lightly. Everyone within this industry is sad. We are scared. We are wary.
But moreso, we should be mad.
We should be mad at ourselves. For letting this bad publicity go unchecked. For reading stories on The BloodHorse and Thoroughbred Daily News and assuming that the average person reads the same. For assuming that this insider knowledge of the situation is broad, and not acknowledging that it is not.
We are not the NFL. We do not have a National governing body, and we desperately need one. I have written of this time and time again, and it is never well received. I am told that a governing body will bring too much regulation. That it will change the sport as we know it. And that those changes will never be for the good.
But if we do not change, we will die.
We can’t keep surviving like this. We can never grow if we do not change. And one of the first things that we need to change is our image. Our ability to handle situations like this current one.
That is going to take a governing body. And maybe more importantly, one hell of a public relations team within it.
Without those things, our sport will disintegrate. With it, we have a hope.
I want to feel hope. I think you all do too.