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.

33 Comments on “Public Relations

  1. As always, well said. I always appreciate your perspective on this industry. It genuinely helps those of us who are a bit farther removed, to be better advocates for the sport.

  2. Equine deaths in this industry have always been a very high rate since the early 2000’s, and I find it sickening how 21 deaths in little over 2 months suddenly brings the public’ attention. This all occurred on ONE track. This has been going on for years. Suggestions for Reform:
    1. Create a governing body that regualates all drug laws/policies in ALL race-participating states. (Pain-masking drugs are the main cause of catastrophic breakdowns).
    2. PERMANENTLY terminate the licenses of owners, trainers and veterinarians who are proven guilty of illegal drug use/abuse in their horses during training/race day. (Instead of slapping them on the wrist with 6 mo. Suspensions. )
    3. Start the horses when their musculoskeletal structures are physically mature. That is the #1 cause of racehorse injury! NFL, boxers, NASCAR and other professional sport leagues do not compete their athletes at infant ages.
    4. Create an organization in every race-participating state owners MUST sign up and invest in to ensure a permanate retirement home for each of their “loved” athletes. (Once horses are no longer profitable, MANY of them become discarded)

    Here’s the main picture: This industry is for the entertainment and profit gain of humans from the fantastic athleticism of Thorougbreds. DO NOT compare them to human athletes. They [horses] do not choose to inject themselves with illegal drugs. They [horses] do not have any say in what they get to do, whether they do not feel 100% sound to race/train, simply because they cannot talk.
    If four NFL players died while competing every month, there would be an outcry.
    Please, there are major changes that must be taken into action NOW, or more will die.

    • While I agree with many of your points, I do have some comments…

      There is a ZERO tolerance policy in CA for NSAID’s on race day. So none of these deaths were caused by masking pain in the horses. As a lifelong horseman, I can guarantee you that no amount of banamine or bute will mask the pain of a fracture.

      Additionally, numerous studies have shown that starting horses at 2 actually LENGTHENS their careers. There’s no data to support your 3rd point. Every since study found the exact opposite.

      And finally. While I agree that industry should support aftercare, I do not agree that they are responsible for life. They are responsible for the ethical first placement-whether that is to an adoption agency or a private person. But if they control the horse for life, people like me wouldn’t have access to
      These amazing horses for sport.

      Finally, I love reading comments like this, but why Anonymous? C’mon. Be braver.

      • All athletes in the world start when they are in kindergarten, so yeah, maybe not infant, but they sure start young. A 2 yo horse is comparable to a teenager in growth, and if I’m not mistaken, all teenagers SHOULD do sports. It would be very bad for everyone to wait until they are done “maturing” and “growing” to just then start sports… that would mean all men would only start at 18-20 (if you’re talking about physical maturity, and 40 if you’re talking about mental.emotional maturity LOL). Would that not be disastrous?????

      • “3. Start the horses when their musculoskeletal structures are physically mature. That is the #1 cause of racehorse injury! NFL, boxers, NASCAR and other professional sport leagues do not compete their athletes at infant ages.”

        I agree with Carleighfedroka. While by no means an expert myself, but many studies have been done about how “percussive therapy” (for lack of a better term) in horses at a younger age assists with bone remodelling and thus strengthening. And starting a young horse in racing vs a horse that’s been “aged” and out to pasture until 4 or 5 actually is more beneficial to injury prevention.

        I’ve also heard in EU foals are stalled on concrete floors. Shavings in one part yet concrete on the other – of the same mind that the hard ground at a young age helps with bone development.

        While breakdowns happen on other tracks, the frequency in which they were happening at this track, VS even Del Mar (only two hours away) or other tracks in the region, or country for that matter, points to an issue with the track itself vs the industry as a whole. That is NOT to negate breakdowns of horse and rider at other tracks, but to point out that the frequency at Santa Anita is lending itself to be more track specific.

      • I have a couple questions.
        When you say none of these deaths were caused by masking pain in horses- are you aware that a lot of these deaths happened in the mornings, when there is no testing? So, perhaps the umbrella statement that NONE of these deaths were due to masking pain is a bit too broad?
        Second- can you point your readers towards the studies that say starting horses at 2 lengthens their careers? Again, this is broad. Starting as early two year olds or late two year olds? Is there a correlation between number of starts as a two year old and length of career? Could the apparent increase in length of career have to do with many horses retiring around the same age, and therefore starting them at two adds a year to their racing career but doesn’t necessarily correlate with racing longevity due to soundness?
        Third- regarding your statement that as a lifelong horsewoman no amount of bute or banamine will mask the pain of a fracture, perhaps you have not worked on the track long enough. I can guarantee a little bute or banamine will go a long way in masking quite a few injuries, including fractures, and especially those of the hairline type that may be a bit more subtle. On that note, my final question- what is your racetrack experience?

  3. Well said Carleigh! You got my attention immediately when you pointed out the deflection. That always angers me too. Why is it that people so often respond to a wrong by pointing out another wrong? Didn’t someone once say something about two wrongs not making a right? And I’ve always felt that racing needs better PR to offset the negative ink. Right on Carleigh!

  4. I am NOT a fan of racing, never have been. And yet, I’ve been around horses since I was a child, and I’ve had multiple OTTBs in my career. Some were great horses, too many were damaged beyond repair, often psychologically. Can’t the industry just start racing them at 3 y/o instead of 2? That alone could make a difference. And stop sending so many of them to be disposed off. Have the guts to take them back, retire them, of put them to sleep. To see so many TBs ending up in the slaughter pipeline is sickening

    • Diana,

      I hope you continue to read my blog and hear stories of the good within it and the owners that do right by their horses. This perception of disposal is quite old, and we’ve made massive strides in remedying it. Tb’s off the track are quite the hot commodity these days!

      As for the “start when they’re 3”….first of all, all of the data on this subject points the other way. That starting horses at 2 actually leads to a longer career and lower risk of catastrophic injury. This is due to the longer slower build up of what is considered “hard bone” that horses don’t develop in the field. In addition, I haven’t seen any data to actually show us that the majority of these horses are 2? In fact I have heard more regarding older horses at SA. So I don’t think that argument is applicable in this situation. And again, leads to deflection. Age isn’t the problem. It appears the track surface is the problem. Combined with high rainfall.

      • ‘longer, slower build up’. Those are key words. The 2 year old in training sales are the complete opposite. How do you think those 2 year olds will fare?

      • There have been studies which have shown that the 2yo sales have no negative impact on longevity of career.

        With that being said, I don’t like them. But I like science, and science tells us that they are not detrimental.

      • If the two year olds were being genuinely ‘encouraged’ to run with a hand ride and shaking a rein, I would agree. But the stress they exhibit while being whipped to achieve blistering speed speaks volumes. With the increase in break downs and fewer horses making it to 6 or 7, I think science needs to look at that.

  5. I agree with some of these points. What i don’t agree with is i don’t think it’s the track surface. I’ve worked at the cal expo racetrack here in Sacramento California. I believe something more is going on I’m also a horse owner. At a stable here. In California I’ve been hearing all the news stories. And reading all the articles’ as a former groom of the racetrack. And as an outsider i hope something is done soon and i hope that there can be a governing body in thoroughbred racing. I’ve also been a lifelong thoroughbred racing Fan and I’d just like to see this situation get taken under control somehow.

  6. Thank you so much for your perspective, and bringing science and reason into the conversation. It is much needed.

  7. I am not involved at all in the race industry, but have friends/acquaintances who rehome on a regular basis. I am a regular lurker on CoTH forums and the reactions I am reading on the threads discussing this issue are frustrating to say the least.

    Those involved in the racing industry aren’t having healthy discussion, but rather blasting anyone who brings up questions and, in some instances, devolving into name calling. Granted, CoTH forums aren’t a news outlet, per se, but it does serve as an space for more informal discussion. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Q&A with people IN the industry that is moderated and promotes healthy, valuable discourse? Kind of like the Reddit AMAs.

    Just my two sense. I will continue to follow the story and hope that they get this figured out. Thanks for writing this piece. I will be sharing it.

  8. Totally agree, if the sport doesn’t change with the times, it will die. Horse first, sport second.

  9. Just want to comment on your mentioning of PETA. Full disclosure – I own an ottb, and absolutely believe that thoroughbreds love to run. Watching Secretariat’s Belmont was one of the peak equine experiences of my life. Watching Ruffian breakdown in the match race with Foolish Pleasure was literally heartbreaking.

    While I do not agree with most of PETA’s philosophy (as I understand it), I believe the organization’s existence has had a very important effect on how the rights of animals, and our obligation towards the animals we interact with, are viewed in this country.

    We are not so far off from times when anything humans wanted to do to/with an animals was acceptable. Inhumane treatment was tolerated if not the norm – excepting of household pets, and maybe not even then. Animals which were seen as a means to an end: sources of food, beasts of burden and providers of entertainment, had little advocacy. Yes, the SPCA existed, but I think most of us involved with horses are aware of how their hands are tied when it comes to resolving equine neglect and abuse cases.

    Sometimes it takes an organization like PETA, at the extreme end of the animal welfare spectrum, to move the marker, so that the public perception of the issue can change appreciably. And we all need to ask ourselves what number of deaths of thoroughbreds racing for our entertainment (and profit) is acceptable, and act accordingly.

    • You actually want to thank the Humane Society of the US in the real first defenders of the rights of animals, and in fact they started in the late 1800s fighting the working conditions of working horses in NYC. PETA solely exists to fund their bottom line.

      • I agree with your perception of PETA. Organizations, like HSUS and HSI are the ones we need to support.

      • I actually support HSUS, and at one point worked with their leadership on a campaign to stop the transport of horses to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico. Not sure that you read my comment – I didn’t recommend supporting PETA (or not supporting HSUS) but suggested acknowledging the part PETA has played in changing public perception of animal rights and welfare. Two completely different things.

  10. I really appreciate this piece. Shared it on a horse forum I’m a part of and will share later to my own blog. I have a BS in human physiology and work as a healthcare analyst. While I think it’s great they’re brining in track experts, I wonder what other potential factors are playing into the increase in breakdowns. Certain antibiotics in people have been tied to tendon rupture, makes me wonder about what things the horses who broke down have in common beyond the track. But then again, maybe I’m thinking zebras when I should just be thinking horses.

  11. What would a governing body look like? Who would it be responsible and accountable to? Would there then be a national racing license? Whose standards would they use for attaining a license? It’s harder to get certain licenses in some states than it is others. Would we lower the bar to accommodate those states who have an easier trainers test? Or do we raise it to the toughest standards? Would there only be one rule Book? Or would each state still have its own?

  12. I have always been a thoroughbred person and always had mixed feelings about racing. I will say that when I read about the Santa Anita breakdowns I was impressed that they closed the track and brought in two experts to help. I have to give them respect for that as well as changes that have been made over the years. I think they are moving in the right direction but maybe just need to move a little faster.

    • As an ex jockey and current exercise person and having ridden races around Europe and Asia.. Currently based in North America i have noticed that the industry doesn’t employ a lot of horsemen who understand the animal and the sport.. So the topic of a governing body is totally out of the question cause the industry is run by corporate members who are only interested in filling their pockets and promoting the casinos rather than horse racing as a sport. How many of these corporates have ever ridden a race in their lifetime yet they call the shots.. On the other hand about horses breaking down in my opinion, after having worked for some of the biggest owners in the industry there shouldn’t be 2yr old races period in North America cause with such big purses this is where the owners get greedy and start playing the trainers role and want to get a hold of the condition book to pick out races for their 2yr old.. Just because they see the barn next door fairing well with their 2yr olds. I have seen owners bring their family members or cousins to the races and then to the backstretch a few times in the mornings and after 3 or 4 visits to the track now the owners cousin is telling the trainer where he should run the horses… I have ridden 2yr olds in Europe and Dubai where the ground work is done properly and thats why they have horses which still run till the age of 6 and 8.. Main factor being that they give their horses time to grow and build muscle.. If they have a green 2yr old with a bit of talent they throw her out in the paddocks to grow mentally and physically before getting her back to her training program.. But on the other hand here in North America it’s a rat race to get these 2yr old to the races and by the age of 3 or 4 there are so many breakdowns either in races or morning workouts.. As a horseman nobody likes to see a horse being put to sleep it’s a sad thing no matter who the animal is owned or trained by, be it a cheap claimer or a champion.. A question to myself at times is how come so many breakdowns in North America compared to the likes of Dubai where both tracks have races being run on sand surfaces.. The medication is the only answer that comes to mind in Dubai and Europe you cant poke a needle in to your horse anytime you want to..

      • Just a note….we can’t poke a needle any time we want to either….at least at tracks in the “good” states 🤷🏼‍♀️ no race day medication outside of lasix.

      • Amen! I think that between the increasingly fragile state of the breed, the vets managing the horse, the trainers all in with the vets, ownership entities that are either clueless or don’t care, and the U.S emphasis on speed, the fatality rate at SA is now closer to the “new normal”, going forward. We can expect more of this. I drive by training barns daily. full of 2-year olds and I say a silent prayer to them for a long life but I know I’m my heart many will not survive. And I’ve been around racehorses for almost 50 years. Racing, particularly in the U.S. , has always been hard on a horse, but It was not always like this.
        Then bute came along, and a new culture of horsemen and owners and track managers, and so on. Everything got bigger, sales got bigger, purses got bigger, and now we are asking why the surface is so bad at Santa Anita.

  13. Thank you for this article. I am a long time fan of racing, former racetrack worker, and lifelong horse owner. I was so disappointed and angry with the comments to the reporting from the horse racing publications. So much finger pointing and name bashing instead of considering what a big blow this whole situation is to the sport they supposedly love. I too was angry at the response from people who obviously know nothing about horse racing, but you are so correct. How can the general public understand more about the sport without any organized entity making the effort to educate them and support/defend itself? There is so little coverage of the sport outside of racing publications. Horse racing certainly has it’s problems, but there have been many positive changes in the direction of safety and welfare. If horse racing does not make an effort to showcase more then just Triple Crown winners and dying horses I too am afraid we will see the end of it.

  14. I was one of the first women jockeys back in the ’70’s. Women weren’t treated very well on the track at that time but neither were the horses. There has been some improvement, in regards to the horse, and there is still a long way to go. Getting the drugs under control is a big part and having a governing body would be a good first step. Studies looking at the feeding of weanlings and yearlings is the next important step as their feeding program sets them up for life. And then we come to the 2 year olds in training sales. I just watched the OBS videos from Florida. A 2 year old was pushed to gallop a quarter in 20 3/5, another in 20 4/5. Several horses were pushed to gallop a furlong in 10 seconds and under. It’s bad enough seeing horses whipped to the wire in a race but babies at a sale? The riders hold the whip in their left hands so it isn’t so obvious that they keep slapping them with the whip all the way to the wire. These babies are not going to have long racing careers.

  15. Very good commentary…

    Thanks to a friend, who suggested I read Seabiscuit’s biography, for sending me this article and this subsequent post in response. I loved Seabiscuit’s story and his connection with Santa Anita.

    I’m mostly an outsider with the exception of following the Crown races when it comes to horse racing, and I know enough people, living in a rural area, that truly love their horses and would be and are devistated by the loss of one or more. But I think most outsiders view the sport as a bunch of animal abusers who are exploiting animals for their own gain. And I know that’s not true.

    Sadly, you’re right. There are a lot of scared and worried people in the sport who don’t have the support of a governing body. And not just for PR purposes, someone to lead and guide them during this difficult time.

  16. Pingback: Santa Anita Main Track Opens Again for Workouts | HORSE NATION

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