Can We Survive? Lessons In Human Nature From Louis Wolfson

by | 01.14.2016 | 3:07pm

In 1986, Harbor View Farm owner Louis Wolfson was fed up with the racing industry. He was so fed up that he needed a good vent, but since the Paulick Report's comment section wasn't available during those days, he self-published his own book titled, 'The Future Looks Bleak For The Thoroughbred Racing & Breeding Industry: Can It Survive??'

Inside the pages of the cardstock-covered volume, which is packed with copies of his personal correspondence with various industry representatives and breeders, Wolfson seemed to lean toward answering his own question with a bitter “no.” He laid out his concerns about the need for a national governing body for racing, increased competition from new forms of gambling like the lottery, and public perception problems. The way Wolfson saw it, he and others had been calling for unification in the business since an unnamed conference at Hialeah Park in 1966. There was no time to waste on these things, Wolfson said. Death was imminent.

Without these reforms, Wolfson guessed the decline he had seen in the business over the previous 20 years would result in the number of tracks, farms, horses, and jobs decreasing by half over the next 20.

Fast forward to Jan. 10, 2016, when the Vision 20/20 Committee hosted a panel titled, ''The State of the American Thoroughbred Industry,' seeking to define, for what has to be the hundredth time since 1986, what exactly keeps us all from moving forward. We need a unified front, the panelists stated. We need to keep up with increased competition from other forms of gambling. We need to improve our public image.

Of course, we haven't died out yet. Maybe that's why the 2016 panel's attitude on facing the industry's problems was a little lighter than Wolfson's 30 years before. Rather than the intense, “adapt or perish” approach Wolfson favored (he felt so strongly that he characterized what he perceived as underhanded political moves against him to be as shady as the Ku Klux Klan), modern discourse suggests racing regulators might have earned a participation trophy. One theme panelists returned to was that the public has a negative perception of the industry in part because industry pundits spend their time talking of nothing but what's wrong in the business, instead of taking a moment to congratulate themselves for how far we've come in recent years.

Evidence of this was delivered by Mark Lamberth, chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, who pointed out that horse racing has improved leaps and bounds in uniform medication reform. Lamberth's measure of success is an RCI study which found that 65 percent of race jurisdictions with a given minimum of race dates used third-party Lasix administration rules, or rules dictating that Lasix administration be overseen by commission officials. Additionally, 83 percent of jurisdictions ran under the national uniform medication policies set forth by the RCI and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium or are in the process of approving those rules (although that 83 percent included states that had adopted only a portion of the policies).

“We don't do a really good job of patting ourselves on the back,” said Lamberth. “We do a good job of pointing out our warts, and then when we do something right, it gets lost in the shuffle. We haven't done a very good job of telling the public that we are making progress [on medication reform]. We are making great progress since 2012, but all the public hears or sees is a New York Times article that castigates us and makes us look like we all wear black hats.”

Then again, it's been said you can't propel yourself forward by patting yourself on the back. Perhaps instead, we should focus our energy on looking within to see what we as individuals can do to solve racing's fragmentation. Wolfson provided a guideline for this, although it seemed to fall on deaf ears in 1986.

In his plan for a national governing body, he wrote that people in racing need to “set aside, or controlling at least temporarily, prejudice, envy (fear of being surpassed), and jealousy (fear of losing something).”

It was a suggestion that, like so many of his others, is as applicable today as it was 30 years ago. In other words, if we are to survive, we need to overcome our own humanity. Simple as that. I can't say that I think he's wrong, but it's hard to imagine horse trainers and Jockey Club officials hugging it out after going ten rounds in a therapy session with inflatable anger bats.

Then again, maybe it's not.

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