Erin O'Keefe is the customer relations manager for Millennium Farms in Lexington, Ky., serves as vice-president of aftercare placement for the National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization, and is an adviser to a national racing syndicate. She previously worked at Darby Dan and Taylor Made farms, as well as Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.
Why is it that, by and large, when this industry sees Sports Illustrated speak poorly about racing, our reaction is lash out? To say SI isn't relevant. To say football and NASCAR are dangerous. We circle the wagons and counter attack, and nobody seems to be noticing that our circle keeps shrinking.
The industry we so desperately defend is too busy attacking outsiders to notice that there aren't new fans coming in, and that some are quietly slipping away every time we fail to accurately respond to negative situations.
I love the Thoroughbred industry. I moved to Lexington for school and never looked back. But if this industry doesn't change, there will be nothing left of it. The recent breakdowns at Santa Anita are horrible. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Anytime a horse is injured related to racing, we need to examine why. And when this many on the same track are catastrophically injured, drastic steps need to be taken.
Santa Anita is doing everything it can to identify the problem there and has taken steps to prevent this situation in the future. But what outsiders really need to know is that, as an industry, we were already doing things. Research is being funded to figure out why breakdowns happen. Track surfaces are examined continually. Necropsy results are studied. We are doing a lot, but we can still do more.
If public reactions like Sports Illustrated's to Santa Anita don't get us to pull our heads out of the sand, what will? What will it take for this industry to step up and acknowledge a serious PR problem and need for national oversight? It's not about which state's rules get enforced, or who's in charge. It's about swallowing our pride and working together for the betterment of the sport, and the safety of the horses. With everyone working together, actual research can be done to set guidelines for things like drug withdrawal times, to prevent the PR mess that is horses testing positive “accidentally”.
We can continue to focus research funds into track surfaces, using data from across the country. We can implement safety reforms at all tracks, as we learn from situations like Santa Anita. And we can have a PR department that responds when negative situations arise — someone who can be interviewed by NBC or Sports Illustrated and share what is being done. Share why, in spite of tragedy, this is a wonderful sport that people should support.
So, I'm asking the big wigs of the industry, the people with the power to make this happen, why won't you? Track owners, The Jockey Club, Breeders' Cup, NTRA, breeding farms, training operations, sales companies, what is your reason for not putting your foot down today and demanding change? One voice can make a difference, but it needs to be a loud enough voice in this world. So, are any of you willing to be that voice? There are some that have spoken in favor of reform; it's time to put your foot down and demand it.
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