Horse racing is in crisis, and not just in California or the United States, where there has been an increased focus on the sport's equine fatalities since Santa Anita Park went through a particularly deadly period last winter. More recently, Keeneland – in the heart of Kentucky's Thoroughbred industry – has been on the defensive over an historically high rate of racing deaths.
Last week, a shocking investigative report aired on Australian television exposed appalling abuse of Thoroughbreds at slaughterhouses in that country despite racing rules designed to protect horses after they leave the track.
In the immediate wake of the broadcast, Racing Australia – which represents the various racing authorities in different Australian states – issued a statement outlining what is being done to protect horses and additional steps it hopes the government will approve to make it easier to track horses throughout the country.
Adding to Racing Australia's statement were similar published reactions from Racing New South Wales, Racing Victoria, the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission and Harness Racing Australia.
Contrast that with the American Thoroughbred industry's muted response to an Oct. 8 op-ed in the Washington Post written by an animal rights extremist who isn't interested in reform but wants Thoroughbred racing to end. Period.
In American racing, no one is in charge. The Jockey Club has one agenda: federal legislation that would create an independent, non-governmental oversight board to regulate racing's medication policy. Critics of The Jockey Club say the organization is exploiting the current crisis to enhance the legislation's chance of passing. Jockey Club president James Gagliano and Shawn Smeallie, executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, wrote a response to the Washington Post editorial that was published as a Letter to the Editor.
Most other groups hang their hat on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a now-20-year-old organization originally formed to fulfill the mission of a league office similar to the NFL, NBA or PGA Tour. Over time, however, the NTRA's role has been greatly diminished as a result of membership defections and squabbling among tracks, advance deposit wagering companies and horsemen's groups. As a result, Alex Waldrop, the well-intentioned president and CEO of the NTRA, is — out of necessity and lack of consensus — more of a mediator with his members than a leader on important issues. There are some big egos involved, an unwillingness to compromise, and a head-in-the-sand mentality among the members represented on the NTRA board of directors.
In short, Thoroughbred racing does not have anyone who can speak on behalf of the entire industry. That flaw is magnified when the industry is in crisis mode, as it is today.
The NTRA did, in fact, file a response to the Washington Post on behalf of what Waldrop described as a “larger group” from within the industry. But the Post wanted to edit the response and run it in a different format, Waldrop said, so the NTRA declined to have it published. The response has not been published or distributed elsewhere.
It is difficult if not impossible for this industry to move or speak in unison. Reforms, such as those enacted in California related to medication policy and equine safety, are needed throughout the industry.
There is The Jockey Club and Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity's efforts for federal legislation, which do not have the support of horsemen's organizations or Churchill Downs Inc.
There is an effort by Churchill Downs Inc. to form a self-regulated Office of Racing Integrity with other entities. The effort is opposed by The Jockey Club.
Churchill Downs Inc. also joined with Keeneland and other tracks to phase out the race-day use of Lasix. But that movement is opposed by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
Opponents of racing are more organized, and they have a singular mission: to put this sport out of business. If horse racing wants to get through this crisis, it better get its act together.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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