The Question Of Horse Racing’s Survival: What Can Be Done To Help Tip The Scales?

by | 08.07.2019 | 4:58pm

In the wake of a rash of equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park last spring, horse racing insiders and fans have been asking each other for months: Will the sport survive this crisis? 

The question was also a central focus of the annual Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing and Gaming Law held Tuesday in Saratoga Springs as a group of industry stakeholders were asked to consider the matter. The resounding response was yes, but only if the industry changes rapidly – and those changes aren't just up to stakeholders but to any member of the public reading this report. 

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, veterinarian, attorney and consultant, outlined a few key actions industry insiders and fans should consider if they want to help the sport out of its public relations hole. First of all, Durenberger said, it's important to remember that members of the horse racing industry are in the minority in the modern age – they derive income from animals, which means they interact with animals in a different way from much of the non-agrarian society who sees animals as pets or family members. It's also important to know that the extremist groups pushing to illegalize horse racing are probably in the minority, too.

“There are far more folks who don't know anything about our business than there are those who want to put us out of business, and they should be hearing from you,” she said.

For this reason, Durenberger believes it's not helpful to expect to convert anti-racing extremists and make them pro-racing; rather, the industry's focus should be on the majority of the population, whose opinions can still become better informed. Those who love racing can and should consider themselves ambassadors of the sport to others and should have a real sense of how to express the sport's importance. Economic impact is one of the most valuable ways to explain the importance of the horse racing industry.

“What happens on the racetrack is just the tip of a much, much larger economic engine,” said Durenberger.

It's also important for people to listen to those who may have some concerns about racing, Durenberger said, not simply talk over them. 

“If we dismiss other people's views, we don't make them happy,” she said. “They're not going to say, 'Well, they're not going to listen to me, so I give up.' We need to listen to and respond to concerns. 

“We react very emotionally when people are concerned about the way we treat our horses because we are all in on this industry. This is an all-consuming, year-round, 24/7, people on the racetrack don't get days off. It's a permanent gig. It's a lifestyle, it's not a job. So when people ask questions about how we take care of horses, we take it personally and that's understandable but it can lead to some poor kinds of snap decisions and quick reactions that aren't always thought out. We need to be mindful that we don't equate those concerns with accusations that we don't care.”

Andy Belfiore, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA), said one of the things people in racing should be emphasizing to those on the outside is the great strides that have been made in Thoroughbred aftercare over the past decade. In New York, the rate of expansion of aftercare funding has been impressive: in 2014, the New York horsemen pledged $5 per start to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA). Two years later, NYRA matched it. The horsemen doubled their contribution this year and also pledged 1.5 percent of claim values to aftercare as well. 

Based on last year's numbers, the claiming contribution should result in about $375,000 of funding a year. Together with other contributions of the horsemen and jockeys, that's about $1 million per year going to accredited aftercare programs in New York alone. 

“We are light years ahead of where we were a decade ago in terms of safety regulations … and we're also doing a lot more to take care of our horses when their racing careers are over,” said Belfiore. “But sometimes that word doesn't get out to the general public. We have to do a better job of being ambassadors and letting people know all we're doing on behalf of our horses. When you walk around the racetrack during the day, if something happens to a horse you still hear people say, 'If something happens to a horse, they just put it down. There's no hope if it's hurt.' And I guess we haven't done enough to explain to people that that's not the case anymore.”

Belfiore said NYTHA still wants to do more. The group is looking at ways to better educate New York Thoroughbred owners and verify that an aftercare route is part of every owner and trainer's business plan for their horses. The group is also interested in crafting legislation that could help tracks enforce their anti-slaughter policies, which are currently written into stall agreements in New York but which are difficult to enact. 

The commitment for these and other changes, like adding more TAA-accredited organizations in New York, is there among New York stakeholders, Belfiore said – it's just a matter of raising the money and finding the space to do even more. 

In the midst of trying to correct public perception about racing, however, attorney and Standardbred Owners Association of New York director Chris Wittstruck emphasized that racing shouldn't pander too much to extremist groups. Wittstruck used the case of Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who was turned away by Santa Anita, Del Mar, and NYRA as a prime example: It may have been a solution to a public relations issue, but Wittstruck believes the move ultimately did more harm to racing than it did good. 

Wittstruck said he also hopes to see New York pass new laws stipulating that if a track wants to exclude a licensee without a ruling on the books, it would be unable to do so until there has been a hearing by the racing commission. At such a hearing, Wittstruck would like the burden of proof to be against the track to show why an individual's participation is harmful to the sport.

Further, Wittstruck issued a warning about an overreaction by those in racing to eliminate or change elements of the sport based on fears they will be misunderstood. 

“The fringe cannot be appeased,” he said. “Until horses roam free, choose their mates and are given the right to vote, the fringe will not be happy. So what do we do about this?” 

Wittstruck said through this lens, one could make an argument for banning 2-year-old racing, 4-year-old maiden starters, tongue ties, whips, using any sort of medication, and more because it would be easier than educating the public about their use. If racing insiders believe that's all it takes, Wittstruck said, they're kidding themselves.

“If it doesn't look good, get rid of it,” he said. “If we just get rid of those elephants, everything will be better and they'll leave us alone! 

“Well, if you believe that, you can buy me a ticket to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.”

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