A statistic presented during the 67th annual Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs Sunday put the current horse racing crisis into sobering perspective: according to David Fuscus, president and CEO of crisis management company Xenophon Strategies, there have been 20,000 news stories published since January 1 on the racing industry's struggles, brought to light by the Santa Anita equine fatalities. The 27th fatality alone sparked 300 articles in three days, which Fuscus believes appeared in publications accessing 90 percent of the American public.
“I am the most anti-alarmist person in the room; with that being said, this story is not going away,” said Fuscus. “You can't wait it out, you can't part the waters. This is the most critical time American horse racing has ever experienced.”
The Round Table conference has, in the last several years, provided a forum in which experts have aired their platforms for change in medication reform, wagering platform improvement, marketing strategies, and other concepts designed to spark discussion and grow the sport. But the tone of several speakers at this year's conference, particularly Fuscus, was more urgent.
Fuscus outlined the five elements he suggests companies go through to deal with a crisis situation. First, they must define the problem and ensure the problem (whether it's a data leak or product failure, etc.) is over. They must engage with the public, informing them about the problem, they must act transparently, take responsibility for the issue, and take meaningful action to negate a repeat. Fuscus, whose firm has represented Alaska Air, DHL, the Salvation Army, and The Jockey Club, said when going down that checklist, horse racing isn't scoring well. There has been no clear message that racing understands the causes of the Santa Anita breakdowns or how those causes have been addressed.
“From the public's perspective, there isn't a clearly-communicated fix or even consensus on the chief reasons for the spike in equine fatalities,” he said. “We are a long, long way from meeting the first rule of crisis communications, which is 'End it.'”
And one thing Fuscus said won't work: spin.
“Recognize that we can't market or spin our way back to the public perception of eight months ago,” he said. “That is gone forever.”
Much of the messaging at the Round Table was a strong push for the Horseracing Integrity Act, which has been a central part of the Jockey Club's reform plan for some time. Valerie Pringle, campaign manager for equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States, gave a presentation reinforcing that organization's support for the Act. The HSUS operates for animal welfare on several fronts, including rescue/rehoming as well as legislature initiatives. The Horseracing Integrity Act is one of several pieces of legislation the group supports, in addition to the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act and the Safeguard American Food Exports Act to end horse slaughter, which recently received support from the NTRA.
Pringle emphasized part of the HSUS mission is to work together with animal industries to improve welfare and regulation, and their alliance with horse racing is a part of that mission.
“We are not one of the animal welfare crazies who is trying to shut you down,” said Pringle. “We want to work with you. We're committed to seeing this industry thrive as we help to ensure the protection of racehorses.”
John Messara, owner and chairman of Arrowfield Stud, also voiced hopes the United States could get behind the Horseracing Integrity Act. Messara, whose stallion Danehill became a cornerstone of Australian breeding, said he is actively looking for the next major stud to influence the Thoroughbred in his native country. He also expressed interest in finding that next horse in the States – but only if the Act is passed.
“You could unleash an economic monster here,” said Messara. “Everyone's talking about why people don't want [the Act] but I think one of the benefits is going to be the likes of myself will start to look at America again as somewhere to shop for horses. As it stands today, it's difficult for us to judge whether we should be buying a mare. Was she treated with Lasix, was she treated with bute at some stage? What went on? So rather than get bitten by it, we stay clear. The same applies to stallions.”
Outside the topic of medication and reputation management, the audience also learned more about how sports betting could work alongside horse racing from representatives of FOX Sports and Monmouth Park. Monmouth began taking sports bets fairly recently and vice president of business operations Bill Knauf said from Jan. 1 to June 1 of this year, the sports wagering intake for Monmouth has been $3.1 million on-site and $7.4 million off-site, while nighttime simulcast handle during that time has risen 16 percent. Knauf said Monmouth is looking into a combined player rewards system that would use one card between both the racing and sports operations, encouraging players to engage with both.
“We've done some research on our customers already and sports has markedly come up with a more diverse audience,” Knauf said. “They are ex mobile savvy, but they're very engaged to make bets on those mobile devices.
“Sports gamblers prefer fixed odds. When you place a bet, the ticket you get back says exactly how much you get back … the sports customer does not want to see late odds changes. ”
Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president for research, league operations and strategy at FOX Sports also said FOX is looking forward to integrating sports and racing wagering. The company is expected to soon roll out Fox Bet, an initiative to combine the live sports found on its channel with mobile gaming. Mulvihill expects there will be two apps involved – one a free to play game with cash prizes based on prop bets, and another for legal sports wagering in available states.
Kim Kelly, chief stipendiary steward of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, made a presentation on the application of the international standard in interference rules, echoing his question and answer session at an International Federation of Horseracing Authorities meeting last week.
Additionally, Dr. Nancy Cox, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky, presented the college's new vision for improving racing surfaces testing. Renowned surfaces expert Dr. Mick Peterson has directed up Ag Equine Programs at the college since 2017 and has based his Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory from there, but Cox said the program is not enough to serve the American racing industry. Peterson has just one truck with built-in equipment for surface analysis, making it time and labor-intensive to get his machinery to some facilities. Cox hopes the college will be able to provide four sets of machinery.
The college has recently opened a racing surfaces testing laboratory, which Cox said should begin research to “make dirt as safe as synthetic surfaces.”
Also at the Round Table, the Jockey Club announced a grant to the University to improve the fleet of equipment and recordkeeping software.
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