Clean Up Racing

Thursday morning, I asked my Twitter followers to tweet me their ideas on how to fix the horse racing industry using the hashtag #cleanupracing.  The conversation below includes not only comments directed towards me, but tweets that also happened to be hashtagged as such.  There were some excellent ideas shared, and I’ll do my best to discuss them all in this blog post!

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What’s wrong with racing, exactly?  I’ve narrowed it down into several categories, based on all of these tweets.  Read on to find out more…

No centralization

It can be argued that, with a central governing body commanding the sport, many of these problems can be cleaned up with no great problems.  Baseball has the MLB.  Football has the NFL.  Basketball has the NBA.  What does horse racing have?  Scattered state-level organizations with rules that change as you cross borders.  You can race a horse with a nasal strip in Kentucky, but it’s a no-no in New York.  You can be banned from racing in California, but unless that ban extends to all states, you can move your tack to Florida.  The rules and regulations of horse racing are murky; punishments are neither strongly enforced nor uniform.  Matt Milligan above summed it up best – “Lack of a centralized nationwide governing body to enforce uniform rules and provide one voice to promote.”

How do we even start to go about this?  We need help from organizations already in place to create a group of honest people who love the sport and its athletes to run horse racing.  It is imperative that we choose people who will side with the good of the game over their own agendas.  Once in place, a central governing body can set uniform rules and punishments for violations of those rules, as well as promoting the sport in a fresh, fan-centric way.  America’s Best Racing is already doing a fine job at promoting racing, and a central body could take it one step even further by giving the endeavour a solid, official stamp.

Drugs

Drugs are a hot-button issue in many sports; they are even more inflammatory to animal rights activists like PETA, who argue that the horses, unlike humans, can’t decide for themselves what is injected into their bloodstreams.  There are several different kinds of drugs, both legal and illegal, that are causing problems, creating a drug cocktail culture that takes all honesty out of the game.  The biggest legal drug problem is with furosemide, commonly known as Lasix, which helps prevent bleeding in racehorses.  No matter whether they struggle with bleeding or not, the majority of racehorses are given Lasix to race on – and America’s racing culture is the only one that allows this sort of widespread use of Lasix.  In some other countries, horses that were given furosemide aren’t even allowed to breed.  Is Lasix making the breed weaker?  Under the guise of the drug, bleeders are being bred to bleeders, creating even more Lasix-dependent horses, a vicious cycle that is neither healthy nor ethical.  Other legal drugs, such as the thyroid medicines prevalent in some large barns as performance enhancers, could be weakening our racehorses from the inside out.

Then there are the illegal substances to deal with.  Despite these medicines being banned by all of the state racing commissions, punishments for the use of these drugs vary by the amount, the timeframe, and the trainer themselves.  Consequences are neither uniform nor fair, and conditioners are able to find loopholes to continue on with their work.  With all the problems we have with illegal drugs in this country, American horse racing jurisdictions seem to have come down a little soft on repeat offenders like the recently accused Steve Asmussen.  Contrast this to England’s racing industry, which ruled with an iron fist in the case of Mahmood Al Zarooni, whose stable for Godolphin was shaken up by illegal drug violations in the spring of 2013.  If these drugs are indeed against the rules, racing’s judges should be working harder to try and curb their usage, looking out for the good of the sport.

Whether legal or illegal, drugs are an issue.  I believe the breed has been watered down by the countless medications being pumped into these horses’ veins, and until we do something to stop the drug culture, we may never see again the hardy warhorse of the past.  Pardon the political reference, but if an eventual crackdown occurs soon, we may find ourselves in the midst of racing’s “War on Drugs.”

High takeout

Gamblers play a large role in this sport, providing vast amounts of money to the game throughout their endeavors.  One of the biggest complaints, if not the biggest, by gamblers today is the high rate of takeout currently in place at many tracks.  As an extremely infrequent gambler, I’ve had to do a little more digging into this issue and have found that, yes, this is an issue that grinds a lot of gamblers’ gears.  The argument is made that with lower takeout rates, you stand the chance to make more money on a certain bet, making it much more appealing to play the ponies.  I’m far from an expert on this topic, though, so feel free to weigh in below in the comments.

Lack of “fan-friendliness”

50 years ago, famous racehorses were household names.  Ask five random strangers on the street today whether they’ve heard of Mucho Macho Man or Game On Dude, and it’s a slim chance that any will know.  Racing often falls under the umbrella of “more sports” on sports websites; on NBC, which carries most major races, horse racing doesn’t get a tab to itself as motors and Olympics do.  We must promote, promote, promote.  Make the positive stories popular.  Let the public know how exciting this sport really is.  Make it clear that everyone can enjoy a day at the races – everyone can be touched by this game.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a lot of snobbery in my time following the sport.  It’s very much an insider’s game – if you don’t have the connections, you’re somehow considered less than.  Sometimes people will turn up their noses at people fumbling over facts but willing to learn, and that’s just not right.  We must embrace, with wide open arms, newcomers to the sports and show them the ropes without alienating them.  A good first impression is everything.

My own story began with me, myself, and I – no one in my family or friend group knew anything about horse racing.  I had to teach myself how to handicap, how to read a pedigree, and who was running in the Kentucky Derby in a certain year.  A natural loner throughout grade school, I cannot even begin to emphasize the good that horse racing did for me mentally and socially; I blossomed as a result of this sport.  There are girls and boys like me at that age all over the country, waiting to be inspired.  If nothing else, clean up racing for them, for they are the future of the industry.

Integrity towards the horses & those who care for them

There’s been a movement on Twitter surrounding the hashtag #FullStoryPETA, in which people have posted pictures of people loving on their racehorses.  Yes, there are countless horse people that truly care for these athletes, loving them as if they are a part of their own family.  But do these kind souls get the national press they deserve?  No – they are overshadowed by stories like Asmussen’s drug violations and Blasi’s foul mouth.  The only way to make it clear that the majority of racing workers are hardworking people who love their animals is to weed out the people who treat their horses poorly.  It’s not enough to promote the good people in racing; for as long as we have those bad eggs, the good eggs will continue to be overshadowed.

If it is indeed true that backstretch workers are being paid less than minimum wage under false names for certain trainers, we must take steps to remedy that as well.  These are the people involved with these racehorses day in and day out – they deserve to be treated as well as the athletes they care for.  We glamorize the well-to-do in this sport and must take care never forget the people behind the scenes who make it all possible.

Stuck in our ways

“95% of those currently employed in it do not want to #cleanupracing,” Norm S tweeted. “That mindset has to change.”  While not a concrete statistic, it is true that many people involved in the industry are stuck in the past, set in their ways, or both.  That is why change does not come easily, nor welcome, to the racing world.  We need to adopt a progressive attitude towards solving all of the problems above, if we want to succeed in fixing our sport.

What can we do to help?  Candice Curtis suggests, “Vote out the leaders that won’t make changes,” and I wholeheartedly agree with her.  Speaking out is a logical first step; don’t just like something on Facebook, write letters to influential people…make your voice be heard as much as you can.  We can’t just sit on our hands and take this blow from PETA, no matter how “crazy” we think they are.  No matter how much good goes on in our sport, this nasty behavior on display, as well as the previous propaganda spread by various organizations, will be the public face of horse racing.  This is a much-needed catalyst for sweeping changes in the industry, and if we don’t grab this bull by the horns now, it may do us damage later on down the road.

It’s going to take a lot of tenacity to clean up racing, but I’m encouraged and invigorated by the responses I received in the last couple of days.  And just remember, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t love this sport with all our hearts.

Did you miss out on #cleanupracing the first go-round?  Don’t worry – feel free to join the conversation below in the comments section with any questions, comments or concerns you might have!

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