Watching Dr. Bryce Peckham, the state veterinarian in Kentucky, go from stall to stall doing pre-race examinations on horses entered to race on a recent evening at Turfway Park wasn't my idea of a day at the track.
But the 90 minutes or so spent in the receiving barn opened my eyes (even if it numbed my brain) to a few things: Peckham and other state vets have a lot on their plate on race days, and Thoroughbred racing does more in the area of equine safety than I thought.
Having spent time on the backstretch, I knew the drill but never paid much attention to it. So we asked the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance if it would be OK to observe a racetrack accreditation and report on it. Alliance and Turfway officials agreed, and the report will appear in the Oct. 3 issue of The Blood-Horse.
Exciting? Hardly. Educational? Absolutely. Worthwhile? Yes--if you keep it in perspective.
Like many industry initiatives, the safety accreditation process is viewed with skepticism. Soon after it was announced last year, officials were on the defensive, saying it's not a "whitewash" designed to deflect criticism that came from many directions in the stinging spring and summer of 2008.
I officially became a skeptic in the late 1980s when I started covering local and county government for newspapers in New Jersey. Politics will do that to you, and covering the horse racing industry has done nothing to change it.
It's pretty simple. Great industry, great product, lousy execution. Politics is a killer.
Part of me dreaded spending almost 25 hours observing two days of a safety inspection. Part of me figured it can't be all bad if it's at a racetrack.
It's amazing watching the people and the effort that goes into putting on the show day by day. They work hard and, for the most part, love what they do. It's a job, but it's also a culture, a way of life, the general public doesn't get to see or appreciate. Regulation is a big part of it, probably moreso than any other sport.
The accreditation review was detailed on one level, but pretty basic on another. Much of it involved assessing how things were being done, not implementing new procedures. That probably will come in round two in couple of years.
The only way it will work is if it continues and isn't allowed to languish or fall victim to politics like many past industry initiatives. A true assessment of security and integrity can only be made if the process is ongoing.
Given that perception trumps reality in this business, it's fine if the accreditation process in its first year is partly about "making it look good." Industries do that all the time. But the time will come for an accounting.
(Wait until wagering security and tote protocol becomes part of the process. That'll be fun.)
As for equine safety? The industry can't do enough. But it also has to realize--and openly admit--that no matter what it does (pre-race exams, new racing surfaces, medication restrictions), horses and humans are going to get injured or worse.
Reasonable individuals realize there are things we have no control over, hard as we may try.