For the Love of Racing

By Mandy Haskin

In light of the Steve Asmussen-Scott Blasi furor, my daughter has addressed the subject much better than I ever could, and through eyes a lot more innocent than mine. She wrote it just for me to read, but I feel it is something that needs to be shared

When you grow up in horse racing from the time you were a baby, the world of the sport is ingrained in your subconscious as a world of purity and uncomplicated perfection. It was a world of mighty Thoroughbreds, who may as well have been your childhood friends since you spent more time with them than anyone else. A world of green pastures and white fences, of barn cats and Jack Russell terriers. Chilly mornings on the Saratoga training track, chasing down the coffee truck and watching the steam rise off of the backs of bathing horses. The way your feet sink into the backstretch dirt and the feel of a horse’s whiskers and hot breath on your hand. A world where you can still wear My Fair Lady hats while mingling with fascinating people. A world of history and legend and regal pedigrees that go back hundreds of years. Of innocence, passion and of course all those magnificent animals.

I’ve gotten it before – I tell people I’m into horse racing and they say, ‘Oh isn’t that bad for the horses?’ My response is always the same: Thoroughbreds are literally bred to run, they love to run, and trainers take better care of their horses than they do themselves. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring sport. It is, and always has been, the Sport of Kings. And I still do truly believe all of that.

But every single time something comes out in the news about a trainer suspended for drugs, about a horse winding up somewhere in a slaughter house, about the use of electric devices during races, about overtraining, unpublicized injuries, spills, breakdowns, and euthanizing horses, a tiny piece of that idealized picture fades. Shapes begin to lose their once-distinct lines; colors lose a little bit of their brilliance.

Maybe the main thing that the horse racing industry is guilty of is entering into the 21st century along with every other sport. Every single sport out there, from baseball to cycling, has the same problems. Greed and corrupt competition have always been hovering over sporting events throughout history, but now with modern science and performance enhancing drugs being made more potent and easier to hide, we find ourselves in a place where they have taken over the fundamental essence of these sports. The reason that horse racing tends to wind up in a hotter seat than these other sports is simple – our athletes don’t have free will. An overtrained and overdrugged Thoroughbred can’t just say to hell with this, go back to school and decide to open a restaurant. And that is what opens the door for organizations like PETA to jump in and say that the entire industry is cruel and unnatural and needs to be stopped.

But I think it also reflects our American ideology that says when something is wrong, there’s a pill for that. We are an overmedicated culture. We overmedicate ourselves, our kids, our athletes and even our pets. There are plenty of drugs that are fine and legal in the industry, and it’s that grey area that pulls it farther into the hole of questionable dealings. Maybe we need to eliminate the grey areas -- that harbor the things that are technically illegal but everyone does anyway, or that are legal, but to some still unethical.

Horse racing will not survive if racegoers  think this is the norm. It would be like taking your kids to SeaWorld after watching Blackfish. How could you, knowing what you know now? But horse racing is certainly not SeaWorld and its scandal is not all-encompassing or fundamental to its existence. Horse racing must demonstrate to the people that these are isolated cases, and steps are being taken to fix the problem.

But what steps are being taken? I'm not at all involved enough in the business to know. Perhaps applying a broken windows approach may work – start cleaning up this industry like Giuliani cleaned up the New York City streets. Arrest the vandals and the toll jumpers, and the actual violent crimes organically go down on their own.  I don’t know. It’s my understanding that organizations like The Jockey Club, NTRA, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium Inc. are in place to solve these problems, and I hope that’s true. But I know there is a tangled web of challenges that face the industry – the variation of racing laws from state to state, the power of individual tracks, and the lack of a national commissioner who can take up racing’s problems on a federal level, which has been a recent source of debate. The problems are more deep-rooted than a couple of bad guys mistreating their horses.

But all of that is honestly over my head. So here’s what I do know. The people who make this sport great are the fans. Those crazy, wonderful fans who fall in love with certain horses and follow them like rock stars. The people who study the history books and devour the legacies and lore of this great sport. The people who show up to the races in rain or shine, who weather those freezing Aqueduct wind gusts and the stifling Santa Anita sun. The children who get to pet a horse for the first time. The newbie who wins $20 on a horse he bet just because he liked the name. And of course the countless number of “good guys” in the business. The people who wake up at the crack of dawn and work long, tedious hours because, at the end of the day, they just love the horses and love the sport.

It’s time us good guys stopped diffusing responsibility and take over this sport that is rightfully ours. People who were born into it like myself and everyone who still believes in the enduring magic of horse racing. Start conversations, write letters, form organizations, and by all means, continue to go to the races, root for the horses, and spout the industry’s virtues to whoever will listen. Let’s raise our kids to form fond, idealized memories of their own. People say that horse racing is a dying sport. It can’t die off while we’re all still breathing life into it

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