What Ails Us

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(By Avalyn Hunter)

I was talking last week to a new coworker, a nurse practitioner who was once a groom in Kentucky. She loved Thoroughbreds then and still does. But she wants nothing to do with American racing. "A lot of it's the drugs," she said. "They give the stuff to all of them and they don't care whether the horse really needs it or what else might be the problem. Just give them a shot and run them until they drop."

Of course, this is only one person's perception. But when you talk to people outside racing circles, you find out pretty fast that she isn't the only one holding such opinions. In fact, most of the people I work with--primarily well-educated professionals--look askance at horse racing. Sure, the Kentucky Derby's exciting, but ask them to state three things they know about racing, and drugs and breakdowns will usually be two of the three. They can't name the last Derby winner, but they sure can remember Barbaro and "that filly who broke down in the Derby."

It is a cruel irony that Barbaro and Eight Belles suffered their life-ending breakdowns while in the care of Michael Matz and Larry Jones, respectively, two of the best-respected and most genuine horsemen in the game. The problem is that the average person can't tell a Matz or a Jones from those trainers whose names keep coming up in the news in connection with drug positives or other rules violations. What they see is the animal with its broken leg; they hear the outcries about the "abuse" entailed in racing, including the use of drugs; and they make what seems to them to be a logical connection. Is it any wonder that racing finds its fan base slipping away?

That might not matter if fans had no influence on the game, but the fact is that even casual fans are significant. New owners and breeders do not magically sprout up from cabbage patches; unless they belong to families that have been associated with racing for generations, they are people who fell in love with the sport somewhere along the way and started to want more than casual involvement. Fans wager. Fans pay admissions and buy food and drink and souvenirs at the track. Fans who have had positive experiences attract other fans by word of mouth. And fans draw media coverage and the associated advertising, a potential source of revenue which should not be ignored.

Eleven months ago, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA, the parent company of The Blood-Horse) went on record as supporting the movement to ban race-day medication, going so far as to state that their American Graded Stakes Committee would ban the use of race-day medication in all graded stakes for juveniles in 2012. This was a step in the right direction, not just for reversing the public perception that horse racing is inherently abusive but for strengthening the position of American Thoroughbreds in the international market. Now TOBA has backtracked, citing the lack of concerted action by the various entities governing racing, even though those entities do not control the AGSC.

In response, George Strawbridge and Charlotte Weber, two owners both known for their deep love of their horses as well as their long-term commitment to the sport, have withdrawn from membership in protest; another of the same breed, Arthur Hancock, has publicly criticized TOBA's action as catering to the interests of service providers rather than those of owners. Their voices, and those of others like them, cannot be ignored; they are pointing to an increasing rift between those who place the interests of the horses and the sport on at least an equal basis with their own business interests and those whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo.

In his famous "A House Divided" speech, Abraham Lincoln said in regards to slavery that this nation could not stand, half slave and half free. The American Thoroughbred industry appears to have come to a similar crossroads. Medication is by no means the only problem facing horse racing, but because of its position in the public eye, it must be dealt with. The industry has a choice: it can reshape the public's perceptions by taking actions that speak of integrity, or it can continue a piecemeal approach that speaks primarily of self-interest.

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