Can Horse Racing Solve Its Problems In Time to Survive?

We're only a few weekends away from the biggest day in horse racing. At the same time, we're one year removed from Eight Belles' break-down immediately after her historic run, and another couple since Barbaro's tragic return to the track following his Derby win.

And in the news today is Old Fashioned (profile), the onetime Derby favorite who's off the Triple Crown trail following an injury sustained during a Derby prep race (full story). 

There are a lot of important discussion topics here:  the Derby is run too early in a racehorse's career (and the Triple Crown should be a series for 4-year-olds) ... we've bred soundness out of the Thoroughbred in favor of raw speed ... we've become a sport of medications instead of horsemanship. `

But the issue that concerns me right now is whether racing can survive another high-profile on-track injury. Or another expose on ex-racers rescued from a slaughter auction. Or another trainer caught doping his runners.

Thoroughbred racing and breeding are getting beat up almost daily by the media and by outside interest groups. Some of it's deserved. Our industry simply cannot go on pretending that unwanted horses are an inconvenient problem for "someone else" to deal with. We cannot continue to let so-called animal rights groups set the tone of the discussion after we've experienced heartbreak in our ranks. We can't afford to lose lifelong fans, and turn off prospective new followers, with each televised injury.  We cannot and must not extend "professional courtesy" to those amongst us who betray the trust of their charges, whether it's neglect of horses or poor treatment of stable help.

If it's not already perfectly clear, let me spell it out:  Thoroughbred horse racing can no longer hide the dirty little secrets that have been part of our history.

The first step we must take is to fix the legitimate problems. Clean up our act. Invest in long-term solutions. Punish those whose practices reflect poorly on racing and breeding.

A necessary component of everything we do going forward is education. Instead of reacting to charges made by groups that are set out to destroy the sport, we need to become proactive. Lead the discussions. Prepare reasonable, factual, easy-to-follow explanations of any equine practices that might not be immediately clear to the average non-racing fan.

If we want to continue allowing jockeys to carry whips in a race, for example, we need to set out clear policies of when, where, and how the whip can be used. Make the punishment for misuse severe enough (and regulated well enough) to ensure compliance.  And then be frank with the non-racing public. Let them know that crops help the jockey keep his mount from swerving dangerously into the rail or into another runner. Explain the difference between waving the stick and using it to beat on the horse. Let them know what the punishments are -- that the jockey, the trainer, and the owner all lose out when a bat is used inappropriately.

We need to figure out what happens to racehorses when they're through racing. A public database would be nice. It would be an information source for breeders, former owners, and previous trainers to keep up with their horses and to step in if needed. It would also remove the cloak of secrecy that shadows the world of "Off Track Thoroughbreds" in the eyes of the public.  Industry-funded retraining and rehoming programs are also steps in the right direction.

We need to market the sport. Not only to bring in new fans (important as they might be!) but to allay the concerns of the general public so that racing doesn't continue down the path towards dishonor and disregard that ensure its eventual failure. Marketing needs to promote the benefits of racing, as well as address the sport's shortcomings and what we're doing to fix them.

At some point, we're going to find ourselves dealing with another tragedy. It's part of the realities of racing. The question is how do we respond?

The federal government is poking around Thoroughbred racing, making sounds like it might take over regulating all sorts of practices in the industry.  How do we respond?

Groups with anti-racing agendas are targeting the Thoroughbred industry and they're finding the "mainstream" media to be sympathetic partners in their campaigns. How do we respond?

That's not a rhetorical, by the way.  How do we respond? 

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