Game-Changers - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the March 31, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell

Nearly every survey conducted over the past decade by or for the Thoroughbred industry elicited comments about the need for a national racing office.

The consensus opinion is that racing cannot grow without a central office coordinating marketing and promotional efforts. This same national commission, if ever formed, would also improve racing’s reputation by shepherding standardized medication use policies, testing, and enforcement.

Three months ago The Blood-Horse began looking into the feasibility of ever creating such an organization. Pennsylvania freelance writer Evan Pattak tackled the existing legal obstacles with creating a national office, while news editor Tom LaMarra looked at the history of past attempts. The package of stories on the following pages paints a definitive picture of how realistic a national office is and where the industry going forward needs to focus its energies. It even provides a glimpse into proposed changes that may make a real difference.

The timing couldn’t be better for the industry to aggressively pursue a realistic path toward national unity, with or without a national office. The New York Times did its part to stoke a fire under the medication issues the industry has been talking and talking and talking about for years by launching a series of scathing articles about horse racing March 25. The first part in the series looked at lax medication testing and enforcement policies and the toll these shortcomings have had on the lives of horses and riders.

Let’s hope all the sound and fury lends traction to the changes being proposed and the outcome is real and permanent reform.

Leaders in Stewardship

The Bluegrass Conservancy experienced its own tectonic shift last week when Claiborne Farm donated nearly its entire landholdings to the Central Kentucky non-profit land trust.

“No question about it, this is a record-breaker and a game-changer for this organization,” said Mackenzie Royce, executive director for the Bluegrass Conservancy, which now holds in trust the conservation easements for 17,215 acres.

“Claiborne’s donation certainly proves the validity of the program,” Royce continued. “The Hancocks have been industry leaders in many respects for years and now they are leaders in stewardship.”

The farm near Paris, Ky., has been owned and operated by the Hancock family for more than 100 years. Claiborne was founded in 1910 by Arthur Boyd Hancock and is now run by his grandchildren Seth, Dell, and Clay Hancock. Being groomed to take over the family business are Seth’s children Walker and Allison.

“We’ve thought about doing this for a long time,” said Dell Hancock. “If Walker had not been in favor of it, we wouldn’t have done it, but we all agree.”

No money changes hands with the conservancy. The landowner donates a conservation easement that remains permanently with the land and prohibits future commercial development.

The objective of the Bluegrass Conservancy is to knit together a critical mass of contiguous acres, similar to what has been accomplished in Brandywine Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. The conservancy group there has secured more than 430 conservation easements protecting more than 44,000 acres. The goal in the Brandywine Valley is the same as it is in Central Kentucky’s Bluegrass region: to protect the cultural, natural, and scenic quality of the land.

The Hancocks’ decision also protects an important piece of American Thoroughbred racing history. Claiborne has produced 75 champions and stood 10 stallions that topped leading sire rankings, most of them multiple times, such as Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Round Table, and Bold Ruler. The farm is where Secretariat stood and is now laid to rest. In contrast, the future of Meadow Farm—the birthplace of Secretariat in Virginia—is up in the air. The State Fair of Virginia hoped to purchase the property but its offer was rejected. The not-for-profit organization is currently in bankruptcy.

Thankfully these are issues the Hancocks won’t lose sleep over regarding their picturesque corner of Bourbon County.

“Knowing what this area was like years ago and seeing what it is now is disturbing,” Dell Hancock said. “It is nice to know it will always stay a farm.”


Leave a Comment:


I hope this is other than another OP trying to impose the NASCAR model on horse racing.  That's the deep pockets trying to control the sport for their own benefit.

we have/had a national racing office called the NTRA.  Why create another when it's easy merely to give that one some teeth.

Personally I am in favor a national internet marketing effort. Likely over Twin Spires dead body, however.

 Where are the internet adds promoting pick six pots, etc.  oooops.  there's a TVG add on National Journal, it's happening.  I am utterly against a national office "regulating" the sport.  We see time and again the stupid ideas--eliminate lasix--and misperceptions by desk jockeys who have zero hands on horse knowledge.  Who knows what a national org., misguided might do.  We have a very strong system. Regional democracy where most can participate with very little money instead of deep pockets controlling the sport for their own benefit.

27 Mar 2012 1:38 PM

Happy to hear there are efforts to preserve the precious, fertile land in Kentucky that has served the industry so well for decades.  Also, good to know yet another generation of Hancocks will oversee the storied Claiborne property, birthplace and residence for so many of the game's greats.

27 Mar 2012 1:55 PM

Eric, when my dearly beloved starting reading snippets of the NYT article aloud to me and asking how I could love a sport in such a sorry state, I felt betrayed by every person who has decided to take a chemical shortcut at grave cost to the athletes entrusted to them, both equine and human.  The industry has had more than its fair chance at policing itself, and has proven unwilling and/or incapable of doing so.  The time has come to properly prioritize the health and safety of horses and humans.  At the same time, the industry seems bent on obsolescing itself and fails to understand and embrace today's racing fan.  Gaining improvements in broadcasting through partnership with NBC is a good step and I believe it will draw new fans to the sport, but if they are brought in only to be disgusted at the way trainers continually evade regulations and harm horses, jockeys and exercise riders in the process, not only will the number of critics swell at an alarming pace, Congress will be goaded into taking action no one will like.  I will always love horse racing, but I fear I may be loving it only as a part of history if improvements are not made swiftly.

27 Mar 2012 4:14 PM
Pat Lee

Sir, please explain why we need a "national" organization apart from the NTRA.  The NTRA's response to the NYT article is scandalous!  They don't point out the errors, the extreme precautions thoroughbred tracks take against unlawful drugs, the mounds of work put into this issue by racing commissions, veterinarians, etc., just this year--which resulted in increased enforcement and, e.g., banning of bute (with which I disagree).  NTRA did not refute the NYT's sensationalism and misleading shocking pictures !  So what good would another national organization do?  You guys just want the feds to step in . . . for no good reason whatsoever.  Give credit where credit is due and call out the NYT for its yellow journalism.

27 Mar 2012 5:55 PM

We need to start solving problems like this one:

Living in Michigan, I have to drive far and wide to make a "bet" TVG betting allowed!

Anyway, I drove 45 miles to Sports Creek Raceway to bet the Ky. Derby future pool #2........guess what?...they did not have that "bet"!!!!!!

I wasted two hours of my time and drove back another 45 miles and wasted $18 bucks in gas.

If you guys want some marketing advice, me!

Of course this is Michigan. Things have gotten so bad here, they don't even have a state fair here anymore.......pathetic!

27 Mar 2012 6:30 PM

It's pretty simple. Together we stand divided we...?Well how divided are we? Whats our vision..? What we need is a leader! Backed up by action and power...

27 Mar 2012 8:52 PM

When I read this column I had to check the date to make sure it was not an archive article from the 1980s. It's a joke to say that racing needs to create a "national office."

No one trusts racing to do anything close to self-governance. The massive egos and monied interests long ago abrogated their ability to do so.

The sport needs strict national regulation to address things like drugs, racing surfaces, day-to-day regulations, etc.

Just look at bicycle racing to see what happens when in mates run the asylum.

The problem with racing is that it is a small, close-knit community. Racing journalists rarely have the guts to write anything negative about the sport. Horse owners, breeders, trainers, track owners have employed the wink-wink system for years.

I can just see some track owner opening up the New York Times on Sunday and saying, "I'm shocked, shocked this happens in our sport."

It's time for each and every individual in the sport to own up to the problems. Even The Blood-Horse should shake off the cobwebs.

It's embarrassing to read that racing needs a national office. It needs something akin to electro-shock therapy.

27 Mar 2012 10:46 PM
Stellar Jayne

Ahh, another closed circle in the sand has been drawn - just like the minds of the powers that be in racing.  

Oldie and pdeblin and NY Times - spot on - I couldn't have written anything better than all of you!

I applaud and congratulate the Hancock family for their far sighted vision in preserving the land, memories and home of so many of our equine heroes by donating Claiborne Farm to The Bluegrass Conservancy.  Bravo!

28 Mar 2012 8:24 PM
Stellar Jayne

I just read the NYT Report: Death and Disarray at America's Racetracks.

I have been going to the race's for eight years.  Yes, over those years I learned the ugly truths, but I so love the thoroughbreds I couldn't stop.  I've already submitted my seat requests to Belmont for the Stakes in June - it will be the last time I attend a horse race, or follow racing any more.  The article was crushing - many, many, many more times worse than what is known in 'polite society' - truly more than a rational and feeling human being can digest.

These owners, trainers, vets, jockeys, racing, track officials and legislators who are knowledgeable of the facts are as depraved as Wall Street and the bankers.  No wonder PETA exists, but given some of their tactics they aren't really effective in creating real time meaningful change, or shutting down and kicking out the most egregious factions.  

All of the racinos should be shut down.  If a track can't make it on its own and perverted owners worship only money then they should go out of business - market forces right!!!

The elite tracks need their come uppance too -- regulate, regulate, expose the offenders, huge fines should be levied - $50,000 for first offense.  Second offense, lose license, go to jail for five years minimum!  That their death/accident rate is lower is not acceptable.  Arrogance and greed are the rule of the day.  

This is not acceptable! It is complete betrayal of the horse and the trust he was imprinted with to have in humans.

Sad, Sad, Sad.  Cruel, Cruel, Cruel!

My prayers are only for the horses and those jockeys who truly love them and look out for them on the track.  They are the only deserving receivers of prayerful thought.

28 Mar 2012 10:07 PM

I appreciate all the comments. No one should assume because The Blood-Horse has asked the question about whether the industry needs a national racing office that the conclusion is we do. I encourage everyone to read the package of stories we compiled. You can get a copy at

Has this topic been discussed before? Sure, but it keeps coming up over and over as a potential solution. The issues raised in our package will lead one to conclude that creating a national office is not feasible in the United States and is something the industry needs to shelve and forget about. What we do need to do is find a way to standardize our medication policies and penalties. This is a difficult but achievable goal.

While the New York Times report is disturbing, it should be noted that what was compiled from the charts were "incidents" not fatalities. A horse that is pulled up because the jockey felt something was wrong and was vanned off as a precaution is included in the Times' statistics. The Jockey Club Equine Injury Database looks at fatalities and the three-year average for Thoroughbred racing is 1.91 fatalities per 1,000 starts.

What is inexcusable is the number of horses apparently allowed to race in New Mexico on medication levels far exceeding the legal thresholds and a serious lack of effective penalties and enforcement.  

29 Mar 2012 5:12 PM

By the way, Pat Lee, I don't want the feds to step in. Another layer of bureaucracy is not the answer.

29 Mar 2012 5:14 PM

PETA's objectives bear little resemblance to their public image. Find and read the mandate. They will take away from animals much more than the "bad" things they fixate on. Got a dog or cat? If PETA gets its way, they'll be gone. No more health care, good food, safe care, love etc. Yes, we horse people need to do more but there's no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Handing out the richly deserved penalty for blatant long-term rule violations for a certain trainer would be a good beginning ...

29 Mar 2012 7:00 PM

Question for Mr. Mitchell:

If a national governing body is not the answer, how will uniform medication standards (particularly the enforcement aspect) be adopted?

I would honestly like to hear how that could possibly happen.

31 Mar 2012 5:00 PM

Just read the comments from fb2052 and Pat Lee and you will know everything you need to know in regard to what is wrong with racing and the 2" high ethical bar that the owners, trainers and other racing insiders have set. Racing insiders who continually tout drug use as a necessity? Come on. In fact, just read many of the comments in this publication and its not hard to see that the game needs to be taken out of the hands of the insider "know-it-alls".

31 Mar 2012 7:12 PM

HildyPie, a national standard prohibiting anabolic steroid use got implemented in about a year, so it is possible to create a unified medication standard across the racing states.

I understand the skepticism about taking medication policy and penalities to the next level because this issue lacks the same unified support as the steroid issue. It is vital, however, for the racing industry recognize that allowing more medication has not improved racing in the U.S. and that a vibrant sport is possible without it.

A "national body" governing horse racing is simply not a practical goal in this country with the structure we have in place. What could happen on a national level, however, is the adoption of a national medication standard for horse racing to which states would have to conform. My concern about federal involvement is two-fold. First, it may involve reopening the Interstate Horseracing Act and that could cause some serious problems for racing if the law is opened for revision. For example, racing could lose its exclusivity as the only gambling enterprise allowed across state lines. Now, with online poker coming hard and fast, I'm sure the exclusivity will disappear at some point, but there is no point in accelerating it. Even with the best of intentions, what an amended law is supposed to fix and what is ultimately approved are often very different. You can wind up with a "bridge to nowhere" buried in the language.

Second, the law's enforcment would fall under the Department of Commerce. With the "close" scrutiny the federal government paid to the banks and the bundling of subprime mortgage-backed derivatives, it doesn't give me a lot of confidence.

Having said all that, racing has to get its act together or it could find itself choking down a dose of bitter medicine from the feds.

10 Apr 2012 1:50 PM

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