Rogue Reporting - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the June 30, 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 The sledgehammer-like beating the Thoroughbred racing industry has taken recently in the New York Times over drug use has been hailed by many owners and racing organizations that want the industry to clean up its act. The coverage, which has cast racing in the worst possible light through slanted reporting and faulty statistics, has been widely expected by anti-drug supporters to accelerate change.

But these advocates have hitched their horse to the wrong wagon. Instead of rallying behind a champion, they’re giving credence to gross misrepresentations of the sport and allowing racing to be buried under a mountain of unchallenged and unmitigated negativity. This is dangerous policy for an industry that acknowledges a severe perception problem already exists in the minds of casual fans or non-fans of the sport.

Are there problems in Thoroughbred racing? Sure. Are there people trying to beat the system and ignoring what is in the best interest of their horses? Yes. Are these bad apples a substantial subset of racing’s owners, breeders, and trainers? A resounding no.

Super testing done in 2001 and 2002 on 1,596 samples from racing Thoroughbreds, including some samples retested with more sensitive equipment, found 98.7% of the samples were clean.

Without question, racing needs leadership to implement a system that punishes the cheaters and bans repeat violators from the sport, possibly sending them to jail. But the Times series is not moving us closer to this goal. The sensationalistic reporting has not advanced the The Jockey Club’s proposed medication reform rules across all racing jurisdictions. The reporting has not caused any jurisdiction to join Kentucky in taking even a baby step toward outlawing Salix.

Why? Because the Times seems to be taking the tack that sensationalism is more important than meaningful facts. Instead of shedding light and educating, its reporting screams and exaggerates. In the paper’s middle-of-the-front-page Sunday launch to its campaign against racing March 25, it quoted statistics compiled from race charts. One had to hunt for the explainer text buried inside, noting the statistics were for “breakdowns or signs of injury.” Lots of inflammatory text about incidences wrapped around pictures of dead horses and paralyzed jockeys obscured problems with the reporting. One problem is the statistics combined Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing, which are entirely different breeds and very different styles of racing. Problem two is that incidences include horses that may have been pulled up in a race, walked off the track, and were found later to have minor, treatable injuries. If the article had focused on the national Equine Injury Database, which monitors only fatalities in Thoroughbreds and has data verified by veterinarians, many of these “incidences” would have been cut in half.

The Times has been handling racing in this way for some time. Columns and editorials about drugs in racing have continued mentioning the breakdown of Eight Belles long after it had been proved the filly was clean, and all the racing industry has done is wring its collective hands. In its reporting on medication issues, the Times regularly exaggerates and misstates drug issues, most recently equating total carbon dioxide overages with “doping horses.” Milkshaking, while banned, involves baking soda, water, and sugar. No drugs are involved.

We should not be fooled into believing the Times is out to help horse racing; it is out to help the Times by attracting readers with sensational stories and grim photos designed to attract national awards—all at the expense of racing. If the newspaper actually cares about the sport, why doesn’t it present balance in its coverage? Instead, to garner maximum attention year after year, it rolls out the negative story timed to coincide with the Triple Crown series.

Unfortunately, the Times has been wracked by its own scandals, numerous times involving false and made-up reporting. The unimpeachable reputation the Times once deservedly earned seems no longer to exist. We have no access to the Gray Lady’s inner sanctum, but what a shame it would be if the motivation behind this series is to simply inflame emotions over drugs and animals in the hope of garnering some journalist laurels. Judging by its record, self-reward rather than racetrack reform seems to be the motive.

The racing industry should immediately cease condoning these articles in the Times and attempting to use them as its stalking horse. If it does not, it may one day find that even when Thoroughbred racing succeeds in ridding itself of all drugs, there won’t be enough people left who care anymore; that irreparable damage has been done by the blizzard of bad publicity.

Features Editor Lenny Shulman contributed to this column.

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