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.

25 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Dick Downey

Amen. Well said, Eric. The NYT does this sort of thing in lots of areas of discussion, and the public has caught on. Share price 1-8-10: $14.11. Share price this post: $6.80. Time for our industry leaders to catch on, too.

26 Jun 2012 1:43 PM
breeze10

LAURELS TO YOU, MR. MITCHELL !!!! I respect the fact that you (and often Steve Haskin) have the courage to speak up!  I agree, at a time when thoroughbred racing seems to be on a steady decline and morale of consistent, "older" fans seems to be suffering, journalist who write without true, clear insight and factual information would do much better to seek an alternate occupation!  It seems, the Times, is not the only guilty culprit...just read some of he "hogwash" that Bob Ford of the INQUIRER writes!!.

We can all be thankful that we are able to count on you to take the time to research, accurately report, and "step up to the plate" when needed.

Thank you and please do continue with your honest, insightful articles.  (No wonder, you're an editor !) :-)

26 Jun 2012 2:34 PM
Salvatore Carcia

Eric, if I was the head of marketing for the whole industry, everyone would get a copy of this article. The negative impact of the industry's misguided response to this Times' series has already had a negative impact. It was used as evidence of the decline of the industry by Governor Cuomo to make his case for the government takeover of the NYRA. When are the people in this industry going to wake-up!

26 Jun 2012 2:40 PM
walt bogdanich

"Eric Mitchell made many errors in his article about the New York Times coverage of horse racing, but I'll mention only one.  He said readers who wanted to understand the meaning of our statistics would have "had to hunt for the explainer text buried inside, noting the statistics were for 'breakdowns or signs of injury.' I guess he considers the 12th paragraph in our story "buried inside."   Next time we'll send him the large print edition."  -- walt bogdanich and joe drape

26 Jun 2012 3:28 PM
EJMitchellKy

Thanks for reading, Walt.

Would either you or Joe also point out the place in the article explaining the "signs of injury" included in the overall statistics may represent a minor physical injury that did not compromise a horse's health or its ability to race again? And that it isn't clear from just the charts what constitutes a serious injury? Oh, wait, I think I see it in the quote from Chris McErlean on page 22. Never mind.

26 Jun 2012 4:20 PM
Deltalady

The guys at the Times may want to brush up their resumes... their form of reporting reveals their desperation to get people to subscribe to their "rag".  Along with daily red meat about the horseracing industry they feed their dwindling number of readers, others are reporting on THEM, the Times, the scandals, the loss of revenue (many are aghast they are selling ads on the front page! oh, dear!), are all speaking much louder than these two with their poisened pens.  They are being drowned out by their own excesses.  Recent surveys reveal a dying industry, print newspapers, and in many of those surveys, readers evidently don't believe much of what they print, anyway.  I mean, we all stand in line at the grocery checkout and read those tittilating headlines in the tabloids.  To me, the Times is nothing more than one of those tabloids.  Nothing it prints has the ring of truth anymore.  All the news that's fit to print, as well as that which isn't fit to print.  Ugh!  (I'm a dyed-in-the-wool advocate for removing all radeday medications and believe in the orderly phasing out over time to be an achievable goal. The Breeders Cup has led the way, not backing down after the AGSC back-pedaled, and amazingly, they were swiftly and pointedly criticized soundly by those INSIDE the sport for doing so.)

26 Jun 2012 4:41 PM
kincsem

While the NYTimes article was sensationalist, it should be a wake up call to a sport that does little to address cheaters. To start with, there are kangaroo courts in each jurisdiction that are too easily swayed by the big money owners and trainers in their area. A national governing body, just as with the Big Four sports, is essential. i know, I know - good luck wrestling control away from all the little potentates. Add that to the recent revelation that the mexican drug cartels are laundering money in horse racing (get real! the general public doesn't know/care the difference between quarter horses and Thoroughbreds!). Ignoring the glaring problems by casting derision on those who expose them is not going to save the sport. How about starting with throwing a lifetime ban on any trainer caught with cobra venom in his barn for a start? how can the industry be taken seriously, when it allows a cheater like that back to do the same old thing?

26 Jun 2012 5:37 PM
Walt Gekko

The real problem is the Times and other newspapers can no longer afford to be what they once were.  We live in a society that wants instant gratification and doesn't want to take time to find out the facts.  At the same time, newspapers have been severely hurt financially as they have fewer readers, and do what they need to in order to keep those readers they have left.  That to me has forced some of the changes in reporting.

That said, the problems this sport has had is the fact that for years, people at the top of the sport ignored those concerned about illegal drugs, mainly because many in my opinion came from a time and place where people were far more honest and had no concept that people might cheat or they didn't want to know and simply looked the other way.  That has all come to rear an ugly head at this point, especially in an era where reporting in the mainstream media has had to change for reasons noted.

This sport needs to wake up to the fact that people have much shorter attention spans than they used to and won't take the time to find out the facts as they once did.  Only then will this sport work together to make the changes necessary that will truly in the eyes of the mainstream media clean up this sport to the level where it can thrive again.

26 Jun 2012 6:18 PM
Your Only Friend

Great article...well said.....until racing commissions put the hammer down and not back down....they will continue too buck the system....some just never get it.....some do not want too get it.

26 Jun 2012 7:25 PM
edrul427

Excellent article,congratulations but please also includ the talkingt heads that show up in tv.These people make such a disservice to racing that i think it would be better not to have tv brocasting than have this talkin g heads talking so bad about racing.

26 Jun 2012 7:30 PM
Mike Relva

Eric

Compelling points on your part.

Changing the subject a little by stating my pleasure one of your writers is no longer with Blood Horse. As much as I enjoy following racing, haven't enjoyed this individual continually slamming a once in a lifetime mare and her connections, even mentioning them indirectly in their last blog. Absurd, especially when many of racings elite place her at the top. When racing needs hero's (an understatement) and someone makes a career of bashing a proven superhorse illustrates just how little they know.

26 Jun 2012 9:55 PM
Paula Higgins

Mr. Mitchell, this was an excellent commentary on the NYT's recent story on horse racing. First, let me say I have always thought well of Joe Drape. I am disappointed that he would take a hatchet to a sport that he has covered so well in the past. Mr. Bogdanich I am not familiar with at all. First, I am a card carrying member of the ASPCA. I would never endorse or watch a sport that allowed rampant abuse of horses. Do drug violations and other issues occur i.e. running horses that are not race track ready? Yes, it does. Is it pervasive? No, it isn't. Drug abuse is being handled decisively in almost every state that has horse racing. The industry is working to sanction those that refuse to follow the rules. Where was the reporting on that?

The NYT's, for the past 20 years, has had a penchant for sensationalism without examining both sides of the issue, and really looking at the truth of the matter. They extrapolate data that supports their point of view, to make their case for or against something. It is an old tactic and totally lacks integrity. This is nothing new. They never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Walt Gekko, when newspapers publish stories that lack balance, perspective, and truthfullness,  people take notice. That's when they stop buying them. How many people do you think have cancelled their New York Times subscriptions because of their lack of fairness? A bunch and they know it. To write sensational stories is not the answer and will not increase their readership. People can get their information on the internet from many different sources and make up their minds about the validity of the information.

26 Jun 2012 10:14 PM
tenmd

The Times is what it is and hopefully discerning readers have realized this. What should have the industry's attention were the so called "representatives of racing" who recently testified before congress.  Rarely has anyone been as successful in assembling such a one sided group with such narrow views  and presented them to congress as "experts."

27 Jun 2012 6:12 AM
Carlotta Cooper

Nicely said. It's too bad the NY Times can't report honestly on horse racing anymore. Their articles have been so negative and one-sided that I've unsubscribed.

27 Jun 2012 7:45 AM
CHIEF PICAWINNA

I dont care what the NYT writes.I write from a bettors viewpoint(mine)Im tired of small fields with ridiculously low odds on horses with trainers that have multiple medication infractions that are training at a 25-35% clip.I want stricter medication rules,less races and less horses bred in the US.Its all gotten to the point that I dont see this as a sport anymore but a business and my interest is having a better shot at winning more money on my bets.The betting synicates seem to be fine with status quo Im not.

27 Jun 2012 5:49 PM
breeze10

Mr.Mitchell:  I repeat: "Laurels to you !"

Perhaps you need to send a "large print edition" of the blogs to Misters Bogdanich and Draper !

(It seems they remain to "just not get-it!)

28 Jun 2012 10:20 AM
Your Only Friend

When commissions of any state allows Trainers too put blame on employees and not suffer consequences is wrong.....when tracks of any state allow vets too come on track that are not employee of track is wrong....you have lost control,Trainers must be held accountable for any act of employee or vet hired...no excuses.

28 Jun 2012 11:59 AM
Lammtarra'sArc

This is why I only watch the BBC.... north American Media is simply out to smear whoever , and whenever to sell a paper, or get ratings.  Give me Reuters, or BBC any day. A sport will never rise with out a national commission.

28 Jun 2012 1:56 PM
Peg645

Frankly, The Times coverage of horse racing of late, also including those writers on their racing blog, has absolutely reduced its credibility, and, therefore its importance overall. The mistakes are so egregious, I wonder what checks they have in place for reporting at all.

28 Jun 2012 2:21 PM
Brigitte

The NY Times comment by Walt Bogdanich (4th comment)  illustrates Eric Mitchell's point.  After saying Mitchell made "many errors" he passes over combining quarter horse racing and thoroughbred racing statistics, passes over using a dubious NY Times method of analysing data, and zeroes in on whether paragraph 12 can be called "buried inside" an article.  That is misdirection that won't work.

As a biologist I believe therapeutic drugs, legal on raceday, are a much bigger problem than illegal drugs because they affect which horses go to the breeding shed. Lasix, in particular, has enabled bleeders to pass the tendency on and weakened all horses horses by racing them dehydrated and with less calcium and other minerals in their blood. Racing is an athletic competition. Athletes who need "therapeutic" drugs to compete don't compete in the Olympics, and shouldn't compete in the Breeder's Cup or the Triple Crown.

28 Jun 2012 2:34 PM
an ole railbird

its as plain as the nose on your face. the lasix is not the problem. do away with lasix & kiss horse racing good-bye. the facts have not yet been presented. noone has proven that lasix has harmed anything. i have personally been on lasix or some genertic lasix since 1994. & can name numerous other people who have been on it for years. go find another whipping boy. lasix has taken enough bad mouthing. you have not proven that laSix has harmed anthing.

"an ole railbird"

01 Jul 2012 3:48 PM
pdeblin

This is the most pathetic column I have ever read in The Blood-Horse. It is a stain on its historic past.

You defame the New York Times using the same tactics you use against them. That is a sure mark of desperation.

Horse racing has a multitude of problems--many known by The Blood-Horse for years (decades) but swept under the rug because it is difficult to bite the hand that feeds you.

I didn't agree with the way the Times reported some of the horrors of racing--they should have looked at more tracks and used better evidence, but sadly the evidence is there. Andy Beyer has written about the crooks and scoundrels in racing and offers his ideas for change.

There are so many problems in racing--even the Times didn't have space to list them all.

They were focused on breakdowns in horses--one wonders why no one writes about the breakdown in human life at the track and farms where the horses are cared for better than people.

Or the charade of horse sales where honesty is merely a dream.

I am astonished to see such a mediocre column in The Blood-Horse. Instead of whining pathetically you should be taking a leadership position for change in an industry that is begging for true leaders.

Shame!

02 Jul 2012 2:38 PM
EJMitchellKy

Pdeblin,

The Blood-Horse has stained its historic past by asking for balanced reporting of the industry?

In June 1979, The Blood-Horse wrote the following in an editorial during an American Horse Council annual meeting and shortly after CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment on racing and medication:

"The public relations problem is formidable. That a bank is robbed is news, and readable; that a bank has a complex system of safeguards against being robbed, and has intelligent and earnest people working to prevent robberies, is not news, and if feature material, dull reading."

The editorial went on to raise questions about a statement made by 60 Minutes that "breakdowns" had increased four-fold in Pennsylvania.

"What is a breakdown? When is it attributable to racing on medication? Who is doing the counting? Has anyone ascertained the percentage of horses which break down while not racing on Bute, over the same track, at the same time of the year?" the editorial asked. It should be noted the author, Editor Kent Hollingsworth, was ardently opposed to the permitted use of phenylbutazone (Bute) and furosemide (Salix) in racing.

Yet, the editorial raised legitimate questions then just as we raise questions about the Times' statistics. Any investigation requires and should deliver clarity of the issues.

We also agree with how the 1979 editorial ends:

"No one we know, inside racing or out, has advocated racing horses on a stimulant, depressant, narcotic, local anesthetic, or any drug which would act on the central nervous system.

"The medication issue has been a major one in racing for more than 20 years. Knee-jerk reaction to 60 Minutes will not answer the public reaction aspect, nor solve the basic problem. It cries for more research, more reason, less ignorance, no apathy."

10 Jul 2012 9:47 AM
gjhdvm

Well done, Eric.  Sensationalism in our sport was first experienced by me with the horrific breakdown of Go For Wand & the multipage spread of her injury & euthanasia.  I don't remember seeing any pictures of Joe Theisman's open compound tibial fracture.  As long as we are plagued by shoddy reporting (eased or taken off by ambulance, often precautionary, reported as breakdowns) and ruled by public opinion not fact & science, it will be hard to make any productive improvements. The NYT is certainly approaching Enquirer status and their credibility is at best suspect.  There are good news stories (see Star Plus, Paulick report) that get no press from these guys and everyone knows there are crooks & scoundrels in every business.

13 Jul 2012 5:09 PM
Tiara Terces

This article is an attempt to react to the accusations of the media.  More needs to be done to reach the same audience the media reaches.  

Many race fans seem to suffer from misconceptions, so it is not strange the general public would be even less informed.  Both groups need to be educated about therapeutic drugs.  Yes, they are banned when too close to race day... No, therapeutic drugs are not cobra venom.  The milkshake, as this article points out is baking soda, sugar and electrolytes.  Hardly newsworthy.  "Bute" is in the same family as ibuprofen and aspirin.  Hardly newsworthy.  An index of these medications needs to be prepared to expose the public to the facts, not the inflammatory accusations.

Next, the racing industry needs to take a good statistical approach to its competition, such as state run lotteries.  How much of this money is raked off immediately?  How much is distributed in winnings?  How much is misappropriated?  The same for casino operations not involving horse racing.  I believe uncovering this data would reveal that the media has more than one axe to grind.  Eliminating horse racing as a choice for the betting dollar, they realize, will send more cash into the coffers of these competitors. Fight back!  Horse racing hires many more people who would otherwise have few employment opportunities. It preserves land that otherwise would look like the rest of suburbia. It is far more intricate and complex and fascinating than picking some arbitrary numbers.  It involves fabulous non-human athletes and exposes people to other unique, life forms. As Wordsworth wrote:  "Getting and spending we waste our powers.  Little we see in Nature that is ours."  Racehorses and horse racing not only help make us more aware of the equine athlete, but also expose us to more than urban environments, which to many, is otherwise becoming less and less available.  

14 Jul 2012 7:17 AM

Recent Posts

More Blogs

Archives