Horse Racing Needs to Embrace Criticism
Don't kid yourself; you don't care about horse racing. At the very least, you don't care about it 362 days a year.
You might, might, watch the Kentucky Derby. Fine.
If you don't have plans, heck, you might, might, even watch the Preakness.
And if, but only if, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners are the same, you'll watch the Belmont Stakes. You'll cheer for that horse, hoping he'll win the Triple Crown.
Then, then, then what? When he loses? You'll just forget his name.
Forget it like you forgot who scored the winning goal against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Forget it like you forgot who took off her shirt, leaving just her sports bra, after beating China in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Forget it like you forgot that girl you sat next to in homeroom who never remembered your name, or maybe it was a boy, not that it matters.
You don't care about horse racing; you probably never did, and you definitely won't again. At least, that's what Gregg Doyel and the rest of the mainstream media want you to think.
They want you to think horse racing is all about Eight Belles' collapse a quarter-mile past the wire in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
They want you to think horse racing is all about the brown screen that was used to “shield” people from the veterinarians when they destroyed George Washington right there on the Monmouth Park track after he broke his sesamoid and dislocated his ankle in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Classic.
They want you to think horse racing is death and murder. They want the Eight Belles tragedy not to be inspiration for improvement, but as propaganda to kill the sport.
The last thing they want is the industry to work out of this, to use these deaths to turn things around. They don't want to be wrong.
And, in many ways, they're not. At least Gregg Doyel is not.
Horse racing is dead, gone, vanished, getting smaller and smaller each year.
Bay Meadows and the Woodlands closed last year against one new track opening; Hollywood Park, Beulah Park, River Downs, Aqueduct, Fort Erie, Fairmount Park, and even Pimlico have all had similar rumors swirling around them recently. Who knows how many of those tracks will survive more than a few more years.
Coverage, like the tracks, has vanished.
While ESPN once televised races as far from the spotlight as the Remington Park Derby in Oklahoma and the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark., now it has cut its coverage to a few major races leading up to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
And just how large “few” is continues to shrink each year.
Last year, it picked up one of the biggest races in the country, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, and put it on ESPNEWS, because Curlin was racing in it to set the career earnings record.
And this year, ESPN cut its coverage of the Kentucky Derby significantly, eliminating Wednesday's post position draw and the entire Friday coverage. The Friday coverage, of course, includes the Kentucky Oaks, the second-biggest horse wagering event of the year.
Moreover, the Worldwide Leader is not even heading to Pimlico this year for the Preakness, instead just simulcasting 10-and-a-half hours of coverage from Horse Racing TV onto ESPN360.com.
But what has caused this? Surely this cannot all be a reaction to Eight Belles. God knows, if people were that turned off from horses dying, the sport would have ceased after Ruffian's demise in her famous “Battle of the Sexes” match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
Or, since Ruffian did not do the trick, the frightening and horrific fall of champion Go For Wand in the stretch of the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff would certainly have ended the sport once and for all.
In what was destined to be the greatest race ever run, Go For Wand and Bayakoa battled nose-and-nose for one-and-one-sixteenth miles before Go For Wand, who was no more than a head in front, fell at the sixteenth pole and rolled over herself.
She got up like a champion and hobbled uselessly to the finish line before she was destroyed in front of millions watching on NBC.
"I could see her out of the corner of my eye after I had fell and hit the ground, and I could see her leg was flopping," jockey Randy Romero said. "She's trying to run to get to the wire. Still trying to run.”
"Here they are, dueling, one a mirror of the other throughout the entire race," said race announcer Tom Durkin. "Go For Wand on the inside, Bayakoa on the outside.
“A wrong step, a turn, a twist, and Go For Wand will go down.”
That easily, just a wrong step, and a champion was destroyed.
But the problem was not that Go For Wand was destroyed, or euthanized if you cannot handle the impact of “destroyed.” She had to be destroyed after that fall so that she would not suffer.
The problem was that horse racing did not learn.
Go For Wand started a chain reaction of bad luck, not dissimilar to the recent breakdowns since 2006.
Two other horses died in Breeders' Cup races that same day, although the deaths were slightly less gruesome.
In the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Mr. Nickerson suffered a fatal heart attack and Shaker Knit fell over the collapsed Mr. Nickerson. Shaker Knit was not able to be saved.
Then, in 1993, Union City broke down during the Preakness Stakes and was destroyed. There were rumors beforehand that the horse was not fit to run, allegations that trainer D. Wayne Lukas denies to this day.
The horse who went on to win the Preakness, Prairie Bayou, would then break down during the Belmont Stakes before being destroyed later in the day.
And in 1995, only the brilliant jockeying of Mike Smith prevented Holy Bull from going down in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Smith sensed something was wrong early and pulled the defending three-year old champion up, probably saving his life.
Holy Bull was retired after the race due to a severe ligament strain in his leg.
Even then, even in 1995, it was obvious something was wrong.
Breeding had become such a science that every horse was meticulously planned to garner the most possible speed.
Native Dancer began showing up two or three times in every horse's genealogical pool, generally through his progeny Northern Dancer or Mr. Prospector, or more frequently, both.
The inbreeding only magnified flaws, increasing the likelihood of passing along disfavorable traits.
Native Dancer had extremely weak ankles, missing time as both a three-year-old and four-year-old due to ankle injuries. A further injury near the end of his abbreviated four-year-old campaign forced Alfred Vanderbilt to retire his champion to stud in 1954.
But it's also not fair to blame it all on the breeders.
Trainers take these horses and extract all they can get out them to have them ready to run beyond what they are capable of doing.
Look, for instance, at Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown.
Even if he did not use steroids on Big Brown, Dutrow has admitted to frequently using drugs on almost all of his horses to get an edge. He has hardly been alone.
Imagine for just a moment if the bones in your leg were about one-fifth their current size. Now imagine you are running as fast as you possibly can for about a mile.
But that's not fast enough.
So, in order to go faster, you are revved up on drugs of all sorts.
That's just a brutal thought.
I'm sure you cannot begin to imagine the pain Derek Redmond was in when he broke down during the 400-meter semifinal at the 1992 Summer Olympic games in Barcelona. Can you begin to imagine just how bad it would have been if he had the physical makeup of a horse?
But again, I'm placing all the blame on just one group of people.
The blame belongs on the industry as a whole. Everyone. Trainers, breeders, owners, race tracks, heck, even the media. Every gosh-darn soul.
If, somehow, they were all willing to come together, to work out the kinks together, maybe the sport could not just survive, but thrive.
The sport won't ever die completely; the state of Kentucky would not allow it.
The number of jobs it provides people in the state, approximated at 100,000, or nearly five percent of the workforce, is just too much for the state to allow it to disappear.
But there's still a huge difference between survival and thriving.
Horse racing needs an overarching governing body that has power to regulate, that has power to enforce its rulings.
Sure, the graded stakes committee can decide that any state that does not ban steroids will lose all its graded stakes, but what exactly does that mean?
Only 19 of the 33 states that currently have thoroughbred race meets have at least one graded stakes, and in the general scheme of things, graded stakes have almost no bearing whatsoever.
What's really the incentive to ban steroids?
Horse racing needs a governing body that will regulate everything.
Every aspect of every segment of the industry.
There needs to be a regulatory committee on breeding that will set limits on how inbred a horse is allowed to be.
There need to be standardized procedures across the country. There's no excuse for California giving Patrick Valenzuela a lifetime ban on riding in the state, only for Valenzuela to move and secure jockey licenses in New Mexico and Louisiana with almost no questions asked.
Punishments need to be uniform and handed down from a central authority, not spread out over 33 different jurisdictions and even more sub-jurisdictions within each state.
Again, why was Paco Lopez banned from riding at Calder Race Course in South Florida for three months, but allowed to drive up to Tampa Bay Downs and be in the irons during the interim?
The industry needs to realize that there are problems, and it needs to accept the blame. Everyone does.
But, at the same time, no one does accept it.
Like D. Wayne Lukas when Union City went down in the 1993 Preakness, all anyone in the industry ever does is deny that anything is wrong.
Magna, the largest racetrack operator in the country, filed for bankruptcy after it defaulted on dozens of loans to various banks and its parent company. But god forbid Magna were to accept any of the blame for its poor operations.
When Eight Belles went down, it was a tragedy that just happened. Same with every horse before it. At least, that's what the industry wants you to think.
The industry needs transparency. People need to know that the sport is controlled, that there are standards, and that something is being done to prevent future tragedies.
But most importantly, people want someone to blame.
And if the industry wants to survive, it's going to have to embrace that blame with open arms. Accept it. Use it.
Come out and say, “It is our fault Eight Belles died. We messed up. But by golly, here are the steps we are taking to make sure this does not happen again.”
Horse racing needs to come together under one brand and work to make the sport work again.
Right now, it's broken and invisible. But it's fixable.
Open it up. Create an organization that is run by both people from within the industry and overseen by people from outside. Make these uniform policies and publicize them. Come down hard on those who violate your rules.
Right now, horse racing can be repaired. The industry can thrive.
But people need to know it is learning and working to make things better.
A couple more Eight Belles, however, and maybe then the sport, like its fallen filly, will also be destroyed.
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