The Kentucky Derby and the Slow Death of Horse Racing

On the eve of the sport's biggest event, it needs more than a Triple Crown to survive.

Canonera, with jockey Gustavo Avila, fly to victory in the 97th Kentucky Derby in Louisville in 1971. (AP )

This dark and stormy Derby week, there is no other way to put it. These are dismal days for horse racing in North America. We once said, in the grandstands and along the backstretches, that all horse racing needed to reassert itself onto the American sporting scene was a Triple Crown winner. But the last 3-year-old colt to accomplish that task was Affirmed in 1978. And that means that a third of a century, an entire generation, has come and gone without such a champion. In the meantime, chaos. The great gaming monopoly that once was horse racing has devolved into a rudderless mess.

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All across the continent, from Ontario to Kentucky, from Maryland to California, the industry and the sport are under siege. From venal legislators, who have raided gaming coffers to cover their own budgetary failures. From the politically connected gaming industry, which sees horse racing as a mere nuisance. From underfunded and lazy regulators, who are more concerned about securing their own patronage than they are about enforcing the rules. And from cheating owners, trainers, jockeys, and drivers, who are laughing at the rest of us as they deposit their ill-gotten gains.

The problem is too few racing fans, bettors, owners, and investors in the sport. The problem is lax regulatory oversight. The problem is the lack of cohesive, central leadership. The problem is lack of lobbying power. The problem is poor marketing. The problem is that no one outside of horse racing remembers who won the Kentucky Derby five years ago. But everyone, everywhere, remembers the ill-fated Barbaro, the heroic colt, who surely (we'd all like to think) would have won the Triple Crown in 2006 had he not been gravely injured at the start of the Preakness Stakes.

But even Barbaro's Triple Crown win in 2006 would not likely have turned the tide. The problem, then and now, is bigger than any one race or any Triple Crown horse. It's a foundational problem and a personnel issue. The people who have led the industry to the brink of irrelevance are the same ones who say today that we should trust them to shape the sport's future. That's why the recent exposes in The New York Times, by Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Griffin Palmer, are so powerful. It's not that anyone in horse racing is shocked by the revelations. It's that we've known the grim truth all this time.


On Saturday, the first Saturday in May, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, will host the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. It ought to be an excellent race. There is no dominant, obvious favorite this year and you can make reasonable arguments for any one of a handful of colts who will be running. As is often the case, you also don't have to look too hard to find a sentimental choice, if you are so inclined, because the field is full of them.

For example, there is Union Rags, the pre-season favorite for the Derby until he ran poorly after a tough trip in the Florida Derby. Union Rags is trained by Barbaro's old trainer, Michael Matz, the mercurial horseman who seems like he could use some good karma for a change on the track. Then there is the fast colt Creative Cause, winner of the San Felipe Stakes, who represents his 71-year-old trainer Mike Harringon's first-ever Derby horse. And there is Bodemeister, trainer Bob Baffert's latest missive, named after Baffert's son, a colt who blew them away in the Arkansas Derby.

Want more? There's Gemologist, one of trainer Todd Pletcher's best, a colt who won the Wood Memorial and who has never been beaten. There's Hansen, a striking white colt whose owner got into a tussle with race officials in Kentucky because he wanted the horse's tail painted blue for a race. It didn't happen—God forbid horse racing should have an edgy marketing ploy—and Hansen was beaten by another Derby horse, named Dullahan, trained by Dale Romans, son of Jerry Romans, who never won a Derby himself.

No matter who wins, every racing fan everywhere mostly prays that none of these beautiful animals (or any others) get hurt on Saturday. Remember Eight Belles? She was the filly who raced a brave second to Big Brown in the Derby in 2008 before breaking down on the track. I hosted a Derby party that year and there were maybe half a dozen children watching that race. They were rightly horrified by Eight Belles' on-track death and I daresay that none are likely to ever want to see a horse race ever again. That's why horse racing has to do much more to better protect the horses.


That protection begins and ends with the vices and failings of the human connections who surround every racehorse. Although there is a healthy and continuous debate within racing about the efficacy of the drugs that are lawfully given to horses, the fact is that the pervasive use of such drugs (not to mention the illegal blood-doping ones) has had a devastating long-term impact upon the horses. We breed them for speed, we push them to race early, and then we have the nerve to pump them full of drugs to hide their ailments or to make them run faster. No wonder they break down: Here's the lede from the most recent Times piece:

As he trained for his first race, at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the 3-year-old thoroughbred Wes Vegas galloped on the track most mornings and had two timed workouts. But his handlers also prepared him in another way: In the month before the race, records show, he received 10 intravenous injections of potent drugs for pain, one the day before he ran; two injections of a drug for joint disease; corticosteroid injections in his two front ankles; a sedative; and an ulcer drug. For all the preparation, that first race, on March 3, turned out to be his last. As he approached the first turn, Wes Vegas broke a leg and had to be euthanized.

There is no excuse for this, on any level. The owners are to blame for permitting their trainers and veterinarians to give drugs to their horses on such a scale. The trainers are to blame for putting their financial interest above the interests of their horses' welfare. The veterinarians are to blame for allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the horses' destruction. Track officials are to blame for not taking seriously their obligations to ensure the safety of the horses. And regulators are to blame for not punishing even the obvious offenders.

The reason all these people so often don't do right by their horses is because the horses are perceived as fungible property rather than as the irreplaceable centerpieces of the sport. Insiders lament the breakdowns but perceive them to be exceptions to the rule. The problem is, the public doesn't see it that way. To the lay person, each and every breakdown is proof that racing is a brutal and violent sport and, just as importantly, that the humans in charge of it aren't doing enough to protect the horses. The cumulative effect of that perception has severely damaged the sport's reputation and the industry's ability to attract new fans.

THREE-QUARTER POLE: No Leaders, No Followers

There is no carrot and no stick—no economic incentive to play fair and no fear of swift and severe punishment for transgressors. It's a system where integrity is talked about more than it is practiced, where everyone blames everyone else. Track officials blame the regulators for not enforcing the rules. Regulators blame legislators for not giving them enough statutory power. Defense attorneys hired by the alleged transgressors are allowed by state judges to make a mockery of the justice system—often delaying suspensions until their clients are ready to take their vacations.

Kentucky is still futzing with the case of former racing steward John Veitch for conduct which occurred, or which didn't occur, in the 2010 Breeders' Cup. Last fall, trainer Rick Dutrow was suspended for ten years by New York regulators. Many industry insiders were delighted with the news. Know what Dutrow is doing today? He's successfully racing horses—in New York and elsewhere—while the courts ponder his case. Horse racing is the only endeavor in the world where the victims of crime often crusade for the due process rights of the crooks who steal from them.

No one wants to be regulated. No one wants to give up what little power and control they have over their corner of the industry. And too few, clearly, are willing to spend the money it would take to increase the pace of drug testing and enforcement or to aggressively market and lobby for the sport in bold new ways. Folks will pay millions for a nice colt. But they won't pay millions to save the sport. The industry talks and talks and talks. And its leaders ponder incremental changes when great strides are desperately needed. In the meantime, too many of the fans, owners, and bettors have gone.

The current leadership strategy is like the first few seconds of the Derby.  Everyone wants to secure the best position before the pack closes in. And make no mistake—the pack is closing in. Ontario, for example, has a thriving racing program. But earlier this year, without notice, provincial leaders decided they would take gaming revenues away from horsemen to pay for general budget items. The same thing has happened recently in Pennsylvania and in New Jersey. Does horse racing have a long-term political and economic survival plan to combat this? If so, I haven't seen it. Besides, who would implement it?

THE STRETCH: The MarketersLet's get back to talking about this week's Derby. The folks at Churchill Downs, and race sponsor Yum! Brands, do an excellent job of marketing this race. The same is true of the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, and even the Breeder's Cup series which comes later in the year. The industry rallies around these races, and rightly perceives them as a smart way to attract new fans and to remind the old ones of why they love the sport. The coverage is great and I can't wait to watch it all.

But there is more to marketing than putting on a good show and the industry would do well by moving beyond its parochial view about what it perceives to be "bad" news. Horse racing is too big, and too regulated, to labor under the delusion that its problems and its villains are the sort of "inside baseball" stories that the rest of the world doesn't need to worry its pretty little head about. And yet the industry is too small, evidently, to sustain a sufficiently independent reporting corps that is willing and able to consistently provide critical coverage of the reasons for the sport's decline.

The values of transparency and accountability, so prevalent in the real world, and so often the cause of vital reform, are often nonexistent in the world of horse racing. There is an "us against them" mentality which is profoundly counterproductive. I know from personal experience how small the world of horse racing can be, and how few outlets have the financial ability and editorial independence to annoy racing advertisers, to gall racing leaders, and to otherwise rock the boat. That's why only The Times, dependent upon no breeder or track, could so directly take on New York's racing establishment (which quickly caved, by the way).

Horse racing isn't giving its current and future fans enough respect when it tries to hide its warts. Want to know what would work? A candid marketing campaign that says to fans: "We know we have problems, we are spending money to fix them, and our goal is to soon provide you with entertaining racing that is safe for the horses, fair to the connections, and honest to the bettors who want to get into the game." You combine that philosophy with tightened enforcement and more aggressive drug enforcement and you have the beginnings of a turnaround.

THE FINISH LINE: The Solutions

It's not rocket science. It just takes will. And sacrifice. And humility. And money. All it would take for the sport to give itself a fighting chance for the future would be for stakeholders to hold each other, and themselves, more accountable. You can't grow horse racing today without ensuring the safety of the horses. You can't ensure the safety of the horses without limiting the drugs in the sport and punishing the cheaters.  And you can't market any of it until potential fans realize that the industry takes its responsibilities seriously.

Okay, enough. Back to the race. I have a terrible track record of betting on races (and the Derby in particular) so please don't hold me to any predictions. I would like to see Creative Cause win because his trainer has waited so long for the honor. But I won't be disappointed if Michael Matz has another brilliant Derby day with his Union Rags. And I won't be surprised if a horse from the second-tier of favorites pulls off an upset following a good trip. That's the thing about the Derby. You have to be good. And you have to be really lucky. I am rarely lucky when it comes to racehorses despite the excellent work of my beloved trainer, the one and only Linda Toscano.

If you are having a Derby party, and I hope you are, I suggest you read the following brief but instructive series (Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV) I wrote two years ago for Vanity Fair. The highlights are few: 1) Buy your mint leaves early, make your sugar/mint syrup the night before, and make sure to refrigerate it overnight before mixing your juleps; 2) don't serve fancy food, and; 3) if people insist on betting try doing it for charity, where the person who "wins" by picking the best three-horse ticket gets to donate the "winnings" to the charity of her or his choice.

In memory of my father, with whom I watched thousands of Thoroughbred and harness races, and who would be proud of the tone and tenor of this column, I always pick either the American Diabetes Association or the Standardbred Retirement Foundation. Alas, I have yet to win after all these years. On the other hand, I have come to make a mean mint julep, bordering certain years on epic, which I just know my father would be proud of as well.