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.