Stuart S. Janney III: Steve Crist has worn many hats in this industry: journalist — publishing executive, among them — and today he’s going to share some thoughts about how fans, the general public and the media perceive the medication issue in Thoroughbred racing. The committee has appreciated having Steve’s views on these matters, and I think you will as well.
Steven Crist: Thank you, Stuart, and thank you, Alan, for the invitation to speak today and for recognizing the often unheard voices of racing’s actual customers.
My assignment for today was to report to you on how Thoroughbred racing’s medication issues are perceived by our fans. Please keep that word “perceived” in mind, because I think there’s a huge difference between perception and reality and that that difference is in fact the crux of the issue. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I first received this assignment back in June, I decided to make this an exercise in participatory journalism. It seemed to me that the best way to find out how our customers perceived medication issues was ask them. And to do that I posed the same question put to me by The Jockey Club to the readers of my blog on drf.com. I did not ask them any specific questions. I didn’t attempt to frame the debate. I thought it would be interesting to see what they considered the issues to be, what things were most important to them, and I threw it wide open.
I simply told them that I needed their help writing this speech and I asked them: How do you perceive medication issues in Thoroughbred racing?
The response was astounding — in its volume, in its tone and in its content. I’ll share a few thoughts on each of those areas.
The sheer size of the response was unexpected and it was overwhelming. On a busy week, we might get 15 or 20 letters to the editor at the Racing Form. A popular blog entry might attract 50 comments. But I knew we were looking at something entirely different when 200 comments poured in the first three days. Our blogging software actually can only accommodate 100 comments per entry, and I had to repost the initial inquiry six times to accommodate what turned into 550 lengthy responses to my call for help in speech writing.
As for the tone of the comments, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that these were not the complaints of what you often like to call disgruntled bettors. These were not whines from people who had just lost a photo looking for someone to blame for a bad day at the racetrack. These were, for the most part, extremely lengthy, thoughtful responses. There was a lot more sadness than anger in them. There was a lot more frustration than complaint. Dozens if not hundreds of the responses began along the same lines: “I love racing and I think it’s the greatest game in the world, but….”
These are people who want our game to thrive and they want it to get better. They are not looking to attack it.
In terms of content, were those contents went from those initial, “I love racing, buts” surprised even me.
Because comment after comment after comment repeated the same themes: Drugs in racing are out of control; the inmates are running the asylum; we need harsh, swift penalties — zero tolerance, three strikes and you’re out of the game.
They went further. Punishing trainers isn’t working — it’s time for the owners to take responsibility. Punish the owners. Ban the owners. Ban their horses.
These are our fans’ perceptions, not our enemies’ perceptions, of what racing needs to do about medication. And, again, please keep in mind that while these may sound like the angry shoutings of a lynch mob, these are the sentiments of some of your most loyal and thoughtful customers. This is their perception of drugs in racing.
I felt their pain at what’s happening to our sport, but I also felt it was time for a little bit of a reality check on what so many of them were suggesting. And I got the opportunity for that reality check through the news. On July 16, in the midst of this discussion that had 400 comments into it, the Texas Racing Commission ordered a six-month suspension of the nation’s leading trainer because of a positive finding for a topical anesthetic in the winner of a maiden race a year earlier. Without belaboring the details of the case, this penalty was ordered despite the absence of any plausible veterinary theory about the drug being administered, and despite a finding so infinitesimally small that no one could credibly argue it had affected the horse’s performance.
I asked the respondents who had posted these comments previously, without agreeing or disagreeing with them, without agreeing or disagreeing with the suspension or the case: OK, now we have a real case here. Do you really want to see happen what you’ve been suggesting? Assuming the suspension was sustained, hypothetically I asked them: Do you really want the trainer to be banned from racing for life? Do you really want all of his horses removed from their stalls and turned over to outside trainers rather his assistants? Should all of the owners he trains for also to be sanctioned? Should the hundreds of horses who have run under his name this year be barred from competition for the rest of the year? Should the most prominent horse in American racing be suspended for the rest of the season?
Well, as it turned out, nobody really wanted to answer those questions. Only a few people even tried. And after another week, the discussion petered out. The message board is still open, but nobody has posted a comment since July 29 — coincidentally, opening day at Saratoga.
Since then, I have been trying to digest and interpret the strange turn that this exercise took as it neared its end. And here is what I think it reflects.
Our fans are convinced that there is something rotten in the state of racing, but more than anything else, I think they are completely confused about what is going on with drugs and medication. Honestly, so are most of us who work in the industry, who represent it, or who cover it. I think we have a huge problem in that we make virtually no distinction between therapeutic medications that have a proper and even humane role in the treatment of these animals and the abusive use of unnecessary drugs. We make very few distinctions that make sense to our fans between marginal overages of therapeutic medication and the deliberate use of nefarious drugs. So we end up with a seemingly constant barrage of news about failed drug tests and repeat offenders and a system that doesn’t work — but nobody seems to be able to clearly distinguish between minor administrative matters and serious crimes, between perhaps overzealous testing regulation and evidence of truly criminal activity.
Of course we have a problem with drugs in racing. We probably always have, and maybe we always will. But it seems to your fans that we are not serious about truly rooting it out and that the efforts we are making are probably not going about it the right way. And in failing to do so, we are worsening the perception of the public while also failing to address the reality of the issue.
It has been very common in the past for racing to throw up its hands on this issue and act like we’re a helpless victim of a broken system. Herding cats is the idiom that we often hear. We hear about rules in 38 or 48 different states and what we need is a league office with central administrative power and we all know that’s not going to happen any time soon.
So sometimes people in racing get so disheartened that they throw up their hands and say, “Call in the federal government.” Yeah, that will solve everything. Frankly that strikes me as a prescription for disaster for this sport, and I don’t believe we need to go down that road.
I think we can do a lot better on our own. And, as you’ve heard this morning, occasionally we do. The industrywide ban on anabolic steroids may have happened for all the wrong reasons — it was largely a coincidence of language involving a serious problem in baseball that may not have even been that serious a problem in horse racing. But that doesn’t matter. It was something that had to be done because there was no way in the current frenzied atmosphere about steroids and sports, that we could continue to defend injecting horses with anabolic steroids if we ever wanted to create another new fan. So whether or not people thought it was a big deal or an important issue, we realized something had to be done. And guess what? It worked. Some people were dragged into it kicking and screaming, but the industry said there is no room for debate on this one; there is no room for compromise on this one. We have to get this done. And it got done and it was done quickly and it was accepted quickly.
Those over 500 responses that I got, not one of them mentioned steroids as a problem anymore. So while the ban may have been cosmetic, I think it can and should be a model for our getting equally serious about other abuses and other drugs and other clearly unnecessary things that we are giving to our horses.
I will leave you with one final thought about all this. Our fans may seem harsh, and you may find it dispiriting that they have such a negative perception of the sport and the worthwhile efforts of many to do something about it. The comments can be scary. I invite you to read them. They’ll be up on our website for a long time.
But while the fans can be harsh, they also can be forgiving. I’d point out that despite doping scandals in baseball and cycling that may well be far broader and more pervasive than even ours, baseball stadiums are doing brisk business and Europeans are lining the streets to watch the Tour de France. After spending years in denial, officials of both of those sports did something very simple and straightforward, and I think it’s something that racing’s leaders need to say:
We have a problem with medication, we’re going to do something about it, we’re not going to tolerate it any more.
It’s a tough road from there to reality and from perception to reality, but I think it’s past time for racing to make that simple statement and that acknowledgment — and I guarantee you that that would be a giant first step in changing the perceptions our fans have of our sport.
Thank you for your time and for your attention.
William S. Farish: Thank you Stuart, Scott and Steve.