Racing needs unity to combat perceptions

March, 25, 2014

It would be an underestimation to say last week wasn't the best of times for Thoroughbred racing.

A New York Times' report on an undercover investigation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and video shot in trainer Steve Asmussen's barn showed a dark side of the sport that had to make neutral observers cringe as if they were hit with a shot to the solar plexus by Mike Tyson in his prime.

The report has been both hailed and assailed with predictable responses from the opposite sides in this battle for control of the hearts and minds of the industry.

And the truth is somewhere in the middle.

What the video showed is a problem in one barn, not an entire industry. Yet with an industry as large, wide-spread, disjointed and dysfunctional as racing it's an inviting target for its critics. It's simple for a self-proclaimed expert to make a blanket statement indicting everyone involved with the sport and have those with little knowledge of the industry (which is the majority of people in America) accept it as gospel truth.

Let's not pretend, too, that nameless comments on stories or messages boards are reflective of the feelings of mainstream America.

Are illegal medications and mistreatment of horses rampant in the sport, as some charge? Maybe. Maybe not. It happens, without a doubt. But are there accurate statistics that detail the exact percentage of how many good horsemen and how many sleazy ones there are? Of course not. There are only perceptions, and perceptions can be twisted to fit someone's needs.

Let's not pretend, too, that nameless comments on stories or messages boards are reflective of the feelings of mainstream America. These days, one person, with no life, can do a pretty good job of passing themselves off as a couple of dozen different people in a couple of dozen different places.

This also applies to those who believe everything is fine and dandy in the sport. They, too, are offering nothing more than a perception.

What racing needs now, more than ever, is a good, hard and honest look at itself. Racing has its share of problems, but it will not solve them by listening to the fanatical ideology of PETA or by sticking its head in the sand.

What's needed is an understanding by those inside the sport -- not those outside of it -- that common sense and constructive change is desperately needed so that it can move forward in a viable manner.

Intelligent compromise is needed on medications. Instead of focusing on Lasix, start with the more powerful medications that enhance performance and offer no therapeutic value where there should be no debate, then move forward from there. Cheaters need to be punished, and not with slaps on the wrist. The sport needs to make it costly for owners to do business with those who continually flaunt the rules and make it more rewarding to deal with horsemen who own clean records.

And it needs to be done in the proper context. To end or dramatically curtail racing is a ridiculous notion. Anyone who believes that should happen should say that to the tens of thousands of people who will lose their jobs and livelihood because of a fanatical reaction. Say it to the children of those unemployed people. Go ahead.

Yet that doesn't mean racing should just sit tight and hope this latest problem blows over.

Change needs to start with the sport's biggest circuits saying enough is enough and coming together to work toward the common good of all of them.

A united front will not solve all of racing's ills. The sport is too big to be perfect and pure in all corners of the country. But having respectable standards that are widely embraced will at least give it something to point to when the negative perceptions are inevitably tossed at it.

Perhaps then, if it ever happens, some good will come out of a very bad week.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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