Horse racing can learn from the NBA

May, 2, 2014
05/02/14
12:29
PM ET

It's understandable that the power brokers in Thoroughbred racing have been pretty well occupied in recent days.

It is, after all Kentucky Derby week, and visions of the sun shining down on an old Kentucky home and large crowds jamming into Churchill Downs and other tracks across the nation are no doubt merrily dancing in their mind.

Yet hopefully they also had an eye on the NBA in recent days and took note of how that league dealt with a serious problem.

In case you have been vacationing in a 1950s bomb shelter for the past week or so, the NBA was confronted with a rash of ugly problems stemming from a tape of racist remarks uttered by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that raised the ire of a nation.

How did the NBA deal with it? Quickly and decisively. In a matter of a few days, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a rookie on the job, displayed a remarkable amount of leadership in ruling that Sterling would be hit with a lifetime ban from the league and a maximum fine of $2.5 million.

It would be grand if what happened in the NBA convinced racing's movers and shakers at major tracks of the merits of banding together to form a league to drive the sport, deal with its problems and set universal standards for member tracks.

In one swift move, Silver put an end to an ugly crisis that could have been a public relations nightmare for the league, while earning a huge outpouring of respect for himself and the league for his firm actions.

It would be grand if what happened in the NBA convinced racing's movers and shakers at major tracks of the merits of banding together to form a league to drive the sport, deal with its problems and set universal standards for member tracks.

Instead, the status quo will no doubt remain in place, with leaders grumbling that unity will never happen in lieu of taking decisive steps in a bid to institute it.

Thus, when problems arise, such as the PETA undercover video, some well-meaning leaders will offer a response and plans to tackle the issues. Yet, unlike Silver, they have little to no power to enforce it and improve racing.

One of the leading reasons for the fragmented nature of the sport should be obvious this weekend in Louisville.

Churchill Downs is operated by Churchill Downs Inc., which also owns Calder Race Course in Florida and Fair Grounds in Louisiana. But more than any track, CDI has the Kentucky Derby, and with that it controls the most lucrative property in the sport.

When you can host more than 200,000 people in one weekend and charge grossly inflated prices for seating and everything else that once-a-year patrons will happily pay, it's only natural for that company to worry about itself and little else.

Who needs strength in numbers when you have a gold mine like the Kentucky Derby? Of course, that type of attitude underscores why racing has such a negative perception in some corners, and major tracks will be hard-pressed to work together for the common good.

CDI can march to its own drum because of the Derby, but at some point, without a better national structure, the sport's problems will eventually hit home, even in Louisville.

A business like CDI can lean on its commitment to stockholders for acting independently, but if racing continues to be disjointed, it will become an even more inviting target for its critics. What's good for CDI may not be best for the industry. Now more than ever, the major players need to understand the merits of working toward the common good of all.

It will take some sacrifice, and much less greed, but there will be some richly rewarding benefits in unity.

Anyone who kept an eye on the NBA this week should know that.

• 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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