Thoroughbred racing has been too slow to change.
An insular industry built on horses and gambling is out of step, out of touch and out of sync with contemporary American culture.
Even the industry’s reaction to the death of Eight Belles was typically defensive, a massive circling of the wagons. Critics were accused of not knowing the game, not knowing the sport.
Casual fans know what they see. They peek in on this world three times a year — in Louisville, this week in Baltimore and next month in New York.
The fatal misstep of Barbaro during the 2006 Preakness Stakes and now the death of Eight Belles after the 2008 Kentucky Derby compels casual viewers to look at racing as some sort of barbaric enterprise. They have seen heartbreaking accidents in two of the last three Triple Crown seasons and can draw their own conclusions.
“There is going to be a part of society that will never understand,” said Doug Reed, the director of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. “Racing will always be a niche product.”
Reed, 52, joined Arizona’s 34-year-old program in 1994 after an extensive run in the thoroughbred industry. He has worked at nearly every level of the industry — from maintenance crew to racing official — and at tracks in a number of states, including Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico.
The industry has a much greater problem than convincing the public that it does not abuse animals. It needs to become a player in a booming gaming industry once again. While the gaming industry was gaining by leaps and bounds in the 1990s, racing, fat from its profits, fell behind.
“Whether it be casinos, Native American facilities, lotteries, the competition got fierce,” Reed said in a telephone interview. “And yes, the industry did probably fall asleep. Now we’ve stagnated.”
The racing industry was slow to see the changes coming, slow to anticipate the impact of casinos and lotteries. Racing felt it would be fine because it had a monopoly.
“Complacency is one of the reasons companies fail,” Reed said. “Softened by success would be the academic term. You can get complacent real easy when things are going well, and you let your guard down. I think that’s what we did. And then you’re playing catch-up.”
There was tremendous growth in the 1990s, but racetracks have not kept up. Airport terminals became shopping malls. Football and baseball stadiums and basketball arenas are like theme parks. Racetracks, however, stayed racetracks. And the industry, Reed said, “took the customer for granted.” He called it a “textbook case of complacency.”
“We were profitable, the money was rolling in,” Reed said. “Tracks did not reinvest in themselves quickly or substantially enough to keep up with the times. Customers and reinvesting are the two things they could have done better. The entertainment bar was raised, and we were too slow to react.”
One of the impediments to change is fragmentation.
“We are 30-some different states with 30-some different rulebooks regulated by 30-some different racing commissions or other regulatory governmental bodies,” Reed said.
But what tipped the scale against the industry was the perception — and the reality — that horses, the foundation of the industry, were being abused in the normal course of training and racing. The new and intense focus on animal rights has caught the industry flat-footed. Reed has noticed the change.
“Things that were not issues 20 years ago are more on people’s minds these days,” he said. “Animal rights, animal safety. Anything to do with animals. I notice it in our students.
“When I was younger, I don’t think it was talked about as much or just wasn’t at the top of my mind. Now our students talk about it, they have more concerns. Society’s consciousness — about everything — is raised to a new level.”
Can thoroughbred racing flourish in this new culture of consciousness?
To its credit, the racing industry began to do some soul-searching after Barbaro’s injury in 2006.
In October of that year, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the Jockey Club sponsored the first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. In March, the second summit was held in Lexington, Ky., and several areas of concern were identified, including ways to attract and retain more regulatory veterinarians, improving track surfaces to reduce injuries and creating a research and development plan for drug testing.
“They’ve been looking at safety and welfare and duty of care,” said Reed, who attended the summit. “I wish it was 5 or 10 years earlier, but they have been looking at it. Unfortunately, it’s going to look like they’re reacting. It’s moving slowly, but that’s the nature, unfortunately, of the fragmented organizational structure of this industry.”
The struggle for thoroughbred racing is not for survival — there will always be racing. The challenge is for an outmoded industry to become relevant.