Spin Doctors

by Ed Meyer

posted on February 15, 2009 in General Discussion | 2 Comments >>

All publicity, positive or negative, is good publicity. That may apply to everything except horse racing.

Yet in recent years, the publicity that Thoroughbred horse racing has received has been more bad than good.  What’s worse, racing has tended to exacerbate the problem.  How so?  Whenever the sport has experienced low points like the tragedies of Barbaro and Eight Belles, it has overreacted and overcompensated, to its detriment.  In its zeal to “show it cares,” racing has unintentionally shone the spotlight on the sport’s vulnerabilities.

Here are some recent cases in point of how the racing industry is its own worst enemy in disseminating images and words for public consumption.

The general public is, of course, most aware of horse racing in the United States during the five weeks of the Triple Crown.  Many people who never watch another horse race all year, tune in for the Kentucky Derby.   Thus, the telecasts of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, provide a very limited window of opportunity for racing to present itself in the best light to a large audience of casual viewers, who know little or nothing about the sport.  Typically, each telecast tries to build up to the actual race through feel-good human-interest stories.

Some of these glimpses are beneficial to the sport of racing.  Two, for instance, that come to mind are the tie-in between Fleet Alex and Alex’s Lemonade Stand in 2005 and the explanation of how Colonel John got his name in 2008.  But occasionally, one wonders what the producers were thinking.  In 2008, the Kentucky Derby telecast had a vignette that amounted to regaling an international audience with a soap opera.  We were told about a horse trainer whose tale of woe and redemption involved: a badly broken man-woman relationship, substance abuse by the couple, the effects on their innocent young daughter, and the murder of the mother by a drug dealer.  Almost everyone appreciates redemption, but is this really the story the racing industry should be telling to a worldwide audience on the sport’s showcase day in America?  Especially a story that reinforces preexisting impressions of racing’s seamier side.  To compound matters, the subject trainer also had a history of medication rules violations with his horses, and his Muhammad Ali-like bragging on his own colt and trashing of his colt’s competitors were unflattering.

Simply put, this segment did nothing to burnish racing’s image, already tarnished with allegations of drugged horses, cheating trainers, and rigged outcomes.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Five weeks later, in the Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, sans steroids, was eased and finished dead last.  On-air commentator and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey candidly (maybe too candidly) said, “It makes you wonder.”

In the past several years, the racing fraternity has rightfully been distraught over the tragic injuries to Barbaro in the Preakness, George Washington in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.  As a consequence, the industry has been proactive in such important areas as banning medication, improving track surfaces, outlawing toe grabs, and assessing the effects of  inbreeding and line breeding on durability.