The US industry is still reeling from the damning expose by the New York Times (Breakdown, Death & Disarray at America’s Racetracks) – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/30/us/casino-cash-fuels-use-of-injured-horses-at-racetracks.html?_r=1&ref=horseracing), and being shoved in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. They are desperately in need of some good press. And just in time, along came this year’s Triple Crown series, which I have been following with interest.
There were wonderful and engrossing back stories – South Africa could stand proudly behind our adopted American Barry Irwin & Team Valor with Went The Day Well; 71 year old trainer Mike Harrington conditioned his first ever Derby contender in Creative Cause; Bob Baffert (recently recovered from a heart attack) was back firstly with Bodemeister (named after Baffert’s son) and then Paynter, running second in all three legs for owner Ahmed Zayat. There was a lovely story attached to Union Rags – conditioned by Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz and owned by wheelchair bound 71 year old Mrs Phyllis Wyeth (who bred, sold and then bought the colt back at nearly triple the price).
Triple Crown Contender
But best and perhaps worst of all, was the story that never happened – a big chestnut colt called I’ll Have Another. Which was a shame, because there was a lot to like. Paul Reddam’s colt rode into town with a rags to riches story in his young jockey, Mario Gutierrez. Twenty-five year old Mario is the son of a jockey and hails from a poor family in Veracruz, Mexico. He made his way onto the world stage via Mexico and Canada, and finally exploded into the big time when his first attempt at this year’s Kentucky Derby resulted in a phenomenal win. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of following it up by winning the Preakness and looking the most lively Triple Crown candidate since Big Brown in 2008.
The not-so-great part of the story was bit where I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill also had a back story. Of repeated raceday drug violations.
That sort of thing really gets up my nose, so I did some digging. And it turns out that over 14 years and in four different states, O’Neill has been in trouble more than a dozen times for horses failing race day medication tests. What makes for further interesting reading is that O’Neill’s horses also have had a tendency to break down. According to stats, horses he trains tend to break down or show signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national US average. Huh. Well how bout that?
As you can imagine, the media were all over it. So US racing found itself in a unique tight spot. While they had the publicity they so desperately craved, with his misdemeanours shouted from the media rooftops, they were somewhat hamstrung by the hero of the hour being so hideously flawed. So much so, that even the darling of the US racing industry, Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery spoke out against Mr O’Neill in the press, saying Paul Reddam should be ‘embarrassed’ to have him as a trainer. Ouch!
Now, I’m actually not trying to demonize the man (or anyone else who may have rattly skeletons in their closets – Karma will deal with you later). Quite the opposite in fact. While I may dislike a good deal of what I’ve read about Mr O’Neill, I confess that he impressed the heck out of me by the way he responded to Penny Chenery’s remark.
Which was as follows – It’s disappointing because of how much respect I have for Mrs. Cheney. I would love to have her hang out with me for a week and would stress to her, “Don’t believe everything that is written.”
He probably needs some extra support in the jockey department for the cojones he’s carting around, but just like that, he turned the tables on the entire matter. No apologies, no cover-ups. Swift, simple, elegant. Job done. So much so that when the news about the colt’s injury and subsequent retirement broke, there was nearly universal support and regret at the lost opportunity, rather than the finger-pointing, ‘he had it coming’ sentiment it so easily could have been had he kept quiet.
Pretty smart and I hope someone out there was taking notes.
Losing The Vote
Racing is in trouble on a global scale. Fact. Google horse racing and you find terms such as ‘crisis’, ‘under siege’, etc. It reads like the poster for a disaster movie. Today’s consumer (even a South African one) is a lot smarter and more discerning about where they spend their disposable income. Anna Lappe said ‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want’ and it would seem that people are voting with their wallets and they are voting in their droves. They are not voting for us. We have the stats shoved down our throats more or less constantly about how much ground we lose to the casinos, the lottery, etc etc. But why? And what are we doing to curb this mass exodus?
Some hypotheses being put forward by our trans-Atlantic cousins include lax regulatory oversight; inherent contradictions and failures of the sport’s drug enforcement policies and priorities; lack of cohesive, central leadership; poor marketing. Another suggested stumbling block is that the people who led the industry to the brink of irrelevance in the first place are still steering the ship and supposedly in charge of shaping the sport’s future.
A few of those points might be uncomfortably relevant here too.
Ms Chenery is of the opinion that racing’s reputation is to blame. She says “.. I think people like to believe that horse racing is fixed. I think there’s a little something that’s naughty, that if you know someone you can find out if the fix is in, and I don’t think we should fall for that. Or let that image be true.” Because of this, Ms Chenery says “Owning a race horse …. creates the special and specific obligation to behave ‘in the cleanest possible manner’ at all times.”
So we cannot afford, let alone tolerate anything to suggests that racing is anything but 100% clean, well run and above board. Which is a real pity, because racing does not enjoy the best of reputations….
But when one is pointing fingers, it is usually a sure sign that you’re not getting your hands dirty doing something productive. So what about some solutions and what can we do to remedy matters? While shenanigans like Mr O’Neills certainly do not help, I found it interesting how easily he turned things around and wondered whether he wasn’t perhaps on to something.
I’d venture that a lot of our problems come down to the lack of brand awareness, or put more simply, a sense of identity – why for example, am I being offered a soccer bet at the races?? (revenue, I get it, but I didn’t see anyone selling the Pick Six during the World Cup games…?). We’re selling bets instead of selling racing.
I was living in the UK during the Spice Girl / Tony Blair era where they had the “Great” Britain marketing push. The Union Jack, always a symbol of history and tradition was suddenly everywhere you looked (including on-stage on Ginger Spice!). It was cool. The message was clear – Britain is great! Tourism rocketed.
The Americans have been doing it for years. You cannot move in that country without a flag, bumper sticker or T-shirt saying I love NY / Chicago / US / whatever. It tells you where you are and it tells you why – Our country is fantastic and we are proud of it.
But because of the perception that our rules, regulations (regulators?) and operational side are still so woefully lacking, it makes it pretty difficult to shout about, doesn’t it?
We also seem to have a PR / marketing / communication system that must date back to the Dark Ages. Sorry – there goes that finger again…
We need to get people on-side. I keep hearing about aging fans, administrators scratching their heads over how to generate new support.
We need action, people. A story. A hook. To use my Triple Crown example again, no one remembers who won the Kentucky Derby five years ago. I’d wager few will remember I’ll Have Another this time next year. But everyone, everywhere, remembers Eight Belles, Barbaro, and locally Big City Life.
Now Lord knows we don’t need more gloom and doom, but why not do an ‘O’Neill’ and turn a positive in to a negative? Acknowledge. Engage. Capitalise.
Monty Roberts is fond of saying ‘There is no such thing as teaching — only learning. He is of the opinion that no one ever teaches anyone anything. The best a teacher can do is to create an environment in which the student can learn. After that knowledge needs to be pulled into the brain, not pushed into it, because you cannot force knowledge on anyone. The brain has to be receptive, malleable, and most importantly, hungry for that knowledge. Once the student has those first bits of information, they’ll soon be flying all on their own. Interest, passion, enthusiasm is the same.
Action / Reaction
Back in 2008, the Eight Belles saga generated reams of press, but racing came to the party and responded with massive changes in terms of improved race day safety legislation. Win for the industry. The Barbara tragedy not only got thousands of people caught up in the drama, but generated massive media coverage and a fortune ploughed into veterinary research. Win for the industry. It’s a bit of a leap on my behalf, but I’d wager that but for those pivotal moments, the Zenyatta phenomenon might have been a lot smaller. The fire was laid, it just needed lighting.
Here we had some rather high-profile criticism levelled at the industry via the animal protection groups after last year’s July. On the one hand, sure we were under fire by some pretty erm, assertive people, but at the same time, for that brief moment, we actually had all their attention. And, we actually responded! Which was great. But, nearly a year later, what have we done with that? How have we capitalised on all that attention we had last year? I bet all those crazy activists have moved on and are probably protesting a tree felling in the Amazon, instead of reading about Jackson. What a wasted opportunity.
And we moan and hush over and ignore all sorts of fantastically exciting and controversial issues within the industry too. Last year we had the beginnings of a bit of debate between Ian Jayes and Rian du Plessis. We have Phindi Kema creating waves and demanding investigations into monopolies and reformation within the industry. We have Purple Capital’s vocal interest in Western Cape racing. We have David Safi blowing the Formgrids horn, the latest Maselle Inquiry revelations that the NHA allegedly has no jurisdiction over Phumelela.
They say if you can’t change your mind, you can’t change anything. Sure we could look at these things as challenges or criticisms. Or we could regard them as opportunities for change. All this fantastic stuff that people are interested, excited, angry, about. All these opportunities to reach people, to debate, to educate, to gain support. All that wood, just waiting for a match.
But apparently words don’t come easy. And more’s the pity. Because as I am so often reminded, we could do with some positivity.
How about some Physics?
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we’re not responding to people out there, then is it any wonder that they’re either going even more postal (ie exacerbating the problem) or simply giving up and walking away?
Perceptions are dangerous things, but as we’ve seen with Mr O’Neill, they can be changed. In fact, they have to be changed. And the answer is communication. Fast, frank and fearless.
kaSo is it really a case of bad press ? Or perhaps we really have no-one to blame but ourselves.