Horse racing people have heart. If that was ever in doubt, look no further than the extraordinary steps countless owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, racing officials, fans, and others have taken in response to the terrible devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
The industry's various factions can disagree (and often do) on racing dates, medication, marketing initiatives, and many, many other issues. It has been said there is more rooting against people trying to accomplish things within racing than there is support to help them get things done.
Then along comes something as horrifying as the recent disaster that struck the Gulf Coast. The suffering everyone witnessed and the urgency to help dissolved differences of opinion, economic status, business competition, and political persuasion. The industry showed that it can pull together.
Frank Stronach was one of those moved by the misery of Katrina survivors. Watching television in California Sept. 1, three days after the storm hit, the owner/breeder and head of Magna Entertainment was appalled by the conditions. One phone call to Magna headquarters in Canada mobilized his team.
The next morning, eight buses were heading toward Louisiana to pick up as many as 300 people left homeless. They were transported to the vacant apartments at Stronach's Palm Meadows training center in Florida.
"I called the manager at the training center and told him to crank up the cafeteria, make sure the rooms are in great shape," Stronach said. "To get blankets, sheets, and make sure the rooms are stocked with food."
Evacuees began moving into the apartments Sept. 3. Stronach, knowing that horses would be arriving at Palm Meadows in October, put together and began to execute a plan providing more permanent housing for everyone who had been relocated to Palm Meadows. Within a week, he purchased 1,000 acres of farmland in central Louisiana just south of Alexandria. He ordered 80 manufactured homes and will build a small village on the property.
Plans include a trade school to help some learn a vocation. "Most of them didn't have much to begin with," he said. "We have a five-year program to assist them. Hopefully, in five years, they will stand on their own feet."
Stronach, who came to Canada with less than $100 in his pocket and built an enormously successful automobile parts business, has the means to provide emergency relief on such a large scale. So do many other people in racing who stepped up with substantial financial contributions. George Steinbrenner, majority owner of the New York Yankees and a Florida Thoroughbred owner and breeder; Robert McNair, owner of the NFL's Houston Texans and operator of Stonerside Stables in Kentucky; and Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm and president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, all made contributions of $1 million. Many other owners and breeders have followed suit with sizable donations.
Veterinarians and students at Louisiana State University's College of Veterinary Science performed heroic work rescuing and treating horses stranded or injured during the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Various factions from California's horse industry pulled together to raise money for hurricane victims. Texas tracks have offered jobs to employees of the Fair Grounds, which won't run a 2005-06 meeting. Horsemen's organizations throughout the country have stepped up, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has scheduled a national fundraiser Oct. 8 called "Racing to the Rescue."
This is a time to mourn the loss of life and destruction and feel compassion for those who survived. But it's also a time to feel a measure of pride over what this industry can do during a time of need.