By Ray Paulick
Horse racing enjoys few opportunities for coverage in the mainstream media, so it was a bit surprising, even encouraging, to see a lengthy article in the New York Times Aug. 14 providing details of the previous day's Jockey Club Round Table Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
There was so much positive news to report: IBM's interest in partnering with the Thoroughbred industry on a new technology infrastructure; creation of a televised racing series for 2-year-olds, held in conjunction with a new website, TheGreatestGame.com, promoting horse ownership to potential investors; the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's successful national promotion, the "mystery mutuel voucher."
Yet the New York Times writer used more precious newsprint reporting on the day's only negative story--alleged medication abuse--than he did on any one of the positive developments. But don't blame Joe Drape, the new man on the racing beat for the Times. He wasn't digging for dirt during the conference; it came flying from the podium.
Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, presented a position paper developed by an ad hoc committee focusing on medication and integrity issues. The paper concluded that "public confidence in our sport is undermined by the perception that drugs can be used to enhance racing performance" and that the "proliferation of drugs in racing undermines the integrity of the sport to participants and fans alike."
The committee calls for strong measures to ensure, Janney said, "that cheaters do not win our greatest races, that undeserving horses are not crowned champions." Apparently, the committee suspects there are cheaters winning the greatest races and undeserving horses are being crowned champions. However, this broad and rather sensational allegation was not accompanied by any substantiation or specifics. If there is proof such things are occurring, let's see it, then drive the cheaters out of the game and keep them out. But vague, unsubstantiated rumors only hurt the sport.
The suggestions by the committee that public confidence is undermined by perceptions concerning use of performance-enhancing drugs were not supported by any market research. In fact, when the NTRA first conducted market research in 1997, medication in racehorses did not present a great public perception problem. Of the people surveyed who had unfavorable things to say about racing, only 4% mentioned medication or drug use in horses.
The comments come at a time when the NTRA and TOBA, with financial support from Keeneland and others, are launching an all-out effort to recruit new owners into the game. To suggest there is a growing feeling among existing owners that they are being "beaten by a cheater" does not send a very encouraging message to potential investors.
Perhaps that is the point the committee wanted to make. In order for something to be fixed, everyone must first agree that it's broken.
There is no doubt that Janney and the members of the ad hoc committee went about their work with nothing but the best intentions. The committee's recommendations are designed to prevent unscrupulous behavior by the veterinarians and trainers trying to get an edge, and each and every suggestion deserves consideration from state racing commissions, horsemen's organizations, and racetracks.
But let's not get carried away with the idea that the only honest people in this game are the ones who aren't winning. And let's not waste what precious little opportunity racing has for positive publicity by airing the kind of rumors usually heard from disgruntled bettors ripping up their losing tickets.