It's the Horse, Stupid

By Sarah Reschly
In the run-up to the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton’s campaign team zeroed in on one issue. "It’s the economy, stupid," became a famous tag line. Any marketer will tell you that approach is a smart one. Discover what’s most meaningful to your audience, and then focus on that angle.

If racing learns one thing from the spectacular outpouring of public emotion during Barbaro’s eight-month ordeal, it should be this—it’s the horse, stupid. Your fans love your horses. From a marketing standpoint, the horse is racing’s greatest asset; however, the business does little to protect it, and in so doing, is risking everything.

The general public expects these animals to be treated humanely. I saw this in abundance when I worked part-time in guest services at Arlington Park. Fans were horrified when horses broke down and were euthanized in front of them. I can only imagine their outrage if they could see the seamy underside of racing. What if fans knew a horse with a nasty slab fracture could be left untreated for weeks, awaiting an auction? This was the sad story of Simply Super, bought by CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) for a lousy $100 and then euthanized—the only humane option. What would fans think of the fact that thousands of used-up broodmares are discarded via auctions and often wind up in the kill pen?

Racing’s Thoroughbred detritus comprises 16% of horses slaughtered in the U.S. annually. Countless others suffer fatal injuries on the track. From a public relations standpoint, the callousness with which horses are treated is playing with fire. Alienate fans and you risk creating a bunch of activist enemies. Draw the ire and attention of groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and SHARK (SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness) and these issues gain national exposure. It’s bad P.R. all around, and the fact is, these incidents are gaining attention in the mainstream media, and are shaping public opinion as a result.

"Every day, racehorses suffer injuries as Barbaro did, but when they lose their value as money-makers, they are simply destroyed, without even being taken off the racetrack dirt" (Philadelphia Enquirer, Feb. 2, 2007).

Consider the pains leading sports leagues take to manage public opinion and their brand images. The NBA enforces a dress code. The NFL ratcheted up its drug testing policies at the beginning of this year, banning additional substances and significantly increasing penalties. These organizations are serious about managing their brands, and they recognize the actions of everyone in their sports can impact public opinion.

Conversely, look at baseball, mired in controversy over drug use and still tainted by the players’ strike in the mid-’90s. Ratings for the last three games in the 2006 World Series tallied all-time lows, dipping to 10.1 last year, well off pre-strike averages in the 40s, and ratings above 50 before 1980. The NFL and the NBA, looking on at baseball’s woes, have decided not to take their fans for granted.

Racing is making some progress—the move to synthetic racing surfaces and the public stands made by owners T. Boone and Madeleine Pickens, Marylou Whitney, and Gretchen and Roy Jackson against slaughter and for owner responsibility are commendable. More people are getting involved with racehorse retirement as well. However, in terms of protecting that important asset that fans love—the horse—the racing industry still has a long way to go. Until people stop running horses to ruin or death, and until they’re willing to find homes for or humanely euthanize unwanted or injured animals, the industry remains at risk of public abandonment.

How many racing fans like me are out there? I go to the races and wager, watch racing on television, and subscribe to industry media. I’m what a marketer would call an engaged, long-term customer—precisely the kind you want to keep. That said, I’m concerned about the inhumane treatment the sport perpetuates and have become active in racehorse rescue and opposition to horse slaughter. The more I learn, the harder it is for me to support horse racing. A little more provocation and I may go from engaged to enraged. The question for racing is—are you going to keep fans like me on your side?  

Sarah Reschly, a racing fan in the Chicago area, is a marketer by trade who is also actively involved in racehorse rescue.