by Armen Antonian, Ph.D.
Horse racing is stuck: stuck in the winter of 2019. Stuck at my home track at Santa Anita. That Santa Anita winter meet saw 37 horses euthanized and the meet stopped for a time due to horse safety concerns. California Senator Dianne Feinstein admonished the track publicly and Governor Gavin Newsom called horse racing “archaic.” There was real fear among Santa Anita officials for the continuation of horse racing in California.
The events at Santa Anita were a trauma that reverberated around the U.S. racing world. The critics had been jabbing at racing for decades as societal mores regarding animals had changed dramatically. Suddenly, the entire industry found itself in a huge public relations and political crisis from which it has not escaped.
California and Santa Anita led the reforms aimed at making racing safer. Horses would be screened, medical records transparent, medication levels and rules therein standardized and much more. Throughout the country, industry practices changed dramatically. Did the changes work? Yes, the changes have worked. There were 11 deaths at the recently concluded Santa Anita winter meet. Racing fatalities have dropped significantly in California. That is the story that needs to be told throughout the country. Racing is back on a solid foundation. But that is not what is happening looking at the headlines today. Far from it.
I was recently mingling among young fans at Hollywood Gold Cup Day at Santa Anita. They were as full of the wonder and joy of racing as I was in the late 1960s as a youth. My immigrant Armenian dad (who had been seized from Russia by the Nazis for forced labor during World War II) would tip the ushers so we could have a precious box up in the stands with the owners, movie stars and the trainers. There was actor John Forsythe. Walking by, always expressionless, was trainer Charlie Whittingham. What great horses I saw at Santa Anita over the years: Damascus, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid! And many years later, what event could compare with my experience at a Kentucky Derby? I thought to myself: who is going to educate this generation about racing and keep them in the game to see what I saw? The racing industry or the critics?
The choice is immediate. Why is the industry, in its entirety, not stepping forward and telling a renewed story of a sport that is as brilliant as its horses and its people and of a sport again ready to regain luster? The industry is not seizing the moment because the critics continue to set the dialogue. The critics' paradigm about racing is what prevails in the general media.
Just what do the critics say about horse racing? To start, they see no beauty in the interaction of humans to horses. This is an extreme position and must be so noted and challenged by industry spokespeople. The critics see no beauty or sport in the competition of horses. They start with the fact that horses die. But for the critics, horses die only in racing. The critics do not like to admit that horses also die in nature. The industry must counter that horses are actually better off in racing than in nature. Nature is not neutral. Nature is more about Darwin than Bambi. And, aesthetically, racing can be beautiful–something the critics, a priori, will not admit.
The critics then attack horse racing from another angle. Horses are drugged. And winning horses are “juiced.” The critics prey on a vague notion that has lingered about the sport that it is somehow rigged. I call this the film noir version of horse racing: everyone in racing is seedy or greedy or crooked. We have all seen some fragments of this view in a plot of an old movie. Such a notion is palpably false. Trainers know how hard it is to win a race. The general public needs to be better educated about the game. This dark view of racing needs to be met head on. How are races really won: pace, class, conditioning, etc. Young folk are hungry for information about the game. At the track, they have mountains of questions. Racing needs to continually educate the fanbase. Instead, recent events and industry decisions have actually fueled this pejorative film noir view of racing.
By 2021, the industry had made great strides in the area of horse safety. In watching what transpired after the positive test result for Medina Spirit, one wouldn't know it. After news of the first test positive, Churchill Downs suspended the trainer from entering horses at its track. Such a definitive response opened the door for the critics to create the spin about the Derby result, a result that quickly came to be viewed as bogus. The trainer later pointed to a creme for a rash as the (undetermined) reason for the test result. Even this purported creme explanation was used by one critic's group to state that the creme was given purposely to mask a secret injection of Medina Spirit before the Derby. And so it went…
The general press, not especially astute at covering horse racing these days, followed a story that was defined by one side. Not surprising where they too ended up. There was no industry spokesperson to counter the excesses of the public discussion which cast a long shadow about racing's product itself. As the second positive result came in from the lab, Churchill was categoric in its response and its accompanying statement fed readily into the critics' dialogue that the race result was phony and that racing Medina Spirit was not safe. A drastic measure of a two-year suspension by Churchill of the trainer was proposed. The extent of the suspension cast further suspicion about Medina Spirit's Derby victory.
Before the vitriol and the finger pointing ensued, it would have been nice to hear someone stop and say that it was “a good thing” Medina Spirit's rash was treated.
The Derby product is racing's product and its results cannot be picked apart so readily. But that is what happened. Ironically, those with little expertise in horse racing defined the illegitimacy of a Derby result while those with expertise remained largely silent. So we learned from the charges led by the critics and found in the general press that it was not safe to race Medina Spirit Derby Day and his win was not an honest result. When Churchill made an official pronouncement, it used words like integrity and safety. The critics' talking points about Medina Spirit's Derby run and that of Churchill management were comparable. “Integrity” casts doubt on the veracity of the Derby result. The victory of Medina Spirit has not yet been adjudicated so how is it illegitimate as it stands? Safety? Medina Spirit ran two weeks later in the Preakness without incident. Where did the notion that Medina Spirit was not “safe” to race Derby Day come from?
A Pandora's Box was opened. About that time, a friend called me up and said, “Hey, I heard they gave steroids to the Derby winner, just like Lance Armstrong.” Medications and the levels therein will take time to work out. The rules have just been put in place. The industry must be patient. The rules must be tried and tested and workable for horsemen also. And let's find out what really happened before we denigrate a Derby winner. Let whatever litigation take place that needs to take place in the courts.
The sport of U.S. racing is its history. And Triple Crown history is its ultimate statement. The overreactions of Churchill have disparaged its own product and unfortunately fueled the film noir view of racing promoted by the critics. There is no mechanism to step in and help a racetrack deal with the fallout of critical circumstances. The industry needs a permanent, day-to-day, public relations and political entity that can respond in the industry's general interest. Such a body can also proactively educate the public and the general press about horse racing today.
It is time for the industry to exhale and tell its story. Safety? Horse racing is much safer today. Say so. Time for racing to recount its tradition to a new generation and disseminate its renewed story to everyone. Time to again be proud. Time to take the narrative about racing away from the critics.
Armen Antonian holds a doctorate in political economy and political philosophy and is a lifelong racing fan.