NY Times, FX Investigation Into Racing Fails To Break New Ground

Sarah Andrew

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The much-anticipated documentary “The New York Times Presents: “Broken Horses” will debut on the FX Network Friday at 10 p.m ET and will begin streaming on Hulu next day. What follows is a review of the documentary.

You probably haven't seen the FX documentary “The New York Times Presents: “Broken Horses” yet, but, then again, you have. Be it from 60 Minutes, HBO's Real Sports, the Washington Post or in the pages of the New York Times, the story of horse racing's problems has been told numerous times. It's not that these aren't serious issues or things that the sport should be sweeping under the rug. It's just that after a while one grows weary of being told ad nauseam that the sport is rotten…especially when the positive changes racing has made are always downplayed and the many things that make the game special are conveniently ignored.

But when it was announced last year that the FX Network and the New York Times had teamed up to produce a documentary on racing and its woes it was time to be concerned. Thanks in large part to the reporting of and relentless criticism by sportswriter Joe Drape, no outlet had been tougher on racing than the Times or caused more damage to its image. That the Times was now taking the story to the small screen and that Drape and colleague Melissa Hoppert were listed as the producers of the documentary was ominous. The Times appears to have an anti-racing bias and two of its reporters had been given free reign to use its ample resources to bludgeon horse racing. This promised to get ugly.

By no means is Broken Horses kind to racing, but what is truly surprising is that after all the time and effort that was obviously put into creating this piece, the documentary seems a bit stale.

The gist of the story is that racing has become a huge business that is all about money and that greed has led people in the industry to put the almighty dollar ahead of the welfare of the horse.

“I have been covering racing for 25 years and I have seen the money and the economics just bloom,” Drape says. “It's a 'win now' culture and I'm afraid it's eclipsed the culture of 'let's care for our horses first,'” Drape says.

He continues: “The use of drugs in horse racing really picked up in the eighties and it was largely because of the money. Purses were exploding, stallion rights were exploding. And you saw more horses dying.”

Arthur Hancock has this to say: “Willie Nelson said greed is a terminable disease and I think you see a lot of that in this business, in every aspect of it.”

When it comes to controversies, they leave no stone unturned. There were too many breakdowns at Churchill Downs and then Saratoga. Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis, Dr. Seth Fishman. It took an FBI investigation to bring them down. Bob Baffert is the boogeyman. The use of even legal drugs has gotten out of hand. Super trainers are ruining the sport. Things got so bad that the government needed to intervene and create the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. Their narrative is complemented by the predictable montage of gore, one scene after another of horses falling, breaking down and flailing helplessly on the racetrack until they could be euthanized.

With all the controversies he has been involved with, Baffert was an especially easy target.

That Churchill Downs banned him after the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby is a big part of the narrative. The Broken Dreams team deserves credit for getting Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen, who rarely grants interviews, to come on a camera. He explains the rational behind banning Baffert when he says, “We needed to take action because we actually run a racetrack. We have to make sure our product is fair and that it is safe.” Carstanjen goes on to say that the ban was extended through 2024 because Baffert never accepted responsibility for or apologized for his actions after Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone following the 2021 Derby.

Broken Horses also drudges up the subject of the breakdown of the Baffert trained Havnameltdown (Uncaptured) in the GIII Chick Lang S. on the undercard of the 2023 GI Preakness. They conclude that the horse came into the race with numerous problems that any trainer or veterinarian should have recognized and that he had no business racing that day. Their “smoking gun” is that the horse allegedly had corticosteroids and hyaluronic acid injected into both hocks and both stifles. Or at least that is the conclusion formed by Dr. Sheila Lyons. The problem is that Lyons is not a racetrack veterinarian. This is from her own website: “Doctor Lyons' international private consulting practice includes elite race, dressage, show jumping, combined training, endurance and polo horses.” Lyons has been attacking racing for years and that she is not directly involved in the sport makes her less than credible.

It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts to the documentary. After 60 Minutes aired its piece last November the reaction was vitriolic and much of it was aimed at The Jockey Club and its chairman Stuart Janney III. (Janney is also interviewed in the FX production but probably didn't say anything that would draw the ire of his critics).

Though this very review may raise concerns that we are attacking the messenger, that isn't necessarily the case. It is more a critique of the body of work and how it left a lot to be desired and that the reporting was borderline lazy. Much of what it had to say is true, even if we have heard it all before.

What they got right is that horse racing has serious problems, so much so that its very existence is in jeopardy. The industry tends to circle the wagons when things don't go its way, and that hasn't done the sport any good. You don't have to like Drape, the New York Times, The New York Times Presents: “Broken Horses” or Dr. Lyons. But to ignore what they have to say is not the answer. Yes, this documentary was hardly enlightening, but that doesn't make things any better. The way to silence the critics is not to shout them down but to solve the problems they seem so eager to bring to light.

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