By Kelsey Riley
PARIS, France-The challenges that a changing social landscape present to horse racing were fully apparent at the International Conference of Horseracing Authorities in Paris on Monday, where topics like horse welfare, public perception and how racing can remain relevant dominated discussion.
“It’s deadly urgent,” said Craig Fravel, the outgoing president and chief executive officer of Breeders’ Cup who soon takes up the position of chief executive officer of racing operations at Santa Anita Park, when asked how pressing racing’s broader global issues are. “We had an unfortunate situation at Santa Anita in January and February which everyone has read about, but that wasn’t a particularly unusual situation. We’ve all had situations with horses dying over the years and we’ve tried to figure out what we can do better, but the fact of the matter is that the media landscape has changed and the world perceives us different.
“At the end of the day we all have to get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘are we doing everything we can to prevent this happening to the extent humanely possible?’ The fact is we haven’t done everything we can do. We haven’t focused our efforts enough on research from birth to the grave, looking at everything that happens with the breeding and raising of horses, the medical treatments that take place as foals and yearlings; racing is a great laboratory. We have an opportunity to investigate everything we do. We have to stop making excuses and we have to stop saying this is a public relations problem that can be answered by hashtags. We have to ask ourselves if we’re doing everything we can.”
Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, also served up a stark warning.
“Horse racing must adapt and meet ethical standards or it will not survive,” he said. “There is a good chance that in California, the fifth largest economy in the world, racing may not survive.”
Arthur reflected on the events at Santa Anita earlier in the year where the breakdown rate caused a firestorm.
“I agree medication is a factor, but I think it’s more complicated than that,” he said. “We predominantly race on dirt surfaces in the U.S., and claiming and selling races make up a huge part of the U.S. racing landscape. The result is a culture where horses tend to be treated as commodities. Horses are commodities everywhere in the world, but the U.S. racing model amplifies that.”
The power of public perception on the sport is reflected in the fact that, despite the uproar, the breakdown numbers at Santa Anita were actually below the norm.
“In spite of the attention at Santa Anita this winter, California ended up the fiscal year on June 30 with the second-lowest number of fatalities since 1990,” Arthur said. “Reducing fatalities has been a long-term trend and part of an ongoing concerted effort to improve safety in California and the U.S.”
The whip was a heavily debated topic throughout the day, and the 40-some delegates in attendance were asked to weigh-in through an anonymous poll on whether they felt the whip was simply a public perception problem, or a genuine welfare issue. It should be noteworthy that the results came in nearly split: 55% siding with public perception only, and 44.8% saying they believed it was a welfare issue.
“I think we recognize we have to do something about whips,” Arthur said. “You might be surprised to learn that whip use was a factor in three Santa Anita fatalities. In all those instances when the injured horse started backing out the jockey went to the whip rather than helping ease the horse up. I can’t say those injuries would not have been fatal but there is no question the whip exacerbated those injuries.”
In a panel on the current environment and future of welfare, Brant Dunshea, chief regulatory officer of the British Horseracing Authority, detailed a study that was undertaken on risk factors in jumps racing that was prompted after six horses died at the Cheltenham festival last year. The data was gathered from some 300,000 races dating back to 2009. Nearly 50 variables were applied to the data, from going and race time to field size and days since last run, and 17 recommendations were rolled out to increase safety upon review of the data, consultation and video evidence. Dunshea expressed the importance of sharing data among disciplines and jurisdictions, a sentiment shared by the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s head of veterinary regulation, welfare and biosecurity policy Dr. Brian Stewart.
“When I was with Racing Victoria, [anti-race groups] would produce figures about [subjects such as slaughter and breakdowns] and I’d say ‘well, those aren’t right.’ They’d say, ‘ok, where are your figures?’ And I didn’t have them. Racing Victoria has since changed that.
“We need to get our house in order,” Stewart added. “It’s dangerous to go out saying what a good job we’re doing when there are things that could be done better.”
Victoria Carter, deputy chairman of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, laid out of the benefits of positive public relations campaigns.
“In New Zealand, we’ve had some issues with our dairy and fishing industries and the ethics surrounding them,” she said. “What I’ve noticed is their governing bodies have recognized they have an issue with public perception, so they’ve been artful in their PR. It’s all feel-good, and racing has so many beautiful stories, but we don’t do a great enough job of telling them and selling them.”
Carter’s panel on consumer and political perspectives was moderated by Richard Hytner, a racing syndicate member and the founder of London-based management consultant firm beta baboon, who spoke about the importance of an industry being united in its purpose. The panel turned the tables on Hytner, asking for his recommendations on defining racing’s purpose, to which he responded, “You want to be the champions of that beautiful creature called the horse, and the entertainment and fascination that John Gosden [speaking earlier via pre-recorded video] talked about. It has to be something that puts the horse back at the center of our national lives, the romance of the horse–the fact that you are looking after the well-being of that horse for a lifetime. That’s a cause you can champion.”
A panel of international horse people got the day underway with a wide-ranging discussion on topics pertaining to the well-being and future interest of the industry globally.
When it comes to the task of growing racing’s ownership and fan bases, John Gosden, speaking by pre-recorded video, noted society’s changing landscape.
“A lot of our population are very urbanized,” he said. “The world of the countryside and animals is increasingly alien. To that extent, we’re dealing with a different world now. Horse racing is an entertainment industry and it therefore must be entertaining, fascinating and fun all in equal measure. And it’s a serious business. If you lose sight of that, you lose the whole point of it.
“You cannot get away from the problems of prizemoney particularly in the UK, Ireland and France. The average age of racing fans has crept up. Racing is a social event, and racecourses have woken up to this and they make a huge effort, but we’re not in the fortunate position of the likes of Hong Kong and Japan where people just come for the racing. We have to have our antennae up in all directions and work hand-in-hand with the authorities and the racecourses.”
Ezequiel Valle of leading Argentine stud Haras Firmamento shared Gosden’s sentiments on the importance of engaging the next generation.
“We need to work with influencers and social networks because they think completely differently,” he noted. “To attract new owners, a very positive thing is what they do in Australia: promoting racing syndicates. That is the best way to get new owners.”
Horse welfare is an area of paramount importance, and Valle said eliminating raceday medication is key.
“Most racing accidents happen because of a previous injury not detected or hidden by drugs, and we have to stop this,” he said. “There was a study done by the University of Glasgow [on South American races from 2015 to 2017] that showed that in races where horses were allowed to run with phenylbutazone, injury rates were higher than in races where they weren’t. In Argentina we’re allowed to run with this medication at four years old, so I think this should be limited.”
Gosden made his stance on raceday medication clear, adding, “you cannot in this day and age thinks it’s ok for a horse to be intravenously injected the day of the race. This opinion in this day and age cannot hold. The integrity of the sport is critically being scrutinized in this department.
Criquette Head, trainer of Arc winners Treve and Three Troikas, was also in agreement.
“I’m 100% in favour of drug-free racing, because I think you kill more horses if you give them bute and things like that. If a horse doesn’t feel pain it will go to the end. The trainer should be a trainer, not a chemist. I never used a vet because I’m not a believer in them.”
On the broader topic of horse welfare, Gosden said that modern-day micro-chipping technology leaves little excuse for horses slipping through the cracks.
“We need to set up a data bank and follow all horses through, which is now possible with micro-chipping,” he said. “We have to track our horses and that’s the responsibility of everyone who breeds them and owns them-the first owner, second owner, third owner. It’s not a difficult thing with the technology we have now to track them.”
Gosden and Head have both plied their trade at the highest levels of racing for many years, and they were in agreement on one factor that has changed the business dramatically.
“In the late 1980s I was working in California and you had great stables like the Whitneys, the Mellons, Greentree, the Neruds, Elmendorf Farm; there were all these operations breeding to race with tough, sound stock,” he said. “And in Britain we had a great number of owners/breeders which we still do, but from about 1980 onwards the sales got bigger and bigger. A lot of people began breeding for the sales and now a lot of people breed purely to sell. And that horse is a very different creature. When you’re breeding to race you’re looking to eliminate any weakness, but now you see mares that had weaknesses showing up with yearlings at the sales because they have a good pedigree. That’s not a healthy thing for the industry.”
Head added, “That’s why you always have to bring in new blood, to help eliminate these weaknesses. We breed to race, but a few years ago my dad [legendary horseman Alec Head] stopped and now we breed to sell. He says the sales have changed completely; in France there are very few big owner/breeders who are breeding to race because it’s very expensive. Again, people want to make money with horses, that’s why they go to the sales.”
The merits of globally important race meetings were also highlighted, and the latest of those is the Saudi Cup, which will debut in 2020 and feature the world’s new richest race, the $20-million Saudi Cup over 1800 metres on the dirt. Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, and Paul Roberts, principal of Turnberry Consulting and advisor to the club, were on hand to share details of Saudi racing’s growth.
Prince Bandar noted that he set out a year ago with a goal of bringing Saudi Arabia up to Part I status, and that the looming deadline of the inaugural Saudi Cup is helping bring every aspect of the local industry up to international standards. Total prizemoney in the country has been on the rise since 2013, topping out at over $18-million in 2018/19, and subsequently the number of races has risen from around 610 annually to around 635 last season. The foal crop has also steadily climbed, from around 1,500 in 2013 to about 2,400 last season.