The field of 20 is all but set for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” but the highly anticipated American Triple Crown season begins with some anxiety.  March 2019 represented a challenging month for a challenged sport.

The 23 breakdowns that resulted in euthanizations from December through March at Santa Anita Park, among the most storied venues in American horseracing, have awakened opponents of the sport and challenged its supporters.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced her office would establish a task force to investigate the deaths at Santa Anita to determine if there was any wrongdoing.

“I have formed a task force of experienced deputy district attorneys and sworn peace officers with varied expertise within my office who will thoroughly investigate and evaluate the evidence to determine whether unlawful conduct or conditions affected the welfare and safety of horses at Santa Anita Park,” Lacey  said in a statement.

But the unacceptable losses, the justified outrage that resulted and the enduring support together represent an opportunity—perhaps a final opportunity—for racing advocates to save horseracing as a spectator sport in the U.S.

Let me explain.

In 1955, horseracing rivalled baseball and boxing as America’s most popular spectator sports. Professional football players in the NFL, today’s most popular spectator sport in the U.S., its Super Bowl the most watched program worldwide, often held day jobs to support themselves in its early years, so meager were player earnings and so small the NFL audience. Television changed that equation.

In 1985, a Harris poll ranked horseracing the eighth most popular sport, with four percent of respondents calling it their favorite sport. By January 2016, the sport ranked 13th most popular and a mere one percent ranked it as their favorite sport—this only a year after American Pharoah had seemingly rejuvenated Thoroughbred racing with its first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, since Affirmed in 1978, one of three Triple Crown winners during a decade often referred to as “The Golden Age of Racing.”

Affirmed’s Triple Crown winning rivalry against Alydar defined the 1970s as ‘The Golden Age of Racing’ for many.

Notwithstanding a second Triple Crown winner this decade in Justify, the trendline is obvious and should have been of concern to industry leaders. But it was not. Why not? First, the problems.

1. Horseracing became horsebreeding

The Thoroughbred industry is a $25 billion business worldwide. But much of that sum is concentrated in the breeding component of the industry, not its racing component.

The reason is simple. Stud fees for a live foal during the 2019 season range from a low of $7,500 for lesser stallions (Central Banker, War Dancer) to a high of $200,000 (Medaglia d’Oro). The foal of a successful racehorse stallion can command upwards of and over $1 million at the annual Keeneland yearling sale. A stallion may mate as many as 200 times during the breeding season, multiplied by a factor of up to two if the stallion shuttles to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season, as both American Pharoah and Justify will this year.

The world’s richest single horse race, the Dubai World Cup, now splits a purse of $12 million among the first six finishers, the winner earning $7.2 million of that purse, the sixth-place finisher $240,000.

California Chrome and Victor Espinoza won the 2016 Dubai World Cup, again the world’s richest race. ©Richard R. Gross

As one of my journalism teachers, Dick Blood, often said: “Do the math.”

The math demonstrates there is little financial sense in keeping a winning horse on the racetrack, earning comparatively less money and risking injury. The math explains why last year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify, was able to retire to stud after finishing his racing career an unbeaten, but sparsely raced, six times. His 2019 fee is $150,000 and his “datebook” reportedly full.

Gone are the days when a potential stallion will run 20 or more times over a multi-year career to the delight of fan followers.

The distribution of the money has resulted inevitably in more participation on the breeding side even as racing declines. In the U.S. alone, new Thoroughbred foals registered by The Jockey Club in 2018 totaled an estimated 19,925, a precipitous decline from the 40,333 registered in 1990, but still a large number.

The result is a successful racehorse will be retired earlier to maximize his earning power at stud. Females have less breeding value, carrying only one foal annually, and geldings none. In fact, the problem at Santa Anita may have come under closer scrutiny because of the death of Champion Battle Of Midway, returned to the racetrack after proving minimally fertile during a year in the breeding shed.

©Richard R. Gross

The effect of this emphasis on breeding on the spectator side of the sport is to remove the brightest stars from the game because they are the brightest stars.

Imagine if it was more profitable for the Los Angeles Angels to retire center fielder and reigning best player in baseball Mike Trout for more money as a hitting coach than as a player or for the football New England Patriots to retire football great Tom Brady as a quarterback coach, and you can see what effect this might have on game attendance, a likely precipitous drop. The effect on racing has been the shuttering of racetracks due to diminished attendance and too few horses to run scheduled races.

2. The “handle” versus the horse lover

Horseracing has two things, three in the U.S., that distinguish it from all other spectator sports.

Let’s consider the first: It is the only sport financially supported by gambling in the U.S. Even as attendance and comparative interest in the sport has continued to diminish, racing has remained viable because of bettors. The amount wagered on the Kentucky Derby was a staggering $139.2 million in 2017, an increase of $15 million over the previous year. In Las Vegas, where actual figures are not reported, bookmakers take in an estimated $33 million monthly on racing.

With the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision greenlighting online gaming sites and the increase in casinos featuring televised racing accompanied by wagering, referred to as racinos, overall gambling monies will undoubtedly increase for all sports, including horseracing even as attendance at racetracks declines.

©Richard R. Gross

As long ago as 2010, Ray Paulick, publisher of the influential Paulick Report, issued a warning: “The playing field has completely changed for the industry. There’s too many tracks, too many race dates and not enough consumers who are interested in the product.”

That reality has only worsened in the succeeding years. In the U.S., 36 racetracks have shuttered since 2000, including iconic Hollywood Park in California and others with over a century of hosting the sport. Those that remain have sought additional revenue streams, from hosting music concerts to installing golf courses.

Worsening numbers notwithstanding, horseracing is likely to remain at least a niche sport in the U.S. even as it expands its global reach. Casino gambling ensures that reality.

Beyond U.S. shores, racing is immensely popular in Hong Kong, Australia, the United Arab Emirates led by Dubai, South Africa, and emerging in South America. Mainland China has heavily invested in its future there at its Conghua Racecourse, newly developed in cooperation with the respected Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The second thing distinguishing horseracing from all other spectator sports is that, beyond injury common in all sports, death of some of the “athletes” can happen often and is expected. There are websites opposing racing that track horse deaths, and those deaths are many. Far too many for some.

But there is a disconnect between that toll and racing opponents, and the attitude of racing fans, owners and connections. In over a decade covering racing in the U.S. and abroad in the UAE and Hong Kong, I have yet to meet the person involved in the industry who does not love horses, who treats them merely as financial capital. That love was in fact the reason I sought to follow racing and continue to do so. I am hardly alone.

Which is not to say racing lovers like myself are not ambivalent. The first horse I ever saw race live was Curlin as he won the Jaguar Stakes in prep for his Dubai World Cup win in 2008. It was a magical sight. But I also witnessed a race in 2012 during which one horse broke down and was euthanized on the track as the race was halted, only to see that race re-run later with a resulting two additional breakdowns.

This is mind-bending stuff for a horse lover like myself to balance with racing as a sport.

3. Racing in the U.S. has an additional issue: Lack of unified oversight

In the U.S., there are 38 bodies regulating horseracing. These vary from ones like the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) that can exercise tight controls to ones that do little save rubberstamp industry goals.

Because of this lack of a unified code, practices ranging from the use of drugs and raceday medication like anti-bleeding diuretic furosemide (trade name Lasix) to the use of whips have gone largely unregulated in the U.S., whereas these are stringently regulated or, in many instances as in the case of drugs, banned abroad. In the UAE, a maximum of 11 whip strikes are permitted during a race, eight in France, seven in the UK. Only in the U.S. is use of the whip left to the complete discretion of the jockey.

Furosemide, also known as Lasix and Salix, is a controversial raceday diuretic. ©The Horse Fund

In the wake of the Santa Anita deaths, the track-owning Stronach Group banned raceday medication and the use of whips, then backed off on the use of whips after trainer and jockey objections, with jockeys maintaining a whip—now public relations-friendly referred to as a crop on some racing sites—is the only instrument a 118-pound jockey can use to guide and control a 1,000-plus pound horse at 40 miles per hour in traffic with other horses. Use of the whip is considered a safety precaution by advocates.

The situation remains unresolved.

Other solutions represent an opportunity for racing advocates to address the concerns of its opponents. Let’s consider these in inverse order.

First: Create a central authority regulating racing based on the California model

In May, the California legislature will hold hearings on a bill that would permit the CHRB to suspend racing at California racetrack(s) under emergency authority when it determines “dangerous conditions” exist.

The “dangerous conditions” no doubt refer to the excessive rain—14 inches—that fell in Southern California during the period of the horse deaths, as well as the track itself, which reverted to dirt, actually a specific mixture of soil and clay, in 2010. This followed a very public spike in deaths on the track’s Pro-Ride surface that led to the cancellation of the HBO horseracing-themed series Luck when three horses broke down during filming for the successful show’s second season.

The dirt surface at Santa Anita has been the focus of concern over the rash of horse deaths. ©Richard R. Gross

Many racing advocates claim this increased scrutiny is based on nothing more than the hostile attitude of groups advocating a total ban on racing in America, most notably PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

But even PETA senior vice president  Kathy Guillermo applauded the last weekend’s injury-free meets at Santa Anita and the ban on the use of medication and whips by the Santa Anita ownership after racing resumed following evaluation of the dirt track by soil experts and the actions of the track ownership.

“This groundbreaking plan, which PETA has pushed for, will not bring back the 22(3) horses who have died recently,” read the statement issued by Guillermo, “but it will prevent the deaths of many more and will set a new standard for racing that means less suffering for Thoroughbreds at this track.”

Recently retired Hall Of Fame jockey Gary Stevens also has called for racing to establish a central authority. These calls on both sides of the debate represent an opportunity for reasoned dialogue between racing advocates and its detractors.

Establishment of a central authority could study and recommend revisions to the rules regarding the use of anabolic steroids and raceday medications like Lasix, banned in Europe as a performance enhancing drug and a potential threat to the future of the Thoroughbred breed.

In a pre-emptory move, a coalition of U.S. racing authorities announced this week that Triple Crown races will gradually eliminate the use of Lasix in those races and the use of the diuretic in all graded races would follow as well, a move immediately applauded in Europe.

Jockey’s use of the whip, sometimes called a crop, is controlled in most countries, but not in the U.S. ©RSPCA Australia

A unified authority could also study the proper use of whips. As noted earlier, proponents claim these “guide” but do not “hurt” horses. Anyone who has whacked their palm with the business end of a whip as I have thinks otherwise. If these are needed only as a guiding tool, the surface can be altered to reduce its stinging quality.

Personal feelings about use of the whip were heightened during the 2008 Kentucky Derby when filly Eight Belles, solidly second to Big Brown approaching the finish, was still continually being whipped. She later broke down after the finish, shattering both front ankles, and was immediately euthanized.

The final message is this: If racing does not choose to regulate itself, governments likely will take up the task, and far more stringently.

Second: horseRACING needs to become HORSEracing again

One cannot take the money out of the sport, on the betting and particularly on the breeding side. But it is possible to redirect attention to the athletes—the horses and the jockeys—through a determined campaign of education across the sport.

The “industry” devotes most of its attention to increasing bettor’s participation and has in the process neglected spectators, particularly the next generation of spectators. The sport’s betting participants are over age 60 and are not being replaced.

The current younger generation is the largest in U.S. history and, as a spectator base, being completely ignored. Recall those young “tweens” sporting “Girl Power” posters during Zenyatta’s historic career and fans who pay attention to the upcoming Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown events, yet fade during the Fall to NFL football because the sport’s stars are prematurely retired and the sport’s history unexploited, it’s “story” untold.

To its fans, including myself, horseracing is life reduced to two minutes, with all its triumphs and tragedies, its heroes and villains. That story needs to be told.

Third: Control breeding numbers

This might be the most difficult fix because of the dollar value of a foal from a prized mating. Considerable expense goes into choosing appropriate pairings, often at a loss when the resulting foal does not perform well on the track. So the temptation is to claim the money at the yearling sales and let the racing chips fall where they may for the purchaser.

Still, the worldwide breeding of Thoroughbreds approaches 120,000 annually, 875,000 registered since 1990, a staggering number. A maximum of 20 will make it to a gate at the Kentucky Derby each year, most will never race, fewer successfully. Despite active programs of reschooling racehorses for other tasks, like the program at New Vocations, and successful retirement programs for Thoroughbreds like Old Friends, the vast majority of bred horses are likely to face an unsavory end.

Despite successful retirement programs like Old Friends, the vast majority of Thoroughbred horses are likely to face an unsavory end. ©Horse Network

Despite declining numbers in the U.S., the industry needs to do more to safeguard horses on the track, to care for them when their racing days are done and they do not become stallions and broodmares, to encourage limiting the overbreeding of Thoroughbreds and to educate the public about these efforts.

The current state of affairs is a public relations nightmare for the industry that can only lead to its further demise among a young generation of potential fans who shop organic at Whole Foods and oppose genetic modification of their apples, to say nothing of the wanton loss of beloved sentient creatures.

Racing will not go away, despite its most vociferous detractors. Too much money and worldwide interest are involved. But like boxing today versus the 1950s, racing in the U.S. is on life support as a spectator sport.

And only the patient can save itself.