Racing must expand fan base; doped, dying horses hurt image

Exercise rider Damon Smith cleaned tack on the backside at Churchill Downs on Monday morning, five days before the Kentucky Derby.
Exercise rider Damon Smith cleaned tack on the backside at Churchill Downs on Monday morning, five days before the Kentucky Derby. Herald-Leader

Trainer Jackie Christenson zeroed in on the biggest threat to racing's future when she said the sport has let its "fan base dwindle and age" while doing little to create a new audience.

In a recent interview with Herald-Leader sports writer Alicia Wincze Hughes, the Kentucky-based Christenson said casino gambling might serve as a Band-aid but the more critical challenge is cultivating future fans.

With that long, clear view in mind, the New York Times' latest exposé should be even more disturbing to those who care about racing and horse farming.

The Times' findings also suggest that, unless racing is reformed, casinos could turn out to be the Band-aid that kills, not by competition but by ruining the sport's image.

Casinos have fattened purses and provided an incentive to race injured and profoundly unsound Thoroughbreds. The Times documented a sharp increase in horses injured and killed at Aqueduct Racetrack since a casino opened there in late October. These horses are able to run only because they have been doped with a slew of pain-masking pharmaceuticals.

In Pennsylvania, at the Penn National track jockeys had to go on strike to get even minimal oversight to stop owners and trainers from running unsound and heavily medicated horses whose frequent breakdowns were endangering riders and other horses.

New York's racing regulators responded this week to the equine carnage by limiting purses in claiming races in which prize money was far outstripping the value of the horses, making it lucrative to risk running an unfit horse.

That response falls far short of what will be needed to save racing's reputation with potential fans. With or without casinos, racing can't afford to become widely perceived as inhumane if it hopes to have a sustainable fan base.

If grisly examples of greedy cruelty to Thoroughbreds keep coming to light, racing will be about as popular with young people as clubbing baby seals.

In Kentucky, we know that racing, while inherently risky, is not inherently cruel. Keeneland just concluded its sixth consecutive spring meet without a fatal breakdown on its Polytrack racing surface. Keeneland's spring meet also broke an attendance record and some wagering records with this year's Blue Grass Stakes day producing the track's largest ever all-sources handle, $21.65 million.

And, yet, after the Kentucky Derby hoopla ends Saturday, stables that would normally remain at Churchill Downs will be packing up and heading to New York, lured by purses engorged by casino revenue.

Here's hoping, for the sport's sake, that Belmont and Saratoga will do a better job than Aqueduct of policing bad actors.

In the long run, though, racing in this country must join the rest of the world in outlawing the presence of any drugs in horses when they race.

That way animal lovers and bettors can rest assured that sore and injured horses are not being subjected to more risk and pain and that racing truly is a contest of speed, skill and heart.