Reporting the breakdowns

When we watched the 2008 Kentucky Derby, we all wanted to know: How is Eight Belles? What happened?

When we watched the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, we all wanted to know: How is Pine Island? What happened?

When we saw a five-horse pile-up at Aqueduct earlier this year, we all wanted to know: How are the horses? How are the jockeys? What happened?

And whose job is it to tell us?

Fans watching the races from home regularly complain about the lack of updates following an injury during a race; why, they ask, are we so seldom told what’s happened to the horses and the jockeys?

It’s a sensible, reasonable question with a complex, largely unsatisfying answer.

The jockey part is easy: legally, no one can release information about a person’s medical condition without that person’s or that person’s family’s consent. Reporters and press officers can’t say a word about the condition of a jockey unless they’re told that they can.

And, often, updates take a while to come in. If you’re ever been in a situation in which someone’s gotten hurt, you know that it can take hours before the extent of injury is determined, making it difficult for updates to be released during a racing broadcast.

The equine part is a lot harder. Horse health isn’t governed by HIPA regulations, and people at the track often know within minutes whether a horse has been euthanized or not.

But what should they do with that information?

Your everyday track broadcast isn’t like an ESPN or NBC show—you don’t have hosts like Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey; you don’t have reporters like Jeannine Edwards. Their jobs are to keep the viewing audience updated with what’s going on, to the extent of their ability to do so.

Not so with in-house productions. People like Andy Serling and Jason Blewitt (about whom this commenter recently asked) are there to handicap races, not to act as studio hosts. It’s not their job to announce racing news. I’d guess that when a horse gets vanned off, no one calls in to let them know what happened. And even if they can see that a horse is put down, are they the ones who should be informing the public?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they’re not. Let’s say that it’s the job of the press office. Sometimes information isn’t known for hours after the races end, while sometimes a horse’s status is immediately available.

I ask the same question: What should the press office do with that information? Put it out with the nightly press release?

Attendance: 5,038
Handle: $853,290
Broken legs: 2
Euthanizations: 1

Write a special press release detailing the injury?

Leave it to the turf writers to let us know?

I’m lucky; I live in a city in which racing is covered daily by two newspapers, and in most cases, if there’s an accident, either Bossert at the News or Fountaine at the Post will report it and its outcome.

That doesn’t satisfy the fan who’s watching from home and who doesn’t want to wait until the next day to find out what happened to the horses and the humans. As one of those fans, I hate that sometimes, I see a horse vanned off and I never know whether the horse lived or died. And I’m not alone: more than seventy people have landed at Brooklyn Backstretch since Saturday afternoon as a result of internet searches for Cloud Nine.

Let’s say that Saturday’s injury played out differently. Let’s say Cloud Nine’s injury wasn’t catastrophic; let’s say that he was vanned off. And let’s say that due to other racing news, Bossert and Fountaine didn’t have room to report on the horse’s status, or let’s say that they didn’t get any information before deadline. None of us would have any idea what happened to the horse. If news about a horse’s injury isn’t reported by the folks in the press box, it is largely unavailable: a racing fan has few options to find out what happened.

But I can see the perspective of the racetrack, too—it’s tough to acknowledge that the product you present occasionally results in death.

Standing in the paddock after the awful situation with Cloud Nine on Saturday, someone remarked to me, “And people want racing on national television more often? Can you imagine the reaction if this had been broadcast?”

It gets to the heart of the question that a lot of us regularly ask ourselves: How do we reconcile our love of the sport with its occasional cost? How do we market it while acknowledging that sometimes, horses die?

I participated in the NTRA conference call for bloggers on Monday, and one of the topics was the uses of Twitter at the race track. The approach seemed to be, “We have a great new medium; how can we use it?” I’d suggest the reverse: “What do fans want to know, and what’s the best way to get that information to them?” Start with the content, not the medium.

We know that fans want updates about injuries, and on at least one occasion, NYRA used Twitter to convey the status of horses and jockeys after an accident, a decision welcomed by those concerned about those involved.

I don’t know what the answer is. For now, I guess I’ll be content with knowing that I can generally rely on my local beat reporters to let me know what happens. That doesn’t, though, always feel like it’s quite enough; in this instance, as in others, racing faces a situation in which serving its fans might be at odds with serving itself.

3 thoughts on “Reporting the breakdowns

  1. That’s exactly it — the content, the information, what do people want to know? What’s the best way to convey that info immediately and afterwards? In the case of breakdowns, I consider Twitter an ideal medium for delivering a reassuring dose of info and pointing toward more detailed information elsewhere and/or later. Often, fans just want to know — Was the horse vanned off? Euthanized? Is the jockey ok? They’re not looking for extensive reporting in the moment; just bare facts.Every track press office should be on Twitter, and every one should have guidelines for dealing with breakdowns — a couple standard texts concerning jockeys that protects their medical privacy while giving some measure of their soundness (it’s possible to balance the two), with similar templates for horse info. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen enough breakdowns and accidents to know what sort of info people are likely to want, what can be given; may as well put that sad experience to good use in a way that makes fans feel the industry is more transparent and responsive.

  2. NYRA was doing a great job of exactly that type of tweeting with their NYRAnews twitter feed. Haven’t noticed the same level of info recently, is John Lee gone already? I believe he was the tweeter.

  3. Thanks for the follow up.I think I am not alone in wanting injury updates and twitter is an acceptable medium, but I just can’t imagine the NYRA Twitter posting minutes after the race: “Cloud Nine put down after fall in the 7th”

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