What should we know, and when should we know it?

Earlier this week, the internet lit up with the news of the birth of Rachel Alexandra’s first foal, a colt by Curlin.  Stonestreet Farm released a statement, photos, and video; good wishes, congratulations, and coverage exploded on news sites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

On Friday afternoon, delight turned to unease as rumors began to surface about Rachel Alexandra or the colt being ill, and late in the afternoon, Stonestreet confirmed that both were at Rood and Riddle as a “precautionary measure…for pain management related to the birth.”

It didn’t take long before a merry (mostly) war broke out on Twitter last night about what Stonestreet said and when they should have said it.

Writers (this one included), fans, farm employees, owners, and trainers all chimed in, the tweets fast and furious, the mood frenetic, the voices passionate.  On one side, those who believe that Stonestreet should have released more information and earlier in the day, in response to fan anxiety. On the other, those who think that Stonestreet has the right to deal with any possible medical problem (or any other news) as it sees fit, in its own time and on its own terms.

I am in the latter camp.  Among Stonestreet’s many considerations yesterday, I think that satisfying fans’ anxiety and media curiosity is way down on the list. I heard yesterday cries for transparency in the sport, and I wondered: transparency about what?  This isn’t about wagering (yes, I know, there’s a prop bet about the foal making it to the Derby, but can we agree that we don’t have to consider that sort of ridiculousness here?), so why does the public need to know immediately the details of the mare’s and foal’s health?  When does a wish for transparency become prurient curiosity?

The desire for information is rooted, of course, in the connection that fans feel to Rachel Alexandra, in their affection for her. But being a fan doesn’t mean that her connections need to accommodate our desire to know what we want to know, when we want to know it. I was surprised by the criticism heaped on Stonestreet, especially after they did what people wanted and made a statement.

I’m a fan of the New York Rangers, and that fandom has meant, over four decades, the investment of uncountable hours, tens of thousands of dollars, and almost limitless emotion. None of the owners of the team has ever felt the slightest obligation to answer my questions, to treat me well, or to give me access to players’ personal lives, and I’m sure that I’d get laughed at if I suggested that it should be otherwise. My fandom and my investment entitle me to nothing.

Five and a half years ago, when Barbaro was injured, the public was given, for better or worse, an unprecedented look into the “personal life” of a race horse.  Updates were provided by New Bolton; photos were released; news conferences scheduled. The fan frenzy around Barbaro’s injury grew steadily, and the phrase “feed the beast” seems an apt one.  Whatever information was put out, it never seemed to be quite enough, and it created, I think, a sense that fans are entitled to information about the horses they love.

Yesterday, when Stonestreet did as fans wanted and announced that Rachel Alexandra and the colt were at Rood and Riddle, neither the rumors nor the criticism stopped.  Skepticism abounded about the reasons given for the hospitalization; rumors about the “real reason” floated through the evening, and the farm was disparaged for the delay and for the paucity of information that was put out.

The voice of the fan is stronger than ever in racing, thanks to all the media platforms devoted to the sport: fans, farms, trainers, and racing executives can interact with each other in unprecedented ways.  The strength of that voice incurs a responsibility, one that seemed absent yesterday in the demand for information and in the condemnation of people who are acting in the best interests of their horses.

Racing needs a lot of things, and those involved in the sport are rightly questioned daily by media and by fans. But do we really want to assail one of the brightest spots in the game over the last few years? We’re not talking about anything nefarious here. This isn’t Life At Ten, this isn’t Richard Dutrow, this isn’t financial malfeasance. This is a farm taking care of one of the most famous race horses in memory, taking good care of her and of her foal. Do we really want to attack them?

30 thoughts on “What should we know, and when should we know it?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was really surprised at the criticism last night on Twitter. Rachel is not a Public Company, nobody is entitled to know anything except her immediate connections.
    I think for some, no matter what Stonestreet does, it will never be ‘enough’ or ‘right’. Which is too bad and speaks of the smallness of those who continually criticize.
    Wishing all the best to Rachel and her colt.

  2. Stonestreet was trying to take care of Rachel and the baby. I certainly hope and believe that there was no deception involved in the information that the farm released. Yet, I will be happier and relieved when the horses are back home.

  3. It is amazing how this snowballed a bit. I believe it stems from the very ambiguous and terse statement put out by Stonestreet. Especially a couple days after their much more detailed birth announcement. Making it look somewhat conspicuous. With regard to disclosure in racing in general. I will go so far as to say that in the current system owners and trainers have no obligation to disclose anything about their animal, as you mentioned it’s their property. You want to bet on them go ahead at your own risk. Anyone remember the “disclosure” of Victory Gallop having some type of cough leading up to the Belmont Stakes, that information cost this naive bettor some money, so it can go both ways. That is why we have commissioners in other sports (some in the pockets of the owners but regardless) to set some rules on this issue. Stewards are referees but a general set of rules should be established on the type of “injury” report each owner and trainer is obligated to provide (from wraps to medication to vet visits, etc..). Until this happens it will always be a battle for information (correct information) between stable, press and bettor. It was an interesting evening of twitter reading for sure.

    • I’m not sure that I’d consider the the birth announcement “much more detailed,” and as this isn’t a racing situation, there’s no risk involved at all for the public. I for one would hate to see any kind of authority set up that mandated private people to disclose information about their own property when there’s no public interest.

  4. It’s the history with this farm and this mare that got people’s back’s up, in my opinion.

    When a handicapper with an IQ of a pumpkin could see she was racing terrible and something was bugging her, they constantly told us she was fine. Then one day, after yet another poor effort, she wasn’t fine I guess, because she was retired.

    It’s not unlike NYRA. People can blindly give them the benefit of the doubt how to run “their business” and be a fanboy, but time after time when something is released it has served some well to be skeptical.

    This, in my opinion, is an isolated case where people want to know the message quickly, because they don’t trust the messenger.


  5. Stonestreet has been exceptionally open following Rachel’s retirement to fans that love this special mare. They’ve done more than we have any right to expect, in my view. What trainer doesn’t say his horse is doing great? But she’s not racing anymore and the rules are different when other people’s money isn’t on her back. I trust what they’ve said and hope for her to be back at the farm soon.

  6. PTP – the difference with the NYRA analogy re: openness is that NYRA’s business involves offering the public a product vs. the farm where the “product” is theirs (and retired, so no impact to anyone who’s wagering). Different ball of wax re: what should be expected in terms of communication IMO.

  7. I understand that Dana, but the fact remains that farms, or trainers, or owners who have historically been open with fans and the media would not get questioned in a situation like this.

    If this was Zenyatta, JS, JM and AM would be on facebook, or chatting with the DRF etc if they called. They would’ve issued a statement with zero skepticism from anyone.

    Goodwill is not given, it is earned. Fans at this moment, in my opinion, do not have the same feeling about this mare and her owners, as they do with some others.

    Maybe they are being unfair, but a healthy dose of skepticism in racing has not served them poorly in the past.


    • I don’t really see what Zenyatta has to do with this, but since you brought it up: for whatever reason, Zenyatta’s connections chose not to comment after her loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic or to make themselves available to the media. That’s their right, certainly, and one could argue that they had no responsibility to anyone but themselves. I’m not sure why the same consideration is not given in this situation.

      And even if it were to come out that Stonestreet didn’t release the full story yesterday, if there’s something else going on here (and let’s hope there’s not, & there’s no reason to think there is), I’d still say that they have the right to disclose information about their horses on their own terms.

  8. And by “racing terrible” PTP means second in Grade 1 races to Grade 1 winners and eventual Breeders’ Cup winners.

    When I heard the rumors about Rachel, I did what anyone else could have done. I e-mailed Stonestreet. I got a response in 30 minutes.

    I just don’t get the angst in this case. Far more farms are far more tight-lipped regarding what goes on a their facilities, and that’s certainly their prerogative.

  9. I had a feeling that this boiled down to a RA vs. Z position.

    IMO when the public’s money is involved there are different standards of what should be expected, period. It shouldn’t be about what other owners would have done or not done in the same situation (based on pure speculation!). But, since you mentioned it, what if the tables were turned and Team Z handled the situation the same way? I bet the argument would then go “they doing what was best for mare, just like they always have.”

  10. Fantastic writing as usual and spot-on. Still shocked at some of the atitudes yesterday. Don’t know why I am shocked, but I am.

  11. Actually, historically races horses were always considered the private property of their owners. Even now we often hear weeks or months later about injuries or even deaths.

    As for Rachel’s less than excetional 4yo campaign, what was anyone supposed to say? Anyone could see that she’d lost sharpness. Every trainer or owner says the same thing, all the time; “He’s never been better” and “My horse looks fantastic!” It’s the horseplayers job to read between the lines. If I own a $10k claimer must I publish everything about him too? At what point on the class ladder does it stop?

    As for RA in retirement, what purpose is there to send out any information if it is all questioned. Stonestreet confirms that she’s at R&R for post partum pain and skeptics ask “why is she REALLY there?” Stonestreet owes the public no more about its horses than it cares to release. I tend to think that by setting up fan sites etc that farms have opened up a can of worms. Give people a bit of info and suddenely they are entitled to know what their favorite horse eats, what kind of blanket he wears and everything else.

    I’d be a much hated owner if I were in the biz. I’d issue a press release upon the birth of “significant” foals, the death of major horses and little more.

  12. “I’d still say that they have the right to disclose information about their horses on their own terms.”

    No one is saying they don’t have the right to do what they want. Of course they have the right to.

    Jeff Mullins had the right to say IWR was great before the Derby. Todd Pletcher had the right to say Eskeydreya was perfect before the Derby.

    But the next time they say the same thing, don’t expect people in twitter to be deferential towards them.

    It’s the same in the entire business – owning, training, breeding – and has been since the beginning of time. It’s in the culture.

    All I am saying is don’t expect people to be silent when something happens, or doesn’t happen with a racehorse. They’ve been down this road 1000 times before.


    • I don’t see this scenario as analogous with racing–wagering is a game-changer–and your comments assume that Rachel Alexandra’s connections have actually been dishonest in the past, instead of acknowledging that those are suspicions and nothing more.

  13. Totally agree with you and others. This was a private matter and Stonestreet should be allowed to release information about Rachel and her foal at there discretion. They have been extremely open with sharing Rachel with her fans since her retirement. And I can’t see what Zenyatta or the Mosses or John Sherrifs has anything to do with this? Who’s to say they would have been any more forthcoming with information in the same situation. I am a fan of both Rachel and Zenyatta but am getting a bit tired of Zenyatta’s fans lauding her connections like they are gods of some sort, while Rachel’s connections get thrown under a bus by some at every opportunity.

  14. Hi Teresa,
    I witnessed the unfortunate exchange in the twitter-verse you refer to and it was curious indeed. The tone of the exchange still has me confused. One party called for transparency, getting out in front of the story and another argued that being forthcoming was exactly what was happening. Teresa, your point of view on the subject last night was just as you have restated it. But I think in a world filled with real problems none of this really matters. However, what I did take away which I thought DID matter was the lack of civility exhibited by some. Not you, others. I was very surprised by the impolite communication and personal attacks during the discourse by some of the brand name players. IMHO, Stonestreet has the right to do with their property as they see fit, I agree with you. And, like so many others in the public eye, Stonestreet can hire a publicist. Or they can be open to criticism undue or not. Or we can all ignore those nice people and get on with things that really matter. One more thing…I like what Ned Daly says., and thanks for writing.

    • I actually didn’t think the exchange was unfortunate…I thought it was spirited and fun and illuminating, with lots of passionate folks participating.

      You are absolutely right, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, that these sorts of problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

      And thanks very much to you and Ned for those kind words.

  15. The minute Stonestreet relessed the first press release it became a public matter. “Pain management” is a term that evokes debate. Horse racing is in no position to piss off a rather skimpy fan base. Stonestreet needs to be reminded, it’s no longer the Sport of Kings.

    • “Horse racing is in no position to piss off a rather skimpy fan base.”

      Nor should it kowtow to the every whim of fans, no matter how inappropriate. Don’t release information; get questioned. Release information; get questioned. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. These are the sorts of responses that lead people to not anything at all.

      I guess I’d have a hard time seeing how anybody who is really a fan could be “pissed off” by this situation.

  16. Your not addressing the point, Teresa. Stonestreet created the kerfuffle with the strange press release.

    The fans aren’t the problem. Many horse racing elite have more attitude than their portfolio can support.

  17. Teresa, The sport needs to kowtow to the fans. They can be quirky, kooky and just weird but they have the power to make or break horse racing.

    Jess Jackson lured many fans with his 24/7 promotion of Rachel supported by her own daring– do. They feel connected and have a need to know. If Mr. Jackson was still with us, he would be right there at R and R holding his champions right hoof and telling us about how she desperately held off Buckpasser, Round Table and Damascus in her glorious Woodward.

  18. We live in the age of “real time news” and this is an example of that concept inching its way into the horse world.

    David Meerman Scott’s rules of real-time media engagement prevail right now in the bigger world–we are taught that newsjacking is the route to “own” or control the message.

    Sometimes you have to insert yourself into your own story, as Stonestreet did.

    I can guarantee you that if Barbaro (R.I.P.) was at New Bolton Center today, the university would have its hands full attempting to control the news and it wouldn’t succeed.

    The horse world is inching along into the real-time reality and it comes down to whether you participate in the news stream or scramble to react to it after damage is potentially done.

    Stonestreet did the right thing. Maybe their choice of words–“pain” is such an evocative word in any use–wasn’t the best but they did participate. I hate to see spin doctors working the horse world just as much as I hate to receive provocative headlines in breaking-news emails from the racing press.

    “Rachel Alexandra, Foal Taken to Equine Clinic” was the slug that arrived in my email that night. Who wouldn’t open that email, which did not contain any reassurance that the transport was precautionary? Who wouldn’t click that link to read more, on an ad-supported web page?

    It’s a Grade 1 race to dominate the news. Alarmist headlines work in email alerts and on Twitter. Once the adrenalin kicks in, people want drama. They’ve been cued for drama. In that story, they were looking for Rood and Riddle to rise to some perceived medical emergency occasion and save the mare.

    When they found out there was no emergency, they obviously (along with the sources that incited the fury) simply turned on Stonestreet and each other until the adrenalin subsided.

    I believe it’s a form of crowd-sourced blood lust, social-media style. Get used to it.

  19. Maybe I’m missing something this is a tempest in a teapot, simply an owner of a much loved horse and her colt taking precautions for their health. The fans are concerned about her what is wrong with that?

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