Three Questions for the Authors of the Times Article

When I planned my spring break trip this year, I decided to split the vacation into two distinct parts. Week one would be spent in southwest Florida, visiting relatives, reading, and hanging out on the beach. Week two would be spent on the east coast of Florida, researching stories, interviewing, and enjoying Florida Derby week. As much as I love racing, it was time, I thought, for a little hiatus.

Ha. So much for that.

Between Aqueduct breakdowns, the cancellation of Luck, the naming of a New York State task force, and wait, there’s something else, isn’t there?–oh, yes, that story in the New York Times–I didn’t exactly pick the best time to step away for a few days.

Reaction to the first installment in the Times series has been vehement and varied, which will not, of course, stop me from dipping my toes in…though dipping them into the Gulf Coast surf, I will say, was a lot more pleasant than this.

Both the reactions and the article itself were thought-provoking; both were also, at times, disturbing. On one side, supporters of racing reacted furiously to what they saw as inaccuracies and misrepresentations, to the conflation of Quarter Horse racing and Thoroughbred racing, to the extrapolations logically made by readers that what’s happening at the New Mexico tracks represents what happens at tracks around the country.

On the other side were voices imploring racing fans to stop “killing the messenger,” to stop quibbling over details, to accept the article as an opportunity to make necessary changes to the sport and its policies.

It’s hard to read ugly stories about a sport you love. It’s also hard—and inadvisable–to accept uncritically those stories when they raise questions, which this one did, three in particular that that I hope will be answered in upcoming installments.

1)  As I can’t recall seeing an article about Quarter Horse racing in recent memory in the Times, why weren’t the distinctions and similarities between the two sports made more explicit? It’s clear from the comments that to the general public, “horse racing is horse racing.” In what cases is that true, and in what cases is it misleading? Are the breakdown and medication violations comparable?

On Twitter yesterday, Joe Drape, one of the authors of the article, addressed Andy Beyer, who had written his own response to the piece in the Washington Post and Daily Racing Form:

To Beyer: Quarter horses are regulated under same rules & state commissions. We believe the lives of those who ride’em are no less valuable.

I asked Drape why that point wasn’t made in the article, as it seemed particularly salient to understanding the connection between the two sports. He responded, “Most know that. A state racing commission is a state racing commission.”

I would respectfully suggest that most of the responses I’ve seen – even from racing fans – indicate that most don’t know that. I’m not even sure that I knew it, as I live in a state that doesn’t race Quarter Horses. The State Racing and Wagering Board here oversees both harness and Thoroughbreds, but I wouldn’t presume that other states operate similarly, or that Quarter Horses fall under the same jurisdiction as Thoroughbreds. Perhaps in this case, the Times overestimated the understanding of its audience, and I would hope that in the upcoming installments, such connections are made explicit and not assumed.

2)  This sentence gave me pause: “Since 2009, records show, trainers at United States tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times…”

Do those numbers include overages—minute and large—of legal medications? Or are they only positives for illegal medications? The sentence implies an intent to cheat and drug horses; if included in those 3,800 violations are also overages of legal medication, I would hope that that would be made clear to readers. To exclude that information, to fail to inform readers of the wide variety of medication violations, does, I think, misrepresent the violations, particularly given the strength of the language in the sentence. It wouldn’t mitigate or dismiss any time of violation, but it would at least educate the audience to the variety of infractions that have occurred. It wouldn’t excuse the number of violations, but it would provide a fuller—and yes, less sensationalist—picture of them.

3)  The article notes prominently the use of bute, saying,

Virginia’s fatality rate went up after regulators in 2005 raised the allowable level of bute to 5 micrograms from 2 micrograms. “Our catastrophic incidents increased significantly,” said Dr. Richard Harden, equine medical director for the state racing commission.

Virginia returned to the lower level in 2009, though the fatality rate has not come down.

Iowa’s fatality rate rose by more than 50 percent after the state in 2007 allowed a higher level of bute.

I wonder why the article doesn’t mention that in September 2010, the Association of Racetrack Commissioners International voted unanimously to recommend that the allowable threshold of bute be lowered to two micrograms from five; the release announcing the recommendation noted that at that time, both Maryland and Pennsylvania had the two microgram threshold in place. Since then, California has also adopted the recommendation.

It’s true that the recommendation has met with resistance from a number of racing’s organizations, a point worth discussing.  I am surprised that it was excluded, and I wonder why.

Asking questions about the article doesn’t make me an apologist or blind me to the realities it depicts. The situations depicted by the authors are appalling and deserve our attention and our action, all the more reason that I hope that upcoming installments give readers what they need to understand racing’s problems in all of their complexity, that the articles don’t sacrifice that complexity in order to generate emotional impact, and that they don’t give readers the chance to be distracted from the hard truths that the series will no doubt expose.

31 thoughts on “Three Questions for the Authors of the Times Article

  1. I agree, people seem to be falling into two camps over this article. I thought the article was misleading in lumping QH and TB statistics together and was unclear about issues in many other cases. I called it ‘sensationalistic’ in tone because I thought it was written in a manner that would incite outrage among the non-racing public and have been chastised for voicing that opinion. There is absolutely no question it raises issues that MUST be addressed if racing is to survive and thrive but I think presentations such as this one just feed into the ‘horse racing must be banned’ mentality and may in fact cause those in a position to do something to keep turning a deaf ear…

  2. How interesting that the bute debate was cut short in the article, citing only the Virginia and Iowa examples, when there was debate about this recommendation, as you say. That really belonged in the discussion. For one thing, it proves that there is a conversation going on about these drug thresholds, and that there is serious debate going on within the industry.

  3. Sadly, Mr. Drape chooses divisive sensationalism instead of solid reporting in telling this important story. We all know racing has significant problems but the NYT article only fans the flames for the extremists. Really, really unfortunate considering the platform.

  4. I have no problem with the NY Times writing on the drug issues in the Thoroughbred industry but the article centered on quarter horse racing and quite frankly was confusing to read.

    As I am a racing fan I made the distinction between the two types of racing, but I am sure the casual reader could not. At first read the casual reader would assume this is an expose on the thoroughbred industry only. Fans can distinguish between Harness and thoroughbreds but how many readers (especially on east coast) even know what quarter horse racing is?

  5. Excellent piece; these are, broadly speaking, the questions I had as well. I’ve been aware on some level that things are ‘worse’ when it comes to QH racing, but if I also was unaware that they were (theoretically) governed by many of the same rules, I imagine the distinction between the two was difficult for the casual reader to discern.

    Perhaps a follow-up article highlighting some of those differences – and shared problems – might be of use; it would be a good way to put a spotlight on the overbreeding issue in the QH community, which (at least in my admittedly limited experience) is a much greater problem than on the TB side, though there are obviously some similarities.

  6. Thanks for being rational. I’ve been knocking this around in my head but given my schedule unable to gather my thoughts w/ enough time to write. I would not have done near as good a job as you did. It appears that politics isn’t the only arena where rational discussion has disappeared. Thanks for being a same voice.

  7. Teresa, NY’s Racing and Wagering Board does oversee Quarter Horse racing, there is a NYS Quarter Horse Racing Commission — see the statute The regulations are in place, however there are no current QH meets in the state.

  8. Good questions, Teresa, and a thoughtful dissection of the New York Times article.

    One of the biggest flaws I see in the story and its aftermath is Joe Drape’s response to questions about differentiating between Quarter Horse and thoroughbred regulations and violations.

    “Most know that,” he says. “A state racing commission is a state racing commission.”

    As do you, I respectfully disagree. “Most” newspaper readers, on many complex subjects but especially on the subject of horse racing, don’t know jack. A distinct majority of readers have something ranging from a limited understanding to an overwhelming misunderstanding of the sport. So it’s a writer’s obligation to lay it all out for them — every important piece of information with the unimportant cast aside — in writing so clear the facts are almost impossible to misconstrue.

    It’s a tough line to walk for journalists: Treating your readers like they’re not stupid while never assuming they know much of anything. But it’s necessary for the whole story to be effectively told.

  9. I thought the article was sensationalized, but I think it sort of had to be to get the point across. I was stopped by the mixing in of quarter horse racing, but then again, here in France, we have Arabian racing and AQPS, or “non-thoroughbred” racing that comes under the same rules as thoroughbred racing, governed by the same body, so I guess in that respect, racing IS racing. I’m looking forward to seeing the other installments. There is a lot to cover. A distinction needs to be made between legal and illegal drugs, but I think NO distinction needs to be made on the results: drugs ARE killing the industry, and I would argue that the legal drugs are far more damaging than the illegal ones.

    • I’d be reluctant to say that the end justifies the sensationalist means–that feels like a dangerous path to me. And while I will leave it to others better informed than I to debate the effect of legal vs. illegal drugs, I think it’s dishonest to characterize minute overages of legal meds, in such small amounts that it’s agreed that they’ve no effect on performance, as “trainers illegally drugging horses.” Should such overages be permitted? No. Should there be penalties? Yes. But let’s make the distinction clear.

  10. Your questions are good ones, as are most of the comments to your article. I think the only way racing can survive this barrage of criticism – some warranted and some not – is to aggressively police the sport and intelligently respond to PETA’s sensationalistic charges. For example, when a horse rears back, loses its’ balance and flips over backwards, killing itself, that is not abuse. Horses do irrational things that do not necessarily reflect poorly on their human handlers. Groups like PETA are not going to distinguish between horses dying because of real abuse and freak accidents. It is a shame that HBO pulled “Luck” and it certainly seems like an overreaction. But the details of the fatalities in question haven’t exactly been made available to the public. I would like to know the facts surrounding the other fatalities associated with “Luck”. All I hear or read about is the horse that reared back and flipped over. The industry needs to respond to PETA when that group makes statements which are misleading.

  11. Teresa, At many tracks in QH country (Texas, Az, NM and SoCal), both breeds run on the same card, with the same rules and officials.

    Most of the previous are splitting hairs trying to say this is a QH problem. The dead horses in NY this winter were Thoroughbreds.

    The authors of the Times article pointed the finger right where it was aimed, drugs in horses.

    Believe what you want but the TB drug culture is on a death row.

    • I don’t think I’ve seen anyone saying that it’s a Quarter Horse problem. What I’ve read, and thought, is that if the problems in the two sports are the same, make that connection clear. To write in depth about one type of racing and use it to draw conclusions about another isn’t, in my opinion, a well-crafted or persuasive argument.

  12. I can’t see that distinguishing between quarter horse and thoroughbred horse racing would have made this NYT article more relevant. Did it matter to me that the dead horse lying in the landfill next to the old toilet was a quarter horse and not a thoroughbred? I don’t think so.
    Also, legal medications as well as illegal ones are all processed by the liver. Dumping too much of either in a horse’s system is not doing it any good.
    Let’s hope this article (despite its debatable points) becomes yet another wake-up call to the sport.

  13. Andy Beyer in his critique of the NYTimes piece writes: “Subtract the Quarter Horse component from the study and the Times might not have a carnage-laden front page story.”
    If the claim is that a majority of the incidents occur during Quarter Horse racing wouldn’t that then drop the average of 5.2 per 1000 starts if those were excluded. Looking at Thoroughbred racing only tracks such as Aqu(5.3), Belmont(4.8), Saratoga (5.5), Del Mar(6.7), Hollywood(7.9), Santa Anita(7.4), many are still above the 5.2 quarter horse exaggerated average. KY tracks doing the best in terms of averages. And I would suspect the NM tracks would not do any better looking only at Thoroughbred races. I don’t believe separating these out would dampen the story or however And Beyer phrases it, but it should be addressed to provide a clearer picture as suggested.

  14. Kow, the picture is very clear for those who want to open their eyes. The drugs in all horse racing must be banned just like in every other sport in the world.

  15. Our society has become so specialized that we don’t know jack about anything, including how or why to study and learn about anything, much less complex issues which could simplified and made understandable if it were not advantageous to play smoke and mirrors.
    Cool blog Teresa, I growl when you go very long without a post.

  16. KOW,

    Good points.

    This article reads like sensationalism, because of the topic. We are far too close to the industry to see that, imo.

    Use only the thoroughbred tracks if you will, and even the better ones. If you have two out of 1000 starters dying on the track, that’s incredible.

    For simplicity, if you have ten starters a race, and put on 100 races, one out of every fifty races has a horse crippled or dead.

    One out of fifty.

    If in the NFL one out of every fifty games a person died playing it, and the New York Times wrote a story about it, would it be sensationalism? If one out of fifty car races had a dead driver would it be?

    This story has not caught fire due to sensationalism, in my opinion. It’s caught fire, because in its belly, it’s stomach churning, and painfully accurate.


    • A point that I tried to make here is that the situation is bad enough without sensationalizing. Depict it clearly and cleanly and avoid the drama, which only distracts from the issues and in my opinion undercuts the effectiveness of the article.

  17. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and offer comments. I’d like to see these questions answered, and I’ll hope that perhaps the next installments (one of which I imagine will come out tomorrow) will address some of the issues we’ve raised.

  18. I believe that the story was sensationalized. One sentence caught my attention, a mention of a broken down horse with one eye. I recall galloping two horses on the track who had use of only one good eye. I galloped horses full time for 6 years in New York, Kentucky and California.
    Unless all the breakdowns happen at one spot on a racetrack, a seemingly high incidence, such as happened at Aqueduct is just bad coincidence. So many factors are involved that it is impossible to say or identify one or even two causes. However, critics of the sport will be quick to blame drugs, a racing surface, or horses going too fast.
    Improvements can be made in racing. More stringent post race testing by accredited labs would be a good beginning. A list of acceptable medications might also be a path forward.
    Any changes must be put into effect quickly or additional newspaper stories like the NY Times will appear.
    There are arguments for and against uniform medication rules. However, seeking regulation by the federal government will lead to disputes which may delay effective regulation. The states obtain part of the parimutual take out, the federal government does not directly receive any money from racing. The funding for regulation should come from the take out but will the states retain the right to a share of the takeout?.
    Richard Schmitt

  19. What we should have is a National policy for all of this instead of letting each state regulate it. Can you imagine other sports like this?
    If say in an NFL game a touchdown was worth 6 points in one state but worth 8 on another opponents field someplace else?
    I am not by ANY means a proponent of the government being involved in anything but if racing doesnt get it’s act together sooner than later then maybe someone will use the Interstate Horseracing Act to force change?
    I listened to TVG commentator Simon Bray recently talk about fearing a cocaine positive for 30 days on one of his horses that won a stakes race back when he was training simply because a long term employee that was the groom to that horse had got arrested on drug posession. My point is with no established and consistent set of rules and testing and threshold levels that if the guy had contaminated feed or hay with residue on his hands that horse and trainer would have been unfairly penalized and reputations damaged.
    Great job on the article Teresa, you make us think,like always and that is a good thing. It breaks my heart to see the sport I love talked or written about by people who are so ignorant of it. I also feel the same toward those in the sport that give it a bad name by not doing the right thing or acting with apathy.


  20. Teresa, When drugs are banned there will be only illegal drugs. A small amount of any illegal drug will be a violation.

    I think the TB industry should be relieved the Times spent allot of type focused on the New Mexico situation. They could have zoomed right in on this past winters deaths in NY. The Times kind of fired a shot across the bow of NY racing.

    The Times wants change and if the sport continues to stagger around the shots will get closer to the target.

    The NYRA could take unilateral action with significant changes
    which would force most state racing commissions to follow their lead.

    If somebody doesn’t start leading. the feds wll take over and appoint some used up politician as horse racing, czar.

    Good discussion, Teresa

  21. Very good article and loved Jarrod Goldberg”s comments. It is so easy to demonize and paint a black and white picture. Life is complex and so to horseracing. I to disliked the NYT’s tone and their assumptions. Assumptions being the operative word. Journalism seems to be more about opinion than fact checking and asking questions. The picture the NYT painted is incomplete. The majority of comments I have read from non-horseracing blogs have been extremely negative: ban racing, all the horses are abused, trainers and owners are greedy and selfish. Considering the audience that the NYT has, I felt they did a poor job.

  22. Teresa:

    You are one of the better racing writers, and your love for horses and the sport always shines through. However, the NYT article hits the problems right on the nose. I’m shocked at the reaction of the racing media, quite frankly. You say that there are “two camps,” but I’m having a hard time finding an example from the other camp… All I’ve read are attacks on the NYT. What difference does it make if the statistics are skewed by the inclusion of quarterhorse racing? Even if one accepts the premise that the QH statistics should be backed out, you know in your heart that the thoroughbred statistics are bad enough to demand action.

    I used to work in a Federal Agency and one of my jobs was to coordinate agency response to findings from our Inspector General. Invariably, the first response from targeted offices was to quibble with the statistics and logic used by the IG. Usually the problems were well known internally, but the IG was viewed as an outsider. The IG reports were viewed as “not invented here.” It usually took several rounds to get the offices to really put themselves on a path to correcting the deficiencies instead of irrationally fighting back. That’s what’s happening here, the NYT is an outsider.

    Job #1 is to eliminate raceday medication. You know, Andy Beyer and others have always taken this position, though I suspect they’ve wanted to protect their own bets more than protect the horses. There are many obstacles, most notable that eliminating drugs is not in the short-term interest of trainers and owners. Plus, all states are fiefdomes, so there is little co-ordination.

    Someone needs to jump and and say that these problems need to be solved, not fight back against the messenger. Maybe it will take Federal intervnetion, but more likely it will take public apathy and a shrinking population of tracks. It happended to the greyhounds, and everyone thought horses were different. Maybe not.

    “What happens to the injured horses?” is a good question. I’ve always thought that the better question is “what happens to the slow horses?” Maybe that will be the next installment.

    Hope these comments get to you.
    John Murphy

    • John,

      Thanks for the kind words and my apologies for the delay in responding. My intent here was to question not what the Times said, but how they said it, and I acknowledge that the facts on their own are worthy of attention. But I do think that the writers of the article have a responsibility to the topic and to their readers to be clear, honest, and not misleading. Any piece of writing is a series of choices: what to reveal, how to phrase things, what words to choose. Some of the choices in the article surprised me and left the article, I think, needlessly open to criticism. I think that the article could have been clearer without losing any of its impact.

  23. The slow ones eat as much as the fast ones so they should be given an opportunity to do something else. If everyone involved in the sport in any way at any level would give a few cents back on the dollar, we wouldn’t have an issue.
    I’ve said before and I’ll keep saying it; if one is involved with horses and looks at them as strictly a commodity then Get Out of The Sport!! Y’all make us all look bad!
    I’ve got a 14 yo mare due to foal an appendix in a few weeks. She bowed a tendon before her first start but I bred her and it’s my responsibility to ensure her well being throughout her life. Just like Tom Smith said in seabiscuit; every horse is good for something.
    We should celebrate the positives. Ther are so many that go untold and realize here will always be those without integrity on any endeavor. We can try to change their behavior or take them out of the sport each time we see it.

    Jarrod Goldberg
    Houston Texas

  24. Hi, Teresa.
    Having spent some time among the Association of Racing Commissioners International, it occurs to me that there’s another piece to the New Mexico puzzle that should be added. I recall that, within the past couple years, the New Mexico Racing Commission was so low on funds that they had to drop their ARCI membership. I also recall hearing through the grapevine that the NMRC had so little in the way of operating funds they couldn’t even afford their monthly internet service. So, while it’s true that racing is regulated in every jurisdiction, the level/quality of regulation is dependant on many factors not the least of which is funding from state governments. The National Racing Compact has had a rough go of it gaining traction across the country from varying segments of the industry. It’s probably a good time to step back and take an objective look at the NRC – it could be a big part of the answer to many questions currently surrounding the industry.

  25. Victor I.

    Very interesting addition to the conversation. I also hope the National Racing Compact becomes the central authority that American horse racing certainly needs to homogenize healthy conduct of our sport; relative to licensing and the management of legal pharmaceutical administration, no two subjects are in greater crisis.

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