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?
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.