Dear Stronach Group,
As I read about the Ms. Racing Queen pageant, my eyes grew wide with curiosity and my heart fluttered with excitement. I was Ms. Racing Queen.
The daughter of a trainer, I spent every weekend and holiday of my childhood at Belmont Park. In high school, it was time for me to give back to the sport that gave me so much. Every summer I volunteered with the Backstretch Employee Service Team, an organization that provides social and health services for backstretch workers.
I moved away from Belmont in college, but I never left the racetrack far behind. I worked with rescue organizations in the mid-Atlantic region and fostered ex-racehorses, hoping that with some patience and consistent training, they would become better candidates for adoption. I graduated with a major in Political Science and Globalization Studies, but I had only one thing on my mind: the racetrack.
I moved back home, and for the next year I worked as an assistant trainer for my father’s racing stable. I was at home, comfortable and happy living this racetrack dream. But I grew uneasy by what I saw around me. I never doubted how well the horses were cared for, but I couldn’t say the same about the backstretch workers. Behind the glitz and glamour were the grooms and hot walkers just trying to make a living. I saw the crooks that called themselves immigration lawyers and scammed these people. I could no longer wake up and find fulfillment in training race horses. Someone needed to do something for the people. So I enrolled in law school.
So here I was, a first-year law student planning to become an advocate for immigrant rights, and I decided to apply to the Ms. Racing Queen contest. The $100,000 prize is a lot of money, money that would go a long way in paying off the student loans I took out to go to law school so that I could provide reliable legal counsel for the immigrant communities working on America’s racetracks.
I filled out the application: Name, birthday, address. Standard. Eye color, hair color, height, weight. All right; after all, this is a beauty pageant. Measurements for hip, waist, and bust. Not particularly sure how this information is relevant, but OK. Fine.
I filled out the personal information, my cup size, my shirt size, my pant size, eager to get to the second page of the application so that I could tell the Stronach Group that nobody in the world was more passionate about horse racing, that my whole face lights up when I talk about it. I wanted to share with them all my experiences and work and grand plans to help the backstretch workers.
There was no second page.
The application never asked if I had even been to a racetrack, let alone about my involvement or my interests. All it required was a head shot and the size of my bust.
I was accepted to participate in the first round, but disillusioned by the whole thing, I didn’t go. I spent the morning of the state quarter-finals at Palm Meadows, walking up and down the shedrow with carrots in my hand and sugar in my pockets. I imagine that all of the real Racing Queens were doing the same thing that morning.
The real Racing Queens had been at the barn since 5 a.m., writing set lists, galloping horses, preparing medical treatments, mending shoes, calling the racing office. Other Racing Queens were on the “front side.” removed from the horses but still so vital to the industry. Some Racing Queens were on farms, delivering and taking care of foals; perhaps they delivered the next Derby winner. There were plenty of Racing Queens out that morning, but I can guarantee that not a single one was on a stage the morning of March 3rd.
The Ms. Racing Queen pageant doesn’t require of its applicants investment in or knowledge of racing. How can you expect someone with no interest in, let alone a genuine passion for,the sport to rally excitement about racing in the general public? How do you expect her to relate to knowledgeable fans that ask her about her favorite Triple Crown winner or her thoughts on synthetic vs. dirt tracks?
Have you considered how difficult it is to defend racing while at the same time acknowledging its shortcomings? How do you expect a woman who has no love for the sport to promote it while simultaneously being a good-will ambassador for initiatives like Thoroughbred aftercare and the treatment of backstretch workers? I don’t imagine Thoroughbred after-care groups will be able to relate to a woman who has never sat on a horse, while the organizations providing services for backstretch workers will be less than amused by a woman with a sash and a crown who has never stepped foot in a barn and never spoken to a groom or hotwalker.
A big bust and small waist will not make this task any easier.
The idea of a beauty pageant is demeaning to women, especially the women that work on the racetrack. Beauty pageants are outdated. There is nothing cool or hip or fun about a beauty pageant (unless you’re an old man who gets kicks out of seeing young women in bikinis). There are those who think that horse racing, too, is outdated, who think that there is nothing cool or hip or fun about horse racing (unless you’re an old man who gets kicks out of gambling). The public doesn’t perceive the racetrack as a women-friendly or family-friendly destination. The people the racetrack should be targeting are those it’s actually driving away. Women love the idea of going to the races to get dressed up, wear big hats, and spend the afternoon surrounded by expensive horses, elegance, and glamour. But they want to do that on their own terms. They don’t need a beauty pageant to show them how it’s done.
In a world of Rosie Napravnick and Linda Rice, is this how we want to portray women in racing? We have owners, jockeys, trainers, assistant trainers, exercise riders, turf writers, veterinarians, owners, administrators: smart, dedicated, and admirable women who keep the racing industry alive. We even have equine stars: think of the masses that went to the races to see Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta. Women in racing are HERE. Why not commend our work instead of rewarding someone whose only talents are a nice body and pretty smile?
You are giving away $150,000 to the first- and second-place finishers of this pageant, and spending thousands on other prize money, events, and transportation and lodging for the finalists. Imagine what $150,000+ could do for any one of the following causes:
- Thoroughbred After-Care
- Race horse slaughter prevention
- Better housing facilities for backstretch workers
- Any variety of education, health, an social services for backstretch workers
- Scholarships for children of backstretch workers
- Scholarships for racetrack employees who wish to further their career with the goal of contributing to the racing community and improving the industry
- Lobbying for immigration reform
- Raising purses and investing in Pimlico Racecourse, a track desperately in need of an upgrade.
- Research for horse health and injury prevention
I understand that it’s too late to call off the pageant, but at least do this: match the amount of money you invested into the Ms. Racing Queen pageant and give it to any of the above causes.
You should also abolish the Racing Queen pageant after this year, but if you do choose to continue it, do an internal search. Invite racetrack employees to try out for the contest. Hold it when racetrack workers are available; you effectively eliminated anyone working with the horses from competing by starting the competition at 9 a.m., when real Racing Queens were still at the barn working.
There are plenty of beautiful, smart, articulate women on the racetrack who exude a love for the sport and have the knowledge and grace to deal with anything that is asked of Ms. Racing Queen. The public (especially women) can relate to the stories and the enthusiasm of a genuine Racing Queen, someone from within the industry, without the discomfort of knowing that some superficial spokesperson was chosen because of her bust size.
We want to get the public involved. We want to see racing thrive. We are HERE, thousands of Racing Queens, eager to represent horse racing if given the chance.
Use your influence and your money to do more than attract pretty faces that know nothing about our sport and the people that make it possible; to spread the word about racing and acknowledge the value of the women who already work in racing; to market the sport and improve the lot of the humans and the horses who make it happen.
Your website (which has been taken down, curiously) said that you sought “the elegance of empowered and knowledgeable women.” You don’t need to hold a beauty pageant to find them. They’re right in front of you.
Catherine Toner is a first-year student at Brooklyn Law School. At her request, I edited parts of her letter for clarity.