An Open Letter to the Stronach Group From Catherine Toner: Your Racing Queens Are Right Here.

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

Catherine Toner is a first-year student at Brooklyn Law School. At her request, I edited parts of her letter for clarity.

24 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Stronach Group From Catherine Toner: Your Racing Queens Are Right Here.

  1. This is extremely well written, and I hope Teresa lets the author continue to write for this website, but I disagree with the criticism of the process. Ms. Racing Queen is a beauty pageant, not a treatise on who best personifies all that is good and pure in Thoroughbred racing.

    Now whether a racetrack company should spend marketing dollars on this type of event is a subject for another blog, but indignation over the process when this is nothing more than a beauty pageant akin to countless others across the country doesn’t seem fair.

  2. Catherine, I agree with what you are saying. This whole contest and its process is just a bad idea. Didn’t they drop it already? Let’s hope so. But, as I mentioned on Twitter why all the mudslinging toward the present customer. If you don’t think the present customers have a lot of issues with how this game treats them, then I recommend you read some of the comment sections on the DRF and Ray Paulick’s site. My opinion is, if the game can’t figure out how to treat it present customers, then don’t bother to go find new ones. And the beauty contest is the last thing the present customers care about.

  3. Very well written, comprehensive letter. I understand that sex appeal can attract more customers, but what an old fashioned way of doing so! There are already so many beautiful women in racing making a difference and working hard to promote the sport.

  4. In my opinion, the real “racing queens” are those women working at the various retired thoroughbred rescue organizations.

  5. Now, now Ed, your occasional condescension is showing! If I didn’t know you I’d think that was a serious bit of mansplaining but you don’t usually roll that way.

    I’m not sure what about this post doesn’t suggest that the money would be better spent elsewhere.

  6. I commend you,Ms Toner for your provocative thoughts,and wish it was not another Beauty contest,too. And the real racing Queens are where you suggest, and are more deserving than any D cup size with a 24 inch waist(now contests are allowing implants,etc!), unless that gal has Real Horse experience! What a waste of money!

  7. Well written with EXCELLENT points. The thing is that Frank wants what he wants and that’s it. With all the problems in California Racing there is no question that the money could have been used more effectively. As a Gambler I would have like to see him dump 200k into a Saturday P6 pool. That would get him a lot of good publicity and generate over 1 million in new money. Not only that there ARE plenty of beautiful women working within California Racing. And they already know quite a bit about Horse Racing.

  8. I don’t agree with all the points made, but do agree with the writer’s thoughts on better ways to spend the money used for cash prizes. This is well written, and anyone this young who can write and think like this will go very far. The Law community will do well with her in it.

  9. I have to wonder if it was a young Mr. Toner who penned this post if there would be so many compliments on how well written it is? It reminds of the Mad Men episode when the guys discover Peggy might make a good copy writer “It’s like seeing a dog play piano.”

  10. C’mon Dana. Being able to write well isn’t all that easy but it definitely helps people like myself to get through the article easily. In today’s world I (and a lot of people) tend to glance rather than read. When pieces are as well written as this article is it makes all the difference.

    Don’t see the comments as a male versus female thing in any way. Not even close.

  11. Ms Toner, I wish I were the Racing Queen. I would take the crown off my head and place it on yours. So well said! You are going to make one great attorney– advocating for those who can’t speak for themselves. God bless you for choosing the noble path of serving others. By doing so, you are impressive even without a crown or sash.

  12. Ms. Toner:

    You put forth an eloquent and convincing argument. The sport should honor its women, not patronize them with a tiara and an anachronistically absurd title. Faced with increased competition and burdened by decades of its own blundering mistakes, the sport is shrinking in every way. But horse racing has one advantage over other professional sports: its women. Best wishes — Gary West.

  13. “… horse racing has one advantage over other professional sports: its women.”

    And this is why Ms. Toner’s indignation about the pageant process is so right, and why her words more than make the case that Ms. Racing Queen is a lousy use of marketing dollars: It slights a significant number of racing fans and participants with its message of, “Ladies, you’re not the audience. You’re the decoration.” One particular pageant probably won’t have much effect in driving away or drawing fans, but the culture that thought it was a nifty idea for publicity is one that’ll keep alienating a group of people racing really needs at the track to survive.

  14. Well said, Ms. Toner. And “indignation over the process” is just what’s needed. This isn’t just another beauty contest, it’s one that’s connected to horse racing, with a nice chunk of scholarship money to the winners. If Stronach wants to do something this antiquated and out of touch, the least he could do is require some interest in and knowledge of horse racing of the contestants. He could try to pretend it’s about something other than ogling comely young females.

  15. Wow, I can hardly keep up, but If I see Ms. Toner’s name, I read! after all I was her riding teacher many moons ago. I am also somebody who knows the Stronach outfit personally. Nobody in today’s world really knows how to market racing because it is seemingly impossible. Such experienced notables as Mayor Bloomberg say Democracy is stuck in gridlock but it’s still better than anything else. Bottom line here is: I think Catherine & Frank Stronach should have that “cup of coffee” (see above). After all she was born into racing, with a Father who is one of the best (recent star Winter Memories) trainers with a longtime record of complete integrity. Mr. Stronach is a “newcomer” of sorts with some huge monies to throw around. I’d love to go to that meeting of minds. PS. Give Jim Toner a few horses, Mr. Stronach, & see what happens.

  16. You ROCK Catherine Toner! You would have my vote and love the comment above you would make a great general manager for Santa Anita!

  17. Incredibly well written. I agree that the person who represents Ms. Queen Racing should have experience and knowledge of our sport. To spend this kind of money it should be utilized to not only bring in new fans but also motivate others to get involved in the various different charities. Slaughter and aftercare are issues that need to be addressed and how is someone who has no prior knowledge of those issues suppose to influence others? With her cup size? Meanwhile, it is true it’s the blood, sweat, and tears of the exercise riders, the hot walkers, the grooms, trainers, and lets never forget theses great horses that some do forget sometimes that make this sport even possible. I admire this author she is saying what may others feel. I, also come from a family of horsemen and women. I spent all of my life on a horse. Being Ms. Queen Racing should require some horse experience. It takes a lot of bettors going to the windows to replaces that money they are giving for a beauty pageant. From a marketing stand point I doubt it really brought in that much volume to make that much in income to cover it. My opinion that money is better spend elsewhere such as aftercare or slaughter issues. But then again who usually makes the decision about where people are going on any given weekend? Studies show the woman of the house not the man therefore not sure the marketing department was right on this one. The pageant was actually silly in person.

  18. Ms.Toner is right. Also need race tracker to run race tracks and start promoting to younger generation to get
    new owners. Not mentioning some tracks, do not need
    these kids( that have never touch a horse to work in Racing. Give backsiders a chance they clean up well.

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