Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association, Inc.




 Fandom, then and now!

Sometimes, unexpectedly, a media article grabs your attention. Such was the cash with Chris Churchill’s piece in last week’s Times Union (Albany). I reacted with frustration and some anger; rightfully so. The last 10+ years in racing’s history has been peppered with attacks on our sport. In the previous 35 years of being a Thoroughbred racing fan the attacks were fewer and less stinging. I have dug deep into my racing experiences and memories for any germ that may have ignited the furor. I found these.

Maybe we as racing fans were more tolerant of racing’s problems. Maybe we were blind to them and only into selfish enjoyment of the sport and the wagering attached. Then maybe, again, things have gotten worse, and the media is picking up on it. None are acceptable rationalizations. We as fans must acknowledge reality and accept that, if we are not part of the solution, or we are part of the problem.

Fifteen years ago, I was invited by the NTRA to participate in the formation of their integrity and security alliance. At one of the early meetings the topic of the use of illegal drugs in racing came up. We wondered how pervasive the problem was. My naïve response was that most fans knew it existed and many guessed who the villains of this illegal treatments were. Many just factored that into their handicapping. In 2008 most fans didn’t see the illegal action as pervasive, and that the industry was trying to stop it. Retrospectively, I and most fans were wrong and frankly were in denial. This became as evident as the nose on my face in the years to come.

In recent years major tracks including Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Aqueduct and Belmont have all been spot-lighted for unacceptable equine fatalities. These findings suggest that racing problems are not found in the small, bush tracks across the country where economics force participants to revert to illegal action to pay the bills. Yet since the national Equine Injury Database was formed in 2008 and data collected the sport has moved the needle in the right direction. In 2009  early data suggested that the heroes of our sport were dying at a rate of 2.0 per 1,000 starts. In 2022 that rate dropped by nearly 40% to 1.25 per 1,000 starts. The data pointed to problems with illegal drug use which caused the Jockey Club to admonish members to fix it or they would. A few years ago, we saw that they meant it when the US Department Justice brought federal indictments against over two dozen including the top trainer, Jason Servis. As of 2023 we are seeing these felons rewarded with “all-expense-paid” time in federal prisons. The tide is turning. But as Dr Bryan Langlois of ThoroFan showed in a recent segment cheaters are chemically staying one step in front of law enforcement and regulators. With the addition of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) the tools to close this gap are coming. We should be proud of the progress, but not totally satisfied.

Although the industry and the federal government are trying, we fans have an important role. Our voice as fans needs to be heard to support these efforts. The 20,000,000 racing fans across the country are too silent. Many of us are so focused on the entertainment value of our sport we miss this growing cancer which if metastasized could take us to the place of Greyhound racing. Just look at the crowds at the Triple Crown races dressed to the nines oblivious to it. As an attendee at all and many more graded stakes races across the county I am not guilt free. I am not suggesting we protest or take on racing like P.E.T.A. or like we did with the Vietnam War in the sixties. Where did that get us, accept popularity and television coverage. Rather, let’s use our voice to remind the sports leaders we care and want to see change. If we speak, they will listen, since we as fans contribute through attendance and wagering a significant percentage of the industry’s revenues. Using a blended takeout of 20% we contribute over $2 billion per year to racing operations. In any other corporate endeavor stakeholders would get a seat on the Board of Directors for that. In racing fans are left out. Like Rodney Dangerfield might say, “we don’t get no respect”.

But we can change that. Our voices can support the change agents like HISA. They can be focused against those trying to keep the “ugly status quo” like the continuous lawsuits against HISA. They can be letters to the Editor of media when they misrepresent the problems the industry has, like the recent piece  in the Times Union (Albany). They must also be directed at the racing media that wants to wallpaper over racing’s problems. As we anticipate the Del Mar and Saratoga meets this summer, we can be part of the solution or part of the problem. It is up to us to speak up for our sport and bring back a better sport for everyone, including the horses. Are we up for the challenge?