THE ANNUAL ASSAULT ON HORSE RACING

Horse racing in the United States is largely ignored by newspapers except during the Triple Crown season in the Spring of the year. The great turf writers of the past are long gone and most major newspapers do not have a full-time reporter assigned to horse racing. The vast majority of the writers that cover the Triple Crown races stick to bringing readers the details on the contenders and their connections. However, without fail, some writers turn out essentially attack pieces on horse racing in the guise of good journalism and with the imprimatur of a newspaper.

Simply put, in some circles, it has become fashionable to pile on horse racing.

This year, various writers have published on drugs in horse racing, unwanted racehorses and slaughter, breakdowns (usually focused on Barbaro and Eight Belles), the death of jockey Michael Baze, and the elitism of the sport and how the presentation of the Kentucky Derby on television is an anachronism. Often, there is a perfunctory and gratuitous reference to how the sport is dying. All of these topics are, of course, valid subjects for consideration and discussion. However, what is written about them is typically one-sided and highly negative. For example, the assertion that racing is “a fading temple,” as one writer put it, is cavalierly thrown out with no reference whatsoever, for example, to the record attendance at this year’s Kentucky Derby, or the near-record betting handle, and the enhanced television ratings for the Preakness. The problems of slaughter, drugs, and breakdowns are normally presented with little or no counterbalance regarding what the horse racing industry is doing to address them.

There are two main explanations for why some sports writers attack horse racing. First, in a technological age in which newspapers are vying for attention in the midst of a myriad of old and new media, writers desperate for attention know that controversial approaches attract readers and horse racing is a convenient and mostly unarmed target (there is no well-funded NBA, NFL, or MLB public relations arm to fight back). The National Inquirer philosophy long ago found its way into conventional newspapers. An article on the death of a jockey due to a drug overdose, or owing to bulimia, is apt to gain more readers than an article on how fast the Preakness contenders have worked in the week leading up to the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Second, some writers know little or nothing about horse racing. Rather than do the research and legwork necessary to write a well-balanced article presenting multiple perspectives on, say, race-day medication, they lazily turn out a hatchet job full of anecdotes and innuendo. The article gets published and the writer is off the hook to write a racing-related article until next year.

Here are some suggested topics for sports writers who need to publish sensational articles during the hiatus following the upcoming Belmont Stakes and the 2012 Kentucky Derby: the well-documented far-above-average incidence of dementia among former National Football League players; the academic fraud being perpetrated by most universities that offer big-time college football and basketball; substance abuse in major professional sports; and the sorry financial demise of many former NBA multimillionaires. Of course, these targets are not quite as inviting as beating up on horse racing because sports writers do not like being shunned by the hometown coaches and teams. It takes courage to attack these sacred cows.

The best article of all would delve into one of the most amazing developing stories of the 21st century—the decay and perhaps impending demise of most print newspapers. That is a development nearly 575 years in the making, since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. By newspaper standards, the economic health of horse racing looks pretty darn good.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

THE FRANKELS. LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER?

Having fathers and daughters as entrepreneurs is not all that unusual. Part of the reason is genetics and part is due to the environment in which the daughter grew up. However, it is not often that the father and daughter become as prosperous as Bobby and Bethenny Frankel in totally separate business pursuits and with little or no nurturing of the entrepreneurial proclivities of the daughter by the father.

The late Bobby Frankel was a terrific racetrack entrepreneur as a trainer—operating top-class stables located from coast-to-coast. Similarly, in the words of the current edition of Forbes magazine, his daughter Bethenny is “one of Hollywood’s leading entrepreneurs.” She is on the cover of the magazine and is the subject of an article titled “Can Bethenny Crack a Billion?” She has already sold her Skinnygirl drink for $100 million and is a proven serial entrepreneur, successful in multiple money-making ventures.

Following is the way Forbes describes Bethenny’s upbringing:

“Her bio, if you’re not already a fan, reads like a social worker’s case file: a home life punctuated by multiple divorces, allegations of childhood neglect, 13 different schools, two cross-country moves. Frankel grew up on New York’s Long Island, the child of a top-ranked horse trainer (his Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes in 2003) and a racetrack groupie. “I had my first drink when I was 7 years old; I was betting at the track by 8,” Frankel recalls. “My father never called me on my birthday. He never congratulated me or told me he was proud,” she says, tearing up. (Frankel and her producers jokingly rate each episode of Ever After on a “T.P.E.” basis. “That’s tears per episode,” she says.) Somehow she made it through NYU, where she graduated with a degree in communications and psychology.”

If this is accurate, Bethenny Frankel had much to overcome. Bethany’s sordid childhood steeled her to the inevitable setbacks that entrepreneurs repeatedly face.

Click here to read the full story of Bethenny Frankel’s remarkable ascent.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN RACING

When the late racehorse owner Merv Griffin created the television game show Jeopardy in 1964, he could not have imagined what recently transpired on the program when an IBM computer decisively defeated two of the best human players in Jeopardy’s history. One of the contestants had won 74 straight games hosted by Alex Trebek, another California racehorse owner and breeder.

Experts in artificial intelligence said that this feat by the computer, named Watson after IBM’s founder, would have been considered implausible just twenty years ago. The capabilities of artificial intelligence were limited, and the technology was very futuristic. It brought to mind a vision of Dr. Spock querying an intelligent and conversational computer on the television show Star Trek.

The New York Times wrote that when Watson competed against skilled human contestants on Jeopardy, “IBM researchers were tackling a game that requires not only encyclopedic recall, but also the ability to untangle convoluted and often opaque statements, a modicum of luck, and quick, strategic button pressing.”

Judging by the significant advances made in artificial intelligence in the past couple of decades, the increasing application of this technology in all walks of life is certain. The racing industry has intriguing possibilities in areas like handicapping, mating of bloodstock, veterinarian medicine, training, yearling selection, and racetrack marketing.

Artificial intelligence is being refined to assist humans in becoming better decision makers. For example, efforts are underway to develop a computer-based physician’s assistant that will answer doctor’s queries. A doctor can take the advice or disregard it just as he or she would if the analysis came from a human. While the accuracy of artificial intelligence will undoubtedly improve over time, computers, like humans, do make mistakes. Watson, the IBM computer, answered “What is Toronto?” to this question about U. S. cities: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.”

Problems and questions that people encounter can broadly be classified into one of three types. First, routine ones have accepted rules-based answers. For instance, a simple test tells whether a mare is in foal. Second, some are in the form of puzzles that require a person (or a computer) to recognize patterns. To illustrate, diabetes have five or six symptoms that occur together. Finally, the most complex problems arise much less frequently and are approached through intuition and experimentation. The incidence of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS) in Central Kentucky in 2001 defied a ready explanation and generated alternative hypotheses.

The value of artificial intelligence in racing and breeding should show up mostly in solving the higher-order problems. Mitigating on-track breakdowns, handicapping horse races, and pairing stallions with mares, all require pattern recognition, whereas perplexing maladies like laminitis and MRLS necessitate intuition and experimentation in prevention and treatment.

While computers and software are already being used in problem-solving tasks, accelerating improvements in artificial intelligence should make these present-day applications look primitive. To what extent artificial intelligence will eventually diminish the need for human decision making is unknowable. As Sherlock Holmes might have remarked to his physician sidekick, “as of now the answer is not elementary, my dear Watson.”

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.