At the 2018 Jockey Club Roundtable, James L. Gagliano, the group’s president, provided ominous empirical findings from McKinsey & Company research: “Among the general public, there have been minimal improvements in the perception of racing since 2011.  Today, 22% of the general public has a positive impression of the sport, and that’s up from 19% in 2011.  Forty-five percent of fans would now recommend racing to others, and that’s versus 41% in 2011.”

To some degree, these mediocre metrics are self inflicted: the results of resistance to reforms from within the racing industry rather than to uncontrollable macro trends.

The general public views racing poorly for at least three reasons.  First, any gambling-related enterprise raises ethical and moral concerns among a sizable portion of the population.  Second, widely publicized incidents of cheating—such as the 2017 scandal at Penn National–contribute to and reinforce this predilection.  Third, because racing is an “animal-performance” sport and business, it is vulnerable to charges of inhumane treatment.  Mr. Gagliano in his presentation said: “One of the big issues in racing’s public perception continues to be on the matter of animal welfare.  For example, McKinsey found over 50% of casual fans would stop betting if they knew horses were mistreated, and new fans specifically objected to the use of the whip.”

Besides the whip, three other image-shaping humane issues are always in horse racing’s present and future: Real and perceived medication abuse, equine deaths due to breakdowns, and unwanted racehorses dispatched to slaughterhouses.

Given racing’s standing among the public, it should be obvious to individuals with a vested interest in the sport that substantive and ongoing image-enhancing measures are essential.

Yet racing’s penchant for forming circular firing squads, rather than uniting for the common good, is endemic.  The latest example came in a June 2018 Congressional subcommittee hearing over the proposed Horseracing Integrity Act.  In favor of the Act were speakers from The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup and, Humane Society of the United States.  In opposition were representatives from the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and Association of Racing Commissioner’s International.

A member of Congress hearing the testimony would immediately see that American horse racing is a house divided.  Moreover, he or she would not know which side of the argument to believe and would be apt to conclude “If you can’t even agree among yourselves what needs to be done, why should I care?  Especially when there are far weightier matters to the nation to be considered.”

Some influential people and institutions whose livelihood depends on a viable racing industry block reforms that would give the sport’s marketers a strong basis for building a brighter future in an already difficult business environment…and for countering critics with facts.  Benjamin Franklin’s counsel and admonition to his fellow revolutionaries in 1776 is apropos:  “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Absent continuous unified action on key image-related matters, hanging separately is likely what will happen as racing businesses contract or perish along with economic decline of the sport itself.

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