Over forty-eight hours this weekend, Lexington and its iconic race Keeneland track sparkled at the center of the sporting universe. For the first time in its 34-year history, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships ventured to the cradle of the thoroughbred industry; and while the sun wasn’t shining bright, it was a glorious showcase of our Kentucky home.
Lexington spruced and primped and preened, and an international audience learned why this university city offers the perfect balance of growth and culture and quality of life. Keeneland was resplendent in its unique autumn beauty, and more than 50,000 visitors marveled at the singular jewel of America’s equine venues. And with living legend American Pharoah closing his storybook career by capturing the sport’s first Grand Slam — winning the Triple Crown plus the Breeders’ Cup Classic — thoroughbred horse racing appears, finally, to be back on the right track.
It’s been a long, bumpy ride. Once the “sport of kings,” horse racing has suffered a financial free fall: A 2011 McKinsey and Company report demonstrated that over the prior decade, attendance dropped 30 percent, with wagering declining by 37 percent. Less than 25 percent of Americans positively view the sport, while less than half of racing fans report that they would recommend it to others.
For nearly forty years, horse racing wandered through a proverbial desert, praying for a savior — in the form of a Triple Crown champion — to revitalize the sport. In a Biblical twist, deliverance came in the form of a Pharoah (owned, natch, by Orthodox Jews). But with A.P.’s majestic and magical and mystical run complete (he’s off to sire some baby crown princes and princesses), it’s now incumbent on the industry itself to lead the Sport of Pharoah to its Promised Land.
In prior columns in this space, I’ve proposed a series of measures that could help bring the sport back to its rightful place in the American pantheon. Here are a few that seem particularly timely and promising:
Say “No” to Drugs
In recent years, a growing number of horse industry leaders have focused attention on equine welfare. This is not some left-wing, PETA-inspired cause; rather, most of the recent energy behind this movement is less moralism and more capitalism. (sorry, Bernie!). As legendary multi-Kentucky Derby winning breeder Arthur Hancock notes, many in the industry were taken aback by the McKinsey study, which revealed an explicit connection between public concern over animal welfare and declining attendance: “Fans don’t want it; it keeps the big betters from betting…The owners who are paying all of the bills finally realized that we need to do something.”
One essential reform would be to ban non-therapeutic performance-enhancing drugs. As I discussed more thoroughly in this piece several months ago, the abuse of PEDs – most commonly Furosemide (known more commonly as Lasix) – has been blamed for the dramatic rise of fatal injuries to horses and their jockeys. Whether the perceived spike in horse fatalities during the fall Keeneland meet was related to drugs, or the new track, or just bad luck, banning Lasix would be a welcomed, significant step toward protecting animal welfare and restoring public confidence in the sport.
Fortunately, the movement to ban race-day drugs has gained significant momentum in recent months. It’s been led by the industry itself; most prominently, Arthur Hancock’s wife, Staci, and the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance (WHOA): an impressive coalition of breeders, trainers, owners and enthusiasts. WHOA’s primary objective is congressional authorization of an independent, non-profit agency to develop and enforce a top flight anti-doping program to restore racing’s integrity. That Keeneland recently endorsed such a bill — H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, sponsored by Central Kentucky Representative Andy Barr — illustrates the growing support for reform.
Stop the Slaughter
For a new generation of horse enthusiasts concerned about equine welfare, much more poignant and powerful than doping is the horrific treatment accorded to thousands of thoroughbreds upon their retirement. As I discussed in this piece a few months ago, approximately 150,000 U.S. horses are sent every year to foreign slaughterhouses to feed horse-hungry palates overseas.
In recent years, auspiciously, the horse industry has been proactive. Keeneland has joined a growing number of national racetracks that have enacted stringent anti-slaughter policies that impose penalties – including race bans – on people who sell horses to a slaughter house or to an intermediary auction. Moreover, non-profit organizations that adopt and protect unwanted horses – such as Georgetown’s nationally-lauded Old Friends home – provide a dignified retirement to thoroughbreds after their racing careers have concluded.
Voluntary industry action, though, has its limits. Banning horse slaughter, and the practices that facilitate it, requires a change in federal law. This summer, the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, H.R. 1942, was introduced to prohibit the transport of American horses for human consumption. The bill is cleverly promoted as a food safety initiative: Unlike beef, pork and poultry, horses are not raised to be eaten – there’s no FDA oversight to prohibit the use of toxic drugs – so the practice poses severe human health risks. With growing bipartisan support, this might just be an effective vehicle towards real reform of a gruesome reality.
Join Forces to Support Expanded Gaming
While there will always be legitimate moral and public policy objections to expanded gaming, it’s already in the Commonwealth: Thousands of Kentuckians travel every day to casinos in nearly all of our neighboring states. Without the ability to offer a fuller range of betting options, and without access to larger purses funded by gambling, Kentucky’s horse tracks will continue to struggle competitively.
Despite polls showing an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians in support of expanded gaming, the General Assembly has yet to take action. This is one issue, however, that we can’t blame partisan politics: Current inertia is more the consequence of industry infighting on details such as number of licenses, locations, and financial return.
While Governor Steve Beshear has brilliantly steered us through the Great Recession, the imbalanced structural state budget he inherited remains, and our multi-billion dollar pension liabilities have ballooned. Our next Governor has to make identifying new sources of revenue his top priority. For Jack Conway (a horse owner and gaming proponent) or Matt Bevin (an opponent of gambling, but who’s shown great flexibility on any number of policy positions), expanding gaming is a much more viable political option than raising taxes. So it’s urgently critical that the industry resolves its thirty-year-old bickering, form a united front, and get expanded gaming back on the fast track.
Modernize the Racing Experience
Kentuckians have been spoiled by Keeneland, whose spectacular settings and luxurious environs are simply unique. Elsewhere, racetracks battle the prevailing stereotype: seedy, downscale venues for older male compulsive gamblers. While the reality is not that bleak, the sport’s reputation is a key reason why younger generations of Americans aren’t flocking to bet on horses with their limited discretionary cash.
Joe Costa, the visionary CEO of Lexington’s Red Mile harness race track, shares an exciting and innovative outlook of the future of horse racing: interactive social media and gaming opportunities that link venues around the world, high-definition video stations across the track, and new technological capabilities that instruct novices on how to fully appreciate and succeed in the handicapping process. It’s this type of approach that could attract Millennials who’ve grown up with video games and smart phones.
Of course, this vision requires a dramatic capital infusion. But while Costa has brought considerable energy to his track through his new instant racing pavilion, his full vision can only be realized through full expansion. Policymakers should be on notice: Improving the product must be part of the deal. If the industry simply lines its pockets with casino and racino proceeds, then it will have all been a wasted effort.