Thursday, July 5, 2012

Racing Begins to Become More Open

A couple of years ago Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, had some baggage issues on United Airlines. It seems his guitar (he was on his way to a gig) was broken by baggage handlers. After trying continually with customer service to get some sort of resolution to no avail, he wrote a song about it and it became a national sensation on youtube, receiving millions of hits. In this day and age, companies or organizations can no longer hide, or be unwilling to be transparent.

The horse racing game has always been one that is guided by the mantra of 'it's my business and no one else's' when it comes to horses. The claiming game, where it is better to hide a problem than publicize it - almost to the point that you are looked at as "sharp" if you can put one over on someone - might be the best example.

Last year, Derby favorite Uncle Mo threw in a clunker in the Wood Memorial, and the social media world was abuzz. Did he have an ankle issue? What was wrong with him? The connections, to probably put it kindly, were vague. Full disclosure was not there, and the questions remained.

You’ve got fans waiting to bet into a $100 million dollar plus betting pool, and we give them “vague”. A lot of fans found it unacceptable.

Not long-after, and so far in 2012, we’ve seen a change in racing, however. People are becoming more open and honest in their dealings with the public. In a way, harness racing has shown the thoroughbreds the way it’s done. And we aren’t talking about nickel and dime claimers, it’s happening at the top end of the sport, with millions in horseflesh.

Last year, St. Elmo Hero was going for 26 straight and there were stories filtering about the streak in both the racing and non-racing press. He lost going for number 27, but driver Jody Jamieson reported a shoeing issue on twitter, right away. Why did he lose that race? We knew the story, and you didn’t even have to ask. The media picked up the story and ran with it.

Later on last year, supertar undefeated pacer See You At Peelers was garnering much attention both inside and outside the sport, too. When she threw in a very poor race at The Meadows, social media was asking all the right questions. “What was wrong with her to come home like a 15 claimer, even off those fractions?”

There was something wrong with her, and instead of saying “it’s my horse, none of your business”, trainer Jim Takter explained to the press what the vets found, what the treatment would be, and that she should be fine. The fact that she wasn’t fine made the story more open and believable. Fans got to ride the train of up’s and down’s with the connections, while he tried to work her through her heart issues. It humanized the horse and her connections.

If we go on twitter, or watch paddock interviews, we see more and more of it. It’s not your grandfather’s racing.

Most recently Havre De Grace, the Horse of the Year in 2011, was retired due to an ankle injury. When it was reported by the connections (and filtered out in a nano-second on Facebook and Twitter), not only were details given, they even uploaded the Rood and Riddle vet reports to their website, for all to see.

How’s that for a response?

This is not only good for us as an industry with governments and the general public, as we get bombarded by New York Times injury and euthanasia stories. It’s good for our customers.

I wonder if we can take it even further.

The grumbling we see in grandstands when a 3-5 shot races terrible, or a 1-5 shot is “prepped” is palpable. I think we all agree it should be eliminated. However, many times it is not the trainer’s fault; it’s often times the horse him or herself. If you are not in the right place at the right time – like following Jody Jamieson on twitter – you are in the dark to grumble to yourself.

Bill Nadar in Hong Kong, where transparency rules, said this to Ray Paulick at the Paulick Report:

“Customer experience is the one thing that nearly every industry must respect and horse racing is no exception. Reporting veterinary findings, whether on an odds-on favorite that has run poorly or any horse whether it be in a Class 5 or a Group 1, is good customer service. If a horse bleeds or suffers from a heart irregularity, we will announce it over our public-address system within an hour after the race. We strive to present the best racing and betting product in the world and, by doing so, we are meeting customer expectations. The fundamentals required to do this are quality racing, big betting pools that offer high liquidity, competitive racing with regard to runners per race (12.5) and integrity. Through greater transparency, we only take integrity to a higher level.”

What if we walk through that transparency door here in North America?

If a horse comes off a poor effort, how hard is it to have that horse on a list, and as a condition to entry the trainer has to submit a reason for the poor effort? We then document that right in the running-line, or in the program, just like Hong Kong does. It’s 2012 and we can store the Library of Congress on an e-reader. It isn’t rocket science is it?

Further, in harness racing, if a 2-5 shot is prepping in a race, we should know it. If the driver does take the horse to the back, it should be explained why, and documented. This alone may (at the very least) make the connections wary of doing it. There’s a bettors paycheck on the line in some cases, and if someone is disrespecting that and not taking it seriously, it should be public. If the connections do it too many times, they should be fined and told to qualify the horse so it is ready, and stop fooling around with the public’s money.

And of course, we report all of the above on websites, Facebook and on Twitter.

The past 12 to 24 months has changed the way we communicate in horse racing. So far many of our horsepeople have embraced it. With a little push we can do better, and if we do, we’ll have a better sport.

This article is reprinted with permission from Harness Racing Update.

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