“This story is not going away.”
The Jockey Club Round Table, 2019
Back in August, I sat in the Gideon Putnam hotel meeting room in Saratoga Springs, New York, and listened to a number of fascinating speakers at The Jockey Club’s annual Round Table Conference.
Of the several takeaways from the speaker lineup, one resonated above all others.
It was David Fuscus discussing the out-of-the-blue national media saturation of the daily death toll at the winter/spring Santa Anita Park race meet, which concluded in June with 30 horse deaths. Clearly, there had been a shift of public consciousness on all things horse racing. People who never gave horse racing a thought, never were exposed to the sport in any way, learned an unpalatable truth — horses die on the track.
David Fuscus is the president and chief executive officer of Xenophon Strategies, a crisis communications firm. His presentation at the Round Table was titled, “Lessons in Crisis Management and What the Thoroughbred Industry Must do Better.”
Here is an excerpt:
“By disposition and profession, I'm the calm one in the room. I am the most anti-alarmist person you will ever meet in your life. With that being said, this story is not going away. We can't wait it out. We can't muddy the waters. This is the most critical time American horse racing has ever experienced. And without better unity and action this sport will be diminished or in places it will cease to exist.”
Opening weekend at Santa Anita
Santa Anita Park opened its fall race meet this past weekend. On day two, Saturday, September 28, 2019, another catastrophic breakdown occurred. The following day, The New York Times, in an article titled, “On Opening Weekend, Another Horse Dies at Santa Anita,” reported this:
“On Saturday, however, a 3-year-old colt named Emtech collapsed in the stretch with both his front legs broken and had to be euthanized, which, if history is any indication, will most likely renew doubts about the industry’s will to reform and lead to calls for the sport to be closed altogether.”
Below are a half dozen news accounts that popped up after googling “Santa Anita deaths.” There were more, of course, but I chose just three of the most prominent national reports as well as the same number of local reports.
“Santa Anita Park has first horse death of fall meet, 32nd since last December” - CNN
“32nd horse dies at Southern California racetrack in less than a year” - Fox News
“32nd horse dies at Santa Anita after catastrophic injury” - ABC News
“Another horse dies at Santa Anita, this time on the track” - L.A. Times
“Another Horse Euthanized After Breaking Legs at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia” - KTLA 5
“32nd Horse Dies At Santa Anita Since Last December” – NBC Los Angeles
Despite best efforts
By all accounts, everyone associated with Santa Anita’s race meet is doing everything in his or her power to lower the rate of horses dying on the track. Track officials, regulators, and horsemen have collectively undertaken unprecedented measures in this regard. Despite doing all they can conceivably do at this time, they cannot avoid the unavoidable. Some horses will continue to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, and the press will relentlessly report those deaths to the public as they occur.
Has the national uproar taken its toll on business at the track?
Del Mar recently concluded its 36-day summer race meet without a single racing fatality. Yet, attendance was down 13.8%.
Santa Anita’s opening last week saw a steep slide in on-track attendance. Figures taken from Equibase result charts show the following:
2018 2019 %
Friday 4,515 5,188 14.9%
Saturday 16,801 11,997 (28.6%)
Sunday 9,693 6,436 (33.6%)
Totals 31,009 23,623 (23.8%)
A 23.8% decline in on-track business is devastating. Granted this is only one weekend and may not be indicative of the race meet moving forward. One must remember, however, that the track’s fan base is located in the epicenter of this media storm. The saturation of local television, print, and social media is something that the rest of the country has not experienced. It is hard for us to fathom how bad it really is in Southern California.
With more horse deaths around the corner, even at a reduced rate, it is not unimaginable to foresee this cloud never lifting. Or, as Mr. Fuscus said, “This story is not going away.”
No one knows. This year has been so unpredictable that it is difficult to see the future trajectory among infinite possibilities.
So, for now, let’s keep our Ouija boards, crystal balls, and oracle decks in the closet.
Let’s do something constructive.
I’ve said in this space before that my mantra for the racing industry this year is “If you are not doing everything you can, you are not doing enough.”
So, are we doing everything we can?
Well, are we?