Monday, July 16, 2012

Combating the Sport's Growing Black Eye

In a sport that should be known for the majestic animals that step onto the track every day, it's better known for the small group of people that bring more attention to the track due to drugs and other newsworthy infractions.

From the last two almost- Triple Crown winning trainers shady pasts to a prominent racing family in Texas recently sending a group of broodmares to an auction known for its attraction to kill buyers, it's little surprise that the general public does not have a good image of the sport.

However, unlike previous attacks on the sport that went pretty much ignored, the sport is finally starting to realize that action is needed to combat the growing black eye.

Last week, the New York Times posted yet another article attacking racing. Earlier this year, the newspaper had a series based around breakdowns of racehorses and they were again on the attack with an article questioning I'll Have Another's soundness between the Preakness and Belmont.

The article by Joe Drape was another in the main stream media's apparent war on the sport but it attracted more attention from the racing industry when the vet reports of the horse were misconstrued as more than routine care for a racehorse. Not only was Drape having to defend himself on Twitter against those questioning his motive, industry publications also took a stance against his article. 

The industry took an even bigger stance when Dr. Bramlage's interview with NBC Nightly News about the piece was edited to what the veterinarian called "misleading". The Daily Racing Form joined the war at this point, bringing Bramlage's side of the story into a clearer light than the television show.

While the current issue has died down in the past few days with both sides moving on to other stories, it brings up a good question. Where was this sort of explanation over the years every time racing was questioned?

Sure, there are horrible stories out there that can't be hidden from view to keep racing in a better light. But with advances in public relations and marketing strategies, the damage that comes from the bad publicity can be taken down a few notches. 

In an industry that is known as the "Sport of Kings", many of those providing the money do know how important good publicity is. Many owners, executives, and even trainers have backgrounds or some sort of familiarity with not only combating bad press but getting good stories out there as well.

So why can't they translate that knowledge over to racing?

Whether people want to acknowledge it or not, the sport needs more fans. Unfortunately, that is not going to be an easy task when Americans have many other sports to watch higher on their list that are more accessible and even relatable. Talking about all the things that could be changed to make racing more fan-friendly would take more than just one blog post but talking about a better public relations standpoint is a start.

Battling the New York Times and other mainstream media and trying to educate the public about why their information is not correct is a small step in the right direction (even though it may not be the easiest way to win the war). But their stories should also be countered by good news as well.

For example, every year during the Kentucky Derby, we have a feel good story. This year it was Union Rags and his owner, a lady that sold the horse just to buy him back a year later because she loved him so much. However, the real feel good story went throughout the Triple Crown and was barely talked about.

At the Kentucky Derby, a Make-A-Wish girl got to not only go to the race, she was also allowed to ride the great California stakes-winner-turned-pony-horse Lava Man. But the story didn’t end there. The girl was then sent to both the Preakness and the Belmont due to the generosity of multiple people in the industry. However, this was barely talked about outside of a few racing media stories.

It is stories like this that need to be told all year and in the mainstream media. Yes, racing gets a lot of mainstream press during the Triple Crown season and taking advantage of that doesn't hurt at all.

But the sport needs to find a way to keep that momentum up through the rest of the year. There are many ways this can be accomplished (once again another blog post) but one way is to get stories out there that people want to hear.

Many different angles can be taken to keep stories fresh and fans engaged while also catching the attention of the mainstream media. For example, this year there were many thoroughbreds working towards an Olympic spot. While this was talked about a little bit by the disciplines mainly affected, it also needed to be pushed by racing.

One such Olympic hopeful was an Australian Thoroughbred gelding ridden by Boyd Martin. He has a big story behind him, including an unsuccessful track career and almost dying in a fire last year before making a miracle recovery and being named to the U.S. Olympic Team’s Eventing Short List.

Sure, he was an Australian race horse but the key words here are that he was a race horse at one point.

Feel good stories such as the Make-A-Wish Triple Crown story, ex racehorses trying to make it on the world's biggest stages, and even building a fan base behind horses (Gio Ponti, Get Stormy, and Zenyatta are only a few that would have been great for this over the past few years) can make this sport grow again. Another plus to this is that it helps to counter the idea that racing is a corrupt sport.

Taking one step towards helping the sport grow is only a matter of stepping up to the plate and taking an offensive stance instead of always playing defense. But it is something the entire sport needs to do if they want to survive.
If there was ever a situation where the sport needed to come together for the good of the sport, this would be it. Now it's time to see who takes the lead in this new venture.

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