And They’re Off! How to Handle Scandal and Come out a Winner in the Horse-Racing Sector
Published on October 18, 2021, at 12:48 p.m.
by Amelia McGowan.
It’s no secret that the sports industry maintains a high level of diversity when it comes to the variety of organizations associated with the industry. Due to this increased variety, more complex and flexible communication strategies are required to handle crisis situations and mitigate scandals.
Never is this more vital than in horse racing. While football, basketball and baseball are the primary sports associated with sports communication, horse racing is a unique sports sector that only continues to grow in popularity. However, several of the sport’s key characteristics that make it so popular also breed potential for scandal and bad publicity — leaving a lasting impact on the integrity of the sport and the industry itself.
Patrick McKenna, senior director of communications and media relations for the New York Racing Association, emphasized the importance of getting out in front of a negative story before it escalates to something more. “You’re helping to shape the narrative of a story, no matter how critical or challenging the issue might be,” he said.
Horse racing is no stranger to scandalous situations. In July of 2021, Bloomberg Businessweek published a story titled “The ‘Juice Man’ and the Drug Scandal That Rocked Horse Racing,” exposing the latest drug abuse scandal that led to 29 indictments in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. The increased use of performance-enhancing drugs among racehorses is one of the many crises that has affected the industry.
In 2014, trainer Steve Asmussen and his assistant, Scott Blasi, underwent an investigation led by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other racing officials into allegations that both men used electrical shocks on their horses and supplemented nontherapeutic drugs to the same animals. As a result of this scandal, Blasi was removed from his assistant position.
The Asmussen/Blasi incident shed light on the less-than-ethical practices that have been used across the industry. In a New York Times article titled “A Sport’s Beauty Clashes With the Stain of a Scandal,” defenders of Asmussen claimed that everything he did was within the scope of industry practices. Terry Finley, managing partner of West Point Thoroughbreds, told the New York Times, “Anyone in our business who doesn’t tell you they are conflicted isn’t telling the truth.”
Crisis communication within the horse-racing sector can be a complicated challenge to tackle. However, it’s not so different from handling scandals in any other capacity. “The specific issues may be different when it comes to our sport, but the fundamentals remain the same,” said McKenna. “Approach [the crisis] head on, gather as many facts as possible, and identify the people within your company who you need to be talking to.”
Tina Bond, 2nd vice president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, managing partner of Bond Racing Stables, and co-owner of Song Hill Thoroughbreds LLC, further emphasized the importance of transparent communication within the horse-racing sport to stop crises before they happen. “I don’t think we get out in front of these issues the way we should,” she said. “There’s been a number of scandals in the past that should not be tolerated. … It taints the whole industry. We can always do better.”
Bond and her team at NYTHA have worked to better the health of racehorses through several initiatives, including stricter health guidelines, increased veterinary inspections before competition and even proactive retirement plans to reduce the risk of breakdown among the horses. NYTHA’s aftercare program, Take the Lead, has helped over 800 horses retire safely and sustainably. The program arranges vet exams, finds a suitable retirement placement, pays the transportation costs and provides financial compensation to offset the retiring costs.
NYTHA has also partnered with the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. to implement the Take2 program to help retired racehorses find a second lease on life as hunters and jumpers. Since its initiation in 2012, Take2 has helped over 2,000 thoroughbreds enroll in classes and competitions. In 2019, the program introduced the first Take2 Hunter and Jumper Finals with a cash prize of $20,000.
While the horse-racing sector has faced its challenges, it has stood its ground as one of the top sports in America and continues to bring fans together. “The future is really bright for a sport that is so historic and so intertwined with our collective history,” Mckenna said. Bond also reiterated the brighter aspects of the sport. “It’s a wonderful industry, the horses are wonderful animals, and I hope that we can continue that momentum and bring a lot of new, young fans to the sport,” she said.