Hope, Frustration, And A Love Of The Horse: Next Generation Of Racing's Leaders Look To The Future - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Hope, Frustration, And A Love Of The Horse: Next Generation Of Racing’s Leaders Look To The Future

No matter how sunny your outlook, it's fair to say that for many people, it's a rough time to be a racing fan. From the spike in breakdowns at Santa Anita several years ago to the federal doping case to the protracted legal battle over Medina Spirit's Derby DQ, racing has been making mainstream headlines quite a bit in recent years, and not for especially good reasons. We at Paulick Report seem to get an increasing number of notes from racing fans who say it's getting tougher and tougher to keep following the sport. So, we wondered, what's it like to be someone who has chosen to make their profession in an industry so often at the center of controversy?

Today, we're launching a new series asking the next generation of leaders in horse racing to tell us how they really feel about the direction of the sport and the industry.

Initially, we had planned to run selected questions and answers from each subject. As the interview process progressed, we received such a wide variety of thoughtful responses that we ultimately chose to run each interview in its entirety so readers would have as complete a view as possible of how this cross-section is thinking about the industry's future.

At the outset, we made the editorial decision not to identify subjects by name – to our readers or to other interview subjects. This decision was the result of many discussions through the years with young people who expressed serious and what they believed were unpopular criticisms of racing leadership, but who worried that their words could be used against them by employers. Subjects were solicited with this promise of anonymity because we believed it would (and has) resulted in the most honest answers from those who have reservations about their futures. All subjects' identities are known to the series editor.

Look for a new round of interviews each day this week in The Paddock section, which is where we publish editorials and reader letters.

36, Broadcasting

-What made you pursue a career in racing?

My interest in broadcasting is motivated by a passion for telling stories. Sports is full of rich stories, and of all sports, horse racing may very well be the richest.

-Have your feelings about your choice changed over time and if so, what prompted that change?

My feelings about my choice have not changed over time because I believe racing is truly special at its roots. However, I don't think those special elements are being brought out because of the way the sport is run and marketed by those that make decisions.

-Do you feel any kind of ceiling to your career due to age/race/gender/lack of family in the business (and if so, where does that idea come from)?

Yes. Horse racing media, and the entire horse racing industry for that matter, tends to be dominated by those with legacy. However, given the history that the most influential sports executives like Pete Rozelle, David Stern, and Gary Bettman did not have their roots in the sport they ultimately oversaw, horse racing would benefit from some outside perspectives. I'd love to get the chance but am not sure it will ever come on the level that I wish.

-How do you feel about the direction of the industry long-term?

Horse racing has all the pieces to be a valuable part of sports, entertainment, and culture in the United States. However, I believe horse racing suffers from its decision makers not knowing how to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Or worse, the decision makers insist that they will be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together because they've done puzzles before. Or worse still, the decision makers force the pieces to fit together and insist that's how the puzzle is supposed to look. If the industry takes accountability for its successes and shortcomings, it will continue to be viable. If it maintains its egotistical status quo, it will be relegated to obscurity.

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-What do you think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is right now?

Horse racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is decision makers' saying they want the sport to evolve but not actually implementing effective change because of: 1) fearing change, 2) not wanting to police those that harm the sport, and 3) being too stuck on traditions that aren't actually in the best interest of the sport's growth. An example of 1) is the resistance to outside, independent oversight, such as from USADA. An example of 2) is that state racing commissions back off of penalties that would deter behavior that harms horses. An example of 3) is the promotion of the Triple Crown series that features the same storyline templates year after year, and horse racing can no longer sustain that promotion because the horses that run in the Triple Crown are essentially unknowns given how young they are and few prep races they have and how many retire shortly thereafter.

-What about its greatest potential asset?

Horse racing's greatest potential asset in the United States that I believe should be valued and celebrated more are the fair tracks. These races are part of the cultural fabric of where they take place, and there's a passion shared by the racing officials, horse people, and fans. Horse racing needs to get over its elitism that the only important races could possibly take place at tracks on the bigger circuits. This is not the case, for example, in the United Arab Emirates, where racing is embraced across a range of tracks and quality of races by essentially all involved in the industry there.

-Do you think you'll still be working in racing in 20 years' time (and if not do you have a fall-back plan)?

Unfortunately, I feel like that question is out of my hands. I have some great ideas that could make the sport more on par with other sports in the United States but feel like I don't get the opportunity because I'm not part of the old boys' legacy.

31, Bloodstock agent and farm manager

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

I (like so many kids) always loved horses. I grew up in an area pretty removed from horses/ equestrian activities, and racing was the easiest thing to follow. I would watch the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup races, and read anything I could about horses. I started working with OTTBs first and fell in love with them and moved to Kentucky and dove headfirst into the industry.

-Have your feelings about your choice changed over time and if so, what prompted that change? 

Nothing has changed my love for Thoroughbreds and racing. From foals playing in the field to seeing them at the track, to their careers after, I love to watch the whole process play out, and to see horses you were involved in do what they were born to do and succeed at the track is an unmatched feeling. However, with increasing frequency, I question how sustainable the entirety of the industry is. On a day to day basis, I don't question what I do. But I question whether or not this is an industry that is able to survive and thrive, and whether my voice and impact is enough to have a necessary positive benefit.

-Do you feel any kind of ceiling to your career due to age/race/gender/lack of family in the business (and if so, where does that idea come from)? 

I think that there are positions that definitely seem unattainable due to those factors. Looking at the prevalence of nepotism and lack of diversity on the various boards and industry organizations of influence and power, it's hard to imagine that I will end up on them, without change. 

Regarding a ceiling to my specific career choices, I don't think there is any based on those factors. At the end of the day, breeding a good horse still gets you a good horse and success will still lead to more opportunities/ success. That being said, the opportunities that someone coming from outside the industry/females are afforded are very different from those offered to others. 

In this industry, I have been told that the boss's kid will be promoted ahead of me, regardless of the job I do or the length of time I have been there. I have also had my commitment to potential positions questioned in interviews, simply because I am a female of an age that is assumed I will want to have children soon. While those things don't put a ceiling on what I can ultimately accomplish, they are examples of the very different ladder some are climbing (as opposed to the elevator others are given).

-How do you feel about the direction of the industry long-term? 

I have significant concerns about the direction of the industry. I think the industry consistently appears to believe meetings and conversations behind closed doors are sufficient responses to serious issues. Without industry-wide reform and change, I think racing will continue to shrink.

-What do you think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is right now? 

This answer feels like a cop out, but I think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is a lack of a national commission. Nearly every major issue racing is dealing with would be solved or more easily dealt with by having a national commission. It's not just about drug reform and uniformity. We need greater accountability, better public relations and outreach, improved safety, and a more collaborative attitude from all industry participants (tracks, auction companies, registry, breeders, etc) to work towards the collective good of the industry.

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

Our greatest potential asset is our “product.” Racing elicits passionate opposition for the same reason it inspires so many of us to work long hours, in difficult (often thankless) jobs – because people love horses. With better public relations and safety, this industry would be able to get people to set their concerns aside and simply enjoy the majesty of the Thoroughbred racehorse. To be around them is to love them, to see foals racing in the field is to understand we aren't forcing them to do anything, and to see most track employees with their charges is to know they are loved and respected. There is a gap between the industry and the public, and we don't need to change our “product” to bridge it, we just need to allow the horses to work their magic without us spoiling it.

-Do you think you'll still be working in racing in 20 years' time (and if not do you have a fallback plan)? 

I truly don't know. My intention is to work in racing for the rest of my life. If the Thoroughbred industry fails, or shrinks to the point it is not sustainable for most (which I see as more likely, similar to how boxing popularity shrank to a sporadic novelty of a big night) I want to know that I did everything in my power to prevent that. Which may mean staying on a sinking ship longer than I should. I do not have a specific fallback plan, other than a confidence that if I apply the same level of work I have invested in this industry into another one, I will land on my feet.

-44, Horsemen's relations

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

My final semester of undergrad I had zero job prospects. I had read about the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program and requested the info packet by mail. When I read that nearly everybody who completed the program had a job waiting for them on the other side, that just blew my mind. I could spend who knows how many years struggling to figure out how to even get a full-time job with my obscure bachelor's degree, or I could spend three semesters in Tucson and then waltz right into a sport that promised to be fun and glamorous and interesting. And that's pretty much exactly what happened. If it weren't for those RTIP ads in the Daily Racing Form it never would have occurred to me that I might find a place in such an endlessly fascinating world.  

-Have your feelings about your choice changed over time and if so, what prompted that change? 

It's easy to look at the state of the sport (why must we always call it “the industry” when what we love is the sport?) and have regrets about my chosen career. But then I remember that most folks I meet outside of racing have really boring jobs. Maybe I could have progressed farther or made more money in some other profession but I never would have met as many crazy-ass people or had as many mind-blowing experiences.

Twice now I have left horse racing to see what else might be out there. Initially it feels great to go work in some other realm where people are almost guaranteed to be more professional and competent. But after you've worked at a racetrack, careers in the “real world” are just painfully boring. Who wants to sit in a staff meeting in a windowless conference room (or, even worse, on Zoom) when your mornings used to be standing by the gap watching horses, drinking coffee, and shooting the shit with racetrackers? You can't put a price on that. I'm convinced I'm going to live a few years longer just for all the time I've spent around horses instead of in soulless office buildings. 

-Do you feel any kind of ceiling to your career due to age/race/gender/lack of family in the business (and if so, where does that idea come from)?

I may have hit the ceiling to my career but that's entirely my own fault! Racing has so many entry points and career paths I do believe there are ways for anyone to advance if they're persistent and flexible. The notion that success in racing is only for old people who won't move on or young people with certain last names is kind of tired. If you go get a law degree or a business degree, you can be a true leader in this sport in no time at all and it doesn't matter what your background is. We don't have nearly enough people with those sorts of credentials. If you're a veterinarian who actually wants to work on the racetrack, you're needed so desperately you could practically pick your circuit. If you have any interest in being a track superintendent, there is no next generation coming up and there are jobs waiting for you right this moment.

And, of course, racing has all kinds of high-profile jobs where people truly prove themselves only on performance. If you can pick a future champion out of the sale like Liz Crow or lead the standings at important meets like Ron Faucheux or Evin Roman, nobody's going to care how old you are or where you come from.

Sure, I get that not all of us have an equal shot at being president of Keeneland or a member of The Jockey Club, but really, who cares? I was never going to end up at that level in any other profession either! There are still a lot of ways to establish influential, well-paying, rewarding careers in this business.

-How do you feel about the direction of the industry long-term? 

A few years ago I found myself in Spain and went to a bullfight in Madrid. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into but it seemed like a good idea as long as I was there. The bullring had a decent crowd, but it was almost entirely made up of either old men or tourists. The sport itself was more gruesome than I realized. Somehow I hadn't realized that they still kill the bull! I just assumed that it would be more humane by now but, nope, the bull gets all cut up and just drops dead right in front of you. I was horrified and left early once I understood there were still a lot more bull murders to come. It was very enlightening, though, when it dawned on me that I was looking at the future of horse racing. The beauty, the athleticism, the tradition, the pageantry…none of it can overcome the very obvious fact that modern audiences do not want to see animals die. If we don't get our act together racing in the U.S. will soon be run for nothing but tourists and old men in a handful of holdouts like Kentucky, Arkansas, and upstate New York, the same way that Spanish bullfighting has been reduced to little more than a novelty in Madrid and Seville.

-What do you think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is right now? 

It's either cheating trainers or the inability of regulators to catch and appropriately punish them. That's a chicken or egg thing, I suppose.

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

Our number one asset is always going to be the horses and I'm sorry but any other answer is bullshit. Without the horses, the gambling is no better than going to a casino. Without the horses, the racetrack is just a pretty park to hang out in. Without the horses, the big events are just overpriced parties. The only piece of the puzzle that truly makes our sport different and special remains the horses. I will never understand why we don't require every single one of them to be impeccably cared for and respected at every stage of life. It's a massive stain on our industry and will be our downfall that we can't demonstrate that we care about the horses above maximizing profits and egos.

-Do you think you'll still be working in racing in 20 years' time (and if not do you have a fall-back plan)?

I hope so, but I fear that contraction will eventually catch up with me. I have seen so many talented people lose their jobs due to tracks closing or farms ceasing breeding. Some of them find other spots in racing but many of them never come back. I'm hopeful that maybe the legal bookmakers can inject some new life into the business. In 20 years, they will be the ones calling the shots and charting the course of our sport, not the racetrack owners or industry organizations. We will lose some of the traditions and quirks that make racing different, but hopefully in exchange, we will gain our long-term viability. I expect some of the tracks and entities I've worked for won't exist in 20 years but I'll still be around doing something connected to racing because, well, what the hell else would I do? 

26, Communications

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

From the very beginning, I was captured by the passion of the people for the horses, the unique stories and backgrounds of the backstretch community, and the rich history of the sport.

-Have your feelings about your choice changed over time and if so, what prompted that change? 

I love the Thoroughbred industry, and I have very strong convictions about sticking with it and being a conduit for positive change. However, I have become very conscious about the treatment of backstretch and farm employees. Even if you have the utmost passion for your work, it is unsustainable and unhealthy to believe that you can work six days per week and still have time to go to the doctor, care for your mental health, visit a dentist, buy groceries, clean your house and do laundry – much less care for a family or pets. 

Additionally, I frequently hear culturally insensitive comments about immigrant labor in the industry, and this deeply bothers me. There is a lack of understanding and respect for the conditions and lifestyles that many of these people came from, and little effort to bridge language barriers. I had a Hispanic friend tell me that it bothers them when people say “Finito” in an attempt to say “finished” in Spanish. Finito actually means finished in Italian, but in Spanish it means limited or finite. 

-Do you feel any kind of ceiling to your career due to age/race/gender/lack of family in the business (and if so, where does that idea come from)?

I don't feel a ceiling to my career, but I would prefer to see more diversity at the top. I believe that it's easier to envision yourself advancing and becoming a leader when you see people like yourself. 

-How do you feel about the direction of the industry long-term? 

I feel positive about the industry long-term. I personally don't think it's a bad thing for the industry to contract and shrink. I would rather see fewer racetracks with large field sizes than a multitude of tracks with small fields. Additionally, I feel good about our recognition that we need a uniform set of rules and regulations, and I understand that this could be a long, drawn out process to reach the point of having more uniformity. 

One thing that makes me feel very discouraged is scrolling through “Horse Racing Twitter” and seeing so many people who are involved in the industry perpetuating negativity and ripping it to shreds. Calling out negativity on social media doesn't do anything to fix it. I think that more people could and should be taking actionable steps towards making a positive difference in the long-term. This could come in the form of volunteering at an aftercare facility, joining a board, learning how to advocate for the industry in government or donating to an organization that advocates, and simply being educated. There is just as much positive as negative that comes from the Thoroughbred industry. There are organizations that bring people closer to horses – people who might never have had the chance to touch a horse – and initiatives that help boost educational attainment. 

-What do you think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is right now? 

Lack of uniformity and transparency when it comes to testing, rules and regulations across states.

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

With increasing urbanization, fewer people are having direct contact with agriculture and animals. I think that racetracks have amazing potential to bring people into contact with horses. Every racetrack should have an off-the-track-Thoroughbred that people can pet and learn more about, and a booth that showcases opportunities in the Thoroughbred industry with pamphlets about educational and training programs and aftercare initiatives, along with a spokesperson to answer questions. I have found that many newcomers visiting racetracks get bored because they don't understand what is going on. 

-Do you think you'll still be working in racing in 20 years' time (and if not do you have a fall-back plan)?

Yes, I do believe that I will be working in racing in 20 years' time. That being said, I think that people should always have a backup plan, regardless of the industry they work in. 

26, Backstretch

What made you pursue a career in racing?

I've loved horses and racing since I was a small child. I think I knew from the time I was very young that I wanted a career in horses, but figured that would be in the show industry. But after my first trip to Kentucky in the fifth grade, I was sold. I made up my mind and basically never looked back.

Have your feelings about your choice changed over time and if so, what prompted that change?

Unfortunately, I have watched my livelihood in racing crumble. While I could certainly stay in the industry, it is no longer serving me —  or serving itself for that matter. I've defended racing as long as I can remember, but I'd say my thoughts of leaving really began in 2019 as Santa Anita was plagued by fatal breakdowns. Defending the sport became more difficult and it's only gone downhill since then, especially with the Servis/Navarro FBI indictment and the disaster that has been Bob Baffert. Add on being exploited as an industry employee (most notably, excessive hours and a large workload for minimal pay), and I've chosen to remove myself from a sinking ship that has taken a massive toll on my mental health and my personal life.

Do you feel any kind of ceiling to your career due to age/race/gender/lack of family in the business (and if so, where does that idea come from)?

While it has certainly been discouraging to see people born into the industry — especially those with important last names — gain opportunities over top candidates, I'd say being female has been one of the biggest limitations in my career in racing. I do feel a bit less respected, but what has truly bothered me is knowing that on many occasions, my male equals were given higher salaries.

How do you feel about the direction of the industry long–term?

I like to hope that if the industry ever commits to changing for the better — which will entail a wide variety of change, from stricter punishments to more transparency to better treatment of employees and everything in between — it will become the industry I've always dreamed it could be. But I've thought that for as long as I can remember, and only minimal change has actually happened. In fact, racing has shot itself in the foot so many times over the last few years due to this lack of change, and failed to resolve many of these issues, therefore only deepening the wounds.

Beyond that, the higher-ups — the ones who have the power to actually enact such changes — seem to be all talk, no action. How can we make any progress in such an environment? Since entering the industry, I've been told my generation is the one that racing needs. The generation that will keep racing alive, that will bring about the change the industry needs. But how can that be true, when I feel like my voice is barely heard? Or if, even when it is heard, it's written off? Industry stalwarts have praised me for how outspoken I've been about the change the industry needs, and in turn, I reached out to them in hopes they can help me execute that change. You can guess where this is going. Nothing happened. I just kept screaming into the void.

What do you think racing's single biggest Achilles' heel is right now?

I do think it's the industry's resistance to actual change. For me, that's what has made me lose so much hope in the industry and ultimately pushed my career in an opposite direction. It has come to a point that it's difficult to get excited when various people and groups in the industry try to initiate change, because those attempts never gain traction. We talk about a governing body, about becoming a league, about having a PR arm to get out in front of issues, but until an industry-wide effort is made to enact actual change rather than just discuss change, I think the industry will remain a sinking ship.

What about its greatest potential asset?

I absolutely think racing's greatest potential asset would be young people who want to improve the industry. That's why it's such a shame that we're treated the way we are. Time and time again, our voices don't matter. On top of that, we are expected to work excessive hours for minimal pay all in search of our “dream job” when, in reality, we are being exploited. It's difficult to hold onto the hope of making a change in the industry you love when that industry has only presented you with false hope and disenchantment.

Do you think you'll still be working in racing in 20 years' time (and if not do you have a fallback plan)?

After years of feeling this way about the industry as a whole, my hope in racing being a sustainable career has dwindled. Along the way, I have been exploited as an employee. In nearly every role I've had in racing, I've been paid very low wages, forced to work excessive hours, been expected to be on call 24/7, and been looked down upon for needing rest. For a long time, my passion made all of those aspects of working in the industry worth it. But their effects on my personal life and my mental health only became more apparent. 

As a result, along with instances in my personal life that my career in racing had affected, I very recently left my job in racing. Perhaps all along I knew this was possible, as I intentionally obtained a degree completely unrelated to horses so that I'd have it to turn to if I ever needed to leave racing. Sure enough, that day has come. Thankfully, I've also incorporated my degree into my work experiences in racing, so I am set up to pursue work in that field, separate from horses.

It has been its own form of heartbreak to decide to leave the industry that has been my dream since I was a small child, but the industry has been breaking my heart for years now. I will always love the sport, its horses, and many of its people, but I felt this was the right decision for myself.

Read Part 2 in this series here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

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