Making Claims: Let's Talk About That CNN Interview With Dr. Mick Peterson - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Making Claims: Let’s Talk About That CNN Interview With Dr. Mick Peterson

In “Making Claims,” Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills shares his opinions on the Thoroughbred industry from the breeding and sales arenas to the racing world and beyond.

National coverage outside of the three Triple Crown weekends has been coveted by horse racing for as long as I've been following the sport, but what we've seen over the past weekend is likely not what anyone had in mind.

Mainstream attention to equine safety at Churchill Downs ramped up in intensity in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and once that crack in the armor was established at one of the sport's flagship tracks, every ensuing death became an easy story for a variety of outlets to write. As the number went up, so too did the public pressure to act upon the situation.

If and when Churchill Downs Inc. decided to do something significant with its ongoing meet, it was going to be national news, and that's exactly what happened last Friday when the company moved the remainder of its spring meet in Louisville to Ellis Park.

In the long-term, the move to sleepier Henderson, Ky., far-flung from the spotlight of a metropolitan area, should cool things down a bit. In the short-term, the relocation would mean one last trip through the media cycle (for now, at least).

One piece of that puzzle was an appearance by Dr. Mick Peterson, director of the University of Kentucky's Racetrack Safety Program, speaking to anchor Jim Acosta on CNN on Saturday. Let's take a look at a clip from that, and the full text from the interview can be read here.

Taking an informal straw poll of social media in the aftermath, I saw a fair bit of reactions dragging Dr. Peterson's responses, including some from people within the Thoroughbred industry. Those are the ones I found particularly disheartening.

If Dr. Peterson went out there with the hard-line stance of, “This is fine. Everything is fine,” he'd have been perpetuating the narrative that we truly don't care about the equine injuries and deaths that have occurred. That perceived refusal to address safety issues is part of what has gotten us into this public relations mess in the first place.

Trying to deny a problem, or discredit rational discussion on how to improve safety only furthers the “they don't care” argument.

On the other side of the coin, if Dr. Peterson, an expert in racetrack safety, went on CNN and said, “Yes, horse racing is inhumane,” he'd have signed the industry's death warrant on live television, giving anyone looking to kill a racetrack the exact clip they'd need to further their cause. Certainly, he knew that.

When I watched the interview, I noticed Dr. Peterson took his time with his answers, especially when Acosta dangled a pitfall-laden question like, “What do you say to people who think horse racing is an inhumane sport? Where it's gotten to the point where it's out of control?”

I think he realized the weight of his answers, given the medium and audience, and he chose his words carefully. It takes only seconds for words said out loud to appear on a chyron below your face on a news program, and he answered questions in a way that his words wouldn't get away from him. From the perspective of minimizing harm to horse racing's social license to operate, the interview couldn't have gone much better.

This is not a time for saber-rattling. If we only do that, we will lose, and we will eventually die. It's concerning how many people in this industry openly fail to acknowledge this. The situation with Churchill Downs has further displayed that the horse racing industry has lost control of its own narrative in the public forum – whether the people within it believe that to be true or not.

This is a time for making public, data-backed plans to improve, showing our work every step of the way, and following through on them. If we can do it without significant blocs of the industry trying to kick, scream, and sue their way out of it (further perpetuating the “they don't care about equine safety” argument), all the better. That's how we regain the narrative.

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Take note that I said nothing about capitulation. I get the impression a lot of the resistance against measures to make racing safer are rooted at least somewhat in a fear of caving to the anti-racing activists, who will never be satisfied. I get that. That's not what I want, either.

Industry-linked scientists aren't activists. Young people in racing who are afraid there might not be a major U.S. Thoroughbred industry for them in 20 years (myself included) aren't activists. There are trustworthy people with a vested interest in the future of the industry who have fact-based ideas to keep the business alive. Don't push them away.

Most voters aren't activists, but they want to see racing do better with safety. Most congresspeople aren't activists, but they're going to legislate where the votes and lobbying dollars guide them. There are people who know nothing about horse racing whose votes could one day save the industry or push it into oblivion. Bring the front row seat to them. The “if the naysayers only came to the backstretch and saw how well the horses are treated” mentality is as hollow as it is impractical. Hearts and votes are won by outreach, not invitation.

I'm of the mind that there is a path forward between “concede nothing” and “cave to the activists.” If we lean too far either way, we're done for. Finding that balance, and acting upon it with earnestness, is the key to survival.

I wish I knew what the answer was to achieving that balance, but right now, we're at a point where getting a little attention from cable news is potentially life or death for the business as we know it.

We're nowhere close to balance, and there are too many people proudly tipping the scale toward “concede nothing” to make me confident that we'll find it anytime soon. Dr. Peterson was correct: The sport needs to get better. But first, its population must want to get better.

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