Voss: Racing’s Young People Are Trying To Tell You Something - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Voss: Racing’s Young People Are Trying To Tell You Something

Anytime I take on a new project, I like to go in with a hypothesis about what I may find, while also (I hope) maintaining as open a mind as possible that I may find something completely different. When I set about reaching out to young people in the racing industry for last week's Q&A series, I had a few ideas about what kind of feedback I might get to my questions.

(Start the series from the beginning here.)

What I had been hoping to capture was some approximation of the many conversations I've had with people my age in recent years about how it feels to be at this particular point in our working lives – far enough in that switching careers would seem impractical, but nowhere close to being able to retire from the ones we've chosen. Late night musings after a long day at the races, wistful coffee dates, exasperated text chains; many of them have boiled down to “Why have I done this to myself? I worked so hard to land my dream job, and the sport is crumbling around my ears.”

I have heard a lot of frustrations that were whispered, and a lot of “I could never say this publicly but…” I've heard that anxiety and that anger grow in the past three years, and I think it has gotten harder for people to stay silent. After the 2018-19 fatality spike at Santa Anita Park, every new scandal or welfare failure has felt like a liability, not just to the sport all of us fell in love with, but to our personal job security.

I was aware, however, that my perspective was a bit skewed. I don't think you can do investigative reporting in this world and not become jaded. Perhaps others in this “next generation” of racing leaders didn't feel as devoid of hope for the future as I sometimes do. When I embarked on the series, I tried to gather responses from people I knew well, people I knew only in passing, and people I did not know at all. I tried to get as broad a cross-section of ages and industry roles as I could, and ran the interviews as they were given to me, only editing for style or grammar.

Looking at the responses all together, I was surprised at two things: there is a lot of hope among this next generation, and there is a lot of diversity in viewpoints. Most of the questions did not generate uniform responses across the group. Although many people identified the lack of a central governing authority as a big weak spot for racing, that wasn't the only thing people worried about. Several pointed to the sport's tendency to be reactive instead of proactive, lots voiced concerns about public relations, and some pointed to infighting, a lack of sound business practices, and a perceived tolerance for rulebreakers.

Some people said they'd already left racing, or expected they were in their last position in the sport. Others said they expected or hoped to still be in the business in 20 years.

Some said their feelings about their career choice remained unchanged, while others worried they'd made a mistake in making their passion into a career trajectory.

Several identified the same issue that has been causing ripples in the greater equestrian world, and the labor market at large – the need for workers to have a true, two-day weekend, to have time they can disconnect and recharge before throwing themselves headlong back into their jobs. It's not an easy request in a sport that runs major events through the weekend and is reliant on animals who need round-the-clock care 365 days a year. But as many sport horse and Thoroughbred farms have already learned, it may be cheaper and more efficient to adjust their workforce and expectations in order to retain staff than to constantly be looking for help.

One thing that came up more times than I'd expected it would was the word “nepotism.”

I can't possibly count how many people through the years have asked me whether I'm related to the Voss family of Maryland and Virginia racing fame particularly since I do hail from Virginia. (Trainer Tom Voss was a fixture in the summers I spent at Colonial Downs, as was his daughter Elizabeth.) Strangely enough for such an unusual name, I am not, even though my grandparents and great-grandparents did come from the Baltimore area. I don't fault anyone for asking, but the reason they do is that besides it being an uncommon name, it would seem natural in the racing world for a young person in a prominent position to have had a leg up getting there. There can sometimes be a tiny note of disappointment, particularly from people who themselves are part of the old, established racing families, when I confess that in Thoroughbred terms my blood is not blue.

Many of our respondents identified a difference in the opportunities given to other young people based on their family ties. Several also identified a bias against young women and minorities in the business – either from their own experience or from watching others.

Something I have also heard privately many times is that our industry is an old one, and I don't refer to the centuries-old tradition of breeding and raising Thoroughbreds. Old racing executives don't die so much as they simply fade away, as is pretty clear from the average age on many of the alphabet soup organizations' boards and executive rosters. The prevailing feeling seems to be that family ties can pave the way to a prominent position that you then parlay into a series of relatively secure roles for as long as you feel like collecting a check.

I had a conversation with someone not surveyed in this series, asking why this person had so many great ideas for improving equine welfare at racetracks but wasn't able to get them implemented. At the time, the person was in mid-level management at an alphabet soup group. There was resistance to change, a resistance to ideas that seemed too new, or too difficult, or too different, he told me.

“How do you get around that?” I'd asked.
He shrugged. “Wait for the old guys in charge to die or retire, I guess,” he told me.
I laughed, but he wasn't totally kidding. I think about that exchange all the time.

If there's one thing I hope readers take away from the series, it's this – the most consistent answer of all across some two dozen respondents was that our sport's greatest asset is our horses. If you're in a position of influence in this industry, remember that the next generation of leaders are here, with the same love for the Thoroughbred in their hearts you had, eager to right the ship. Don't let the thoughtfulness, the passion, the talent reflected in those interviews leech away. All of us have a responsibility to the horse. You also have one to the people who will come after you – doing your utmost to make sure there's a ship to carry them into the future, and knowing when it's time to step aside and give them the wheel. Don't screw it up.

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