Friday, March 21, 2014

Journalistic Excellence?

Photo ©Tom Hyland

An inquiry into another attack on the horse racing industry

Once again, the horse racing industry is being heavily criticized with a recent video produced by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) highlighting certain behavior by a few individuals who work for trainer Steve Asmussen. The video, almost nine and one-half minutes in length, focuses on a PETA undercover investigator who was around the trainer's barn for several months at Churchill Downs and Saratoga, two of America's showcase racetracks. 

As you will see on the video, PETA accuses Asumssen and his assistant trainer Scott Blasi of all sorts of unethical behavior with one horse in particular, 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro, but in reality, it is a criticism of his barn's behavior with numerous horses.

On March 19, The New York Times ran a story penned by Joe Drape about this video. Certainly the power of the Times gives this episode greater weight; at the very least, it's more negative attention that the racing industry doesn't need.

I'd like to make a few points here, starting with The New York Times. Basically, my first question is this; what does the Times have against horse racing? In 2012, the paper published an article, also by Drape, about an investigation into the drug culture (as they described it in their article) of horse racing in America; there was one particular shocking photo of a dead horse, laying outside a race track and the point of the article was to claim that too many horses were being given medications that were either improper or not needed. The blame was on trainers and their owners who wanted to do everything they could to make a buck.

Later that year, Drape also wrote an article criticizing Doug O' Neill for his handling of his horse, I'll Have Another, that had just won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was looking to capture the Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont Stakes. The article featured a quote from a veterinarian who said that the horse had been on medication, as though every medication given to that horse or any horse is a bad thing. When the truth came out, it was clear that the medication was routine for the horse and amounted to nothing more than a mild pain killer.

Incidentally, owner Paul Reddam passed up the possible glory of a Triple Crown by retiring the horse a few days before the Belmont Stakes, as the horse had suffered a tendon injury. Reddam clearly did the proper thing by not racing the horse, so can you imagine the Times' response if he had raced the horse in the Belmont and he had suffered an injury? Yet they went on a wild goose chase with one particular angle and tarnished the image of Reddam and especially trainer O'Neill. Yes, O'Neill had been suspended in the past for not following regulations on medication, but this was clearly a case of guilt by association. Shouldn't we expect better from such a distinguished newspaper?

My question about why the paper dislikes the sport is based on my opinion, one that I'm sure many of you reading this will agree with; the average reader of The New York Times does not care about horse racing. I think I can safely make that assumption. So why have they decided to attack the sport again?  To be fair, the investigation this time was done by PETA and not the paper, so perhaps the editors believe they are doing a service here. But I disagree.

The paper's 2012 investigation was published the week of the Kentucky Derby, the one race per year that the average American follows, if only to win an office pool. So the editors knew that this particular timing of their story would have greater impact. If this were a horse racing publication, fine. But for the Times, this smacked of opportunism.

Now to be fair to The New York Times, they don't always criticize the sport. Last year, they ran a wonderful feature on jockey Russell Baze, complete with streaming video, about this remarkable jockey. I've emailed Joe Drape personally in the past and he promptly replied, thanking me for my email; this was in response to an excellent article he wrote about Todd Pletcher.

I also want to point out in the article on the 19th, Drape did ask the agent of a jockey who was accused by PETA in their video of using a buzzer in a race; the paper let the agent make the claim that he trusts his jockey. So the paper did make some attempt to be fair. However the tone of the article was anti horse-racing, so the damage had been done.

A by-product of this is the fact that as the average reader of the paper is not a big thoroughbred racing enthusiast, he or she will read this and assume that all of this negative behavior is true, given the paper's track record for journalistic excellence. Those of us that love horse racing know better.

But my biggest criticism of this situation is clearly focused on PETA. Let me first say that I am a lover of thoroughbred horses and animals in general; if there are incidents of improper treatment to a horse, we should know about it. PETA can help greatly in this regard, but only if they tell the truth.

One can certainly understand why PETA went after Asmussen, as he has been suspended numerous times in the past for medication violations. If there is abuse going on in his barn, then the idea of an undercover investigator infiltrating his crew's behavior can be a valuable thing. The evidence in this video certainly looks damning enough, so that's all fine. We know there are cheaters in this sport - as in many sports - so let's not close our eyes to this situation.

But here's my problem with this video. Instead of just focusing on mistreatment of one particular horse or a few horses, they felt they also had to address the question of a jockey using a buzzer in a race. There is a poorly shot, dimly lit video at a dinner where Gary Stevens and D. Wayne Lukas talk about this topic; Stevens is quoted as saying he used one.

So PETA can't stop at the undercover investigation of Asmussen's employees, they have to tarnish the reputation of two of the legends of the sport. This is yellow journalism at its worst.

But the absolute lowest point of this video comes with two statements from the narrator. Here's one:

"Trainers will do just about anything to gain an advantage regardless of the consequences to the horses."

Again, if they want to go after one particular trainer and have the evidence, so be it. But to say trainers in the collective meaning of the word is simply wrong. Again, someone who doesn't follow the sport will hear that statement and think every trainer is crooked. Again, we who love the sport know this is not true - not by a mile.

But if you thought that statement was bad, check out this one from the video:

"From birth to death, most horses used for racing are treated like disposable commodities."

Can you believe that? How can PETA make such a claim? Where is the evidence? The statement is clear - most horses are mistreated. Not some or many, but most. What an irresponsible claim. If an attorney made a statement like this in court, it wouldn't be admitted as permissible. But make a video and who checks on these things?

Of course, you'll notice on the PETA website where this video can be found, there is a link for you to donate money to this organization. Talk about blatant.

I'm all for cheaters and unethical people in the horse racing business being exposed and punished. But this must be done in the proper way and not in a manner in which sweeping statements are made to win sympathy so some organization can raise funds.