‘I’ve Always Seen Myself As An Ambassador’: Next Generation Of Racing’s Leaders Look To The Future – Horse Racing News

‘I’ve Always Seen Myself As An Ambassador’: Next Generation Of Racing’s Leaders Look To The Future – Horse Racing News

This is the fourth installment in our interview series speaking to the next generation of leaders in horse racing. Read the first installment, as well as an introduction to the series here, the second installment here, and the third installment here.

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

I grew up loving horses and initially thought the only way to work with horses was to be a vet, tack shop manager, or trainer. I was drawn to racing as it is a dynamic industry that presents a lot of different options and avenues to pursue. I love the sport and think it is a constant challenge.

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

Slightly, yes. I think that there is a lot of negative publicity surrounding the sport that is going to impact the longevity of the industry. Within the industry, it is very difficult to genuinely prosper and make money and a lot of people plateau within their roles. It is a lot of hard work, which is not unlike other jobs, but having a lack of upward mobility can make it deflating to pursue. However, most of the time your job feels more like a lifestyle and there are a lot of fun perks associated.

-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)?

A majority of the people with power and dominance in the industry do have family ties which have helped them succeed. I think there is opportunity to make a name for yourself if you were not born into the sport and a lot of people are willing to help others that show passion and determination.

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

I do not think there is a positive outlook for the industry long-term. Considering other industries that have utilized animals for sport and entertainment (greyhound racing, SeaWorld, circuses, etc.), the general public is not receptive and sees a lot of what we do as unethical to the animal. Coupled with recent instances of drug use and doping in the industry, public trust has continued to decline, and at the end of the day, if there are not bettors and fans, the sport will not survive.

The sport is also losing racing owners and has an unbalanced commercial market dominated by the upper end of the market. Eventually this will catch up with everyone and we will lose a large percentage of racing owners and small breeders, resulting in a continued decrease in foal crop numbers.

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

PUBLIC PERCEPTION!

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

The next generation’s focus on providing experience rather than just financial appeal.

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

I am not sure there will be a job in racing in 20 years’ time, but I sure hope so! I don’t think a lot of people have a fall-back plan, as this industry is etched in a love for the horse and is a pretty niche career. However, you can acquire a range of skills that translate into other jobs which is a plus.

What made you pursue a career in racing?

My dad was a jockey when I was growing up. Multiple members of my extended family have been involved in racing over the years and many of our family friends were tied to the industry in some capacity or another, so for a long time, it was an overarching theme of my childhood. I took a lot of turns in high school and college and had no intention of pursuing a career in racing. When I was a senior in college, mostly through happenstance, I ended up developing a casual interest in handicapping. After a few months of meandering, I caught the bug and decided to try to make a go of it somewhere, somehow, in the industry. Racing has been a primary interest of mine ever since.

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

My feelings have definitely evolved. Especially because of my background, I think I’ve always seen myself as an ambassador for the sport. I was always a “best foot forward” type. Acknowledge the bad, learn, improve, and aim for the best possible growth. In reality, I’ve witnessed dozens of passionate, competent racing people pushed out of the industry; I’ve seen racetracks shift their focus from trying to be a profitable partner to an almost Wall Street mentality; petty pissing contests between various stakeholders; and like everyone else, hearing story after terrible story about this-that-or-the-other in the sport. It’s exhausting at this point.

I know that we’ve made promising strides in some areas, but it’s all too little too late from my vantage point. We’re at least 10 years behind where we ought to be, depending on what we’re specifically talking about at any given time. There’s just too much ground that needs to be made up and as a collective, we never really do any of the work that needs to be done. For me, it’s been a constant heartbreak, particularly over the last four or five years.

As an industry, we’re so fragmented, and we’re so powerless over these industry actors who are just out for themselves. I don’t see a way out of it, and I honestly don’t know if racing even deserves it anymore. It’s hard to help an industry that doesn’t ever want to help itself. Publicly, I’m still a cheerleader for the most part – “If I’m not willing to stand up for this sport, then who is?” – but privately with my racing friends, I think we’re all asking way too often, “Why am I still doing this?”

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)?

It’s a shrinking industry, so yes, there are ceilings everywhere. I think at this point, that’s where I feel mostly limited. Adding to that, minorities, women, and newcomers absolutely have a harder time breaking in and getting promoted. It can be outright hostile sometimes, in my opinion. There’s been incremental progress, but it’s not great, regardless of how much some folks want to pat themselves on the back. And it’s sad to see. On top of everything else, we’re not an industry that can afford to push out talented, passionate people.

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

If racing is going to have a long-term future, it’s going to have to move forward – and fast. At its best, HISA, in one iteration or another, might be able to give racing something as close as it will get to a “reset.” As in, we could start talking about in the industry as being either pre-HISA or post-HISA. But the way it’s going now, I don’t see that happening. But I also don’t see the required fixes happening on their own. Racing is really, really good at tearing itself apart from the inside out.

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

Public perception – especially given that the reality isn’t much better. We have to get tougher on the bad actors in the sport. We need to understand that these people take the rest of us down.

The Servis and Navarro charges stemmed from federal surveillance they weren’t the original target of; Quarter Horse supertrainer Judd Kearl got busted only because a lab was testing out old equipment that was set up to look for substances that current labs weren’t even testing for anymore. At least that’s how the stories have gone so far. By those accounts, the biggest breakthrough cases in the last few years started totally by accident, which isn’t encouraging. If anything, I think we’ve just learned more about how far away we are from getting a handle on cheating.

Tracks and commissions also have basic responsibilities to do better. Things like correctly timing a race, not running on top of other tracks, better transparency with DQs and rulings, racehorse aftercare, etc. We’ve all got to elevate the game, and not in these gimmicky ways that have been popular. We’ve lost touch with the basics. People have nearly infinite ways to spend their time and money, and man, racing loves putting its supporters through the ringer.

What about its greatest potential asset?

We have a lot of truly amazing people in the industry. They could work anywhere but they’ve picked racing. I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to know a lot of people like that.

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

I really don’t know, to be honest. I think that this is likely to be my last job in the industry. When I’m done with my current job, I’ll be fine to move on from racing. I thought I already had my “last racing job” once before and that turned out not to be the case, so I could be wrong again. The difference with my current job is that it’s not what I call an “on the ground” racing job, and I think it’s afforded me a lot more space. I don’t think I would have lasted to this point if I had to be as deeply involved day-in and day-out as I used to be. I don’t have concrete plans for after I’m done with racing. I think – I hope – at this point, I’ve developed skills that can transfer to different fields, and I’ll just have to find some inspiration.

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

I grew up as a fan of racing – my father started taking me to the track with him when I was five years old – and when I started working as a sports journalist, I was the only person in the sports department of the paper I worked for who liked/cared about horse racing. Hence, they gave me a bi-weekly racing column and let me cover the major races in the area, both harness and Thoroughbred racing. I was able to keep covering racing even when I took a full-time job at another newspaper and eventually, was able to become a full-time turfwriter. 

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

I don’t regret my choice to get into sports journalism even though the media landscape has shifted in such a way that I often joke I wish I had been good enough at math to get a “real job.” I love the process of storytelling and this work has allowed me to witness some of the most remarkable feats and meet some of the most exceptional individuals. Some of my most treasured friendships would have never come about if I were not covering this sport so in that respect, I wouldn’t change anything.

What I would change is I would get more experience doing investigative journalism. This sport demands that type of reporting and I wish I had more of a foundation in that realm. 

-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 always couch my answer to this question by pointing out that for the majority of my career, I did not work for the racing industry. I covered the racing industry as part of my job, but my paycheck came from Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Tribune, McClatchy, etc, and it is only in recent times that I have worked for entities directly connected to the industry. That said, the journalism industry very much mirrors the racing industry in being overwhelmingly white and male making it a challenge for those who are not in the higher-class status to break in. I have almost always been the ‘other’ in any department I have worked in and pressbox I have occupied. And while I firmly believe that if you put in the time and work, your reputation will speak for itself, there are indisputable facts that cannot be ignored specifically when it comes to the wage gap. 

In one of my more recent positions, I discovered I was being paid 45% percent less than my white, male predecessor despite the fact I came into the job with more experience and was routinely credited for doing more during my time in that role. And he was only in that position for a handful of years – this wasn’t someone who had been in the role for decades. As I did more digging, I discovered I was being paid significantly less than all of the white males who had previously held that position before me in the company’s history.

I have also experienced and witnessed first-hand the level of disrespect female journalists often must endure while simply trying to do their jobs. I have been pulled aside in the pressbox and threatened by an executive of a track generally considered to be one the most respected in the business because I dared to correctly report that handle had been down for consecutive meets. I told him that maybe if he concerned himself with why handle was down instead of railing against journalists stating facts, maybe – just maybe – they could get to the root of their issues. Sadly, we don’t have enough time this year to unpack all the discriminatory and misogynic behavior that goes on, both in journalism and in the racing industry.

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

I am not optimistic in the least right now about the direction the industry is headed. While every sports league has its share of issues, the problems surrounding the racing industry are gob smacking in both scope and collective apathy towards making meaningful change. I’ve rarely witnessed a major industry that has clung so deeply to wrong-headed thinking even when confronted with zero evidence to support their narratives. The word “reckoning” has been tossed around a lot in recent years but there can be no reckoning without recognition, and racing has done an abysmal job with even admitting its deep-rooted problems. The default setting whenever a blight is reported on – be it medication positives, use of PEDs, a rash of breakdowns, timing issues, safety and welfare shortcomings, lack of wagering integrity and respect for horseplayers – has been to deflect blame and cite the fact that the mainstream “doesn’t understand our sport”  all while crying that if only the media put out more “positive” stories, its public perception issues would dissipate. It is a line of thinking that is not only not supported by a shred of evidence, but one that actually hinders progress from taking place because the industry too often becomes consumed with trying to spin itself out of a crisis instead of taking a hard look at why said issues keep happening, evaluating who and what is responsible, and doing everything possible to make sure those problems get addressed in a sustainable manner. 

When NASCAR hit a rock-bottom moment with the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, it quickly acted to put safety measures in place – some of which could have been mandated previously and would have likely saved Earnhardt’s life. But because of the ongoing research and safety measures that have been implemented, not a single driver in NASCAR’s three major touring series has died in an on-track incident since Earnhardt’s death. 

There are issues the horse racing industry could be taking action on now that could go a long way towards improving its public relations – i.e. there is zero excuse for this sport having the problems it does with timing races correctly given all the technology that exists – but it remains stuck in a wheel-bus-round cycle. 

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

Racing’s biggest Achilles’ heel has been the unwillingness by those in positions of power and influence to take responsibility for the problems that have and continue to plague the sport. I always found it ironic that while some of the industry’s biggest power players would openly proclaim how the sport was at a crossroads and needed certain changes to remain viable and relevant, they never once realized how stating said fact was also an indictment of how poorly they had done their jobs. I wish this sport knew how to properly and genuinely mea culpa, how to simply say, “Our bad. We messed up, we handled that wrong, we didn’t do the right thing. But here’s how we’re going to fix that going forward.” 

And the worst part of all the self-inflicted wounds is that our equine athletes often end up as the collateral damage, which is unacceptable. There are too many owners and too many horsemen who don’t put the welfare of the horses first and they all need to be weeded out, pronto. If you’re going to craft your livelihood and your reputation off the backs of these animals, you better do everything to the letter to make sure they are protected, respected, and cared for in the best possible manner from the moment they are conceived to the time they take their last breath. If this sport continues to accept anything less, it will continue to go from one blight to another to another. 

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

Racing’s best asset has always been its horses. This sport is the only one blessed with athletes who are not competing to satisfy egos or contracts, or free agency demands. They are doing what they are bred to do and there is a certain purity in that. Our equine athletes don’t discriminate, as they can uplift individuals from any background or creed. They are without a doubt our best ambassadors because they never let us down, regardless of the race careers they may or may not have. I would love to see North American tracks market their equine stars in a similar fashion as they do in overseas jurisdictions. I love how the Japanese racing audience embraces their top performers – down to the plushies fans can buy of their favorite horses. I think it would be great if we leaned into that more. 

-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 will be shocked if I am still involved in racing in 20 years’ time. Sadly, I have increasingly felt that my time in this industry has run its course as I don’t think there are many outlets anymore that offer the opportunity to do the kind of journalism I would like to do while being properly compensated and supported. I also have become more jaded given the lack of evidence that this sport actually wants to be better. For all the talk of mainstream media focusing on the negative, there are numerous ills racing gets away with because it doesn’t have the attention and scrutiny that comes with being a major sport – i.e. we have some industry individuals, including some in extremely high-ranking positions, posting extremely problematic content on their social media accounts that would result in them being splashed all over ESPN if they held similar positions in the NBA, MLB, NFL, or NHL.

I would like to get more involved in racial and social justice and advocacy work – something that is sorely lacking in the racing industry. If I’m still involved in racing at all in 20 years, I would imagine it would be in a role that supports those type of efforts, such as creating an infrastructure that would provide assistance and resources to those in the industry who have been victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, hate crimes, discrimination, etc.

-What made you pursue a career in racing? 

I didn’t come from a racing family, but I grew up watching the Triple Crown races and that developed into watching Breeders’ Cup and eventually just every day racing. I truly loved the sport and through working with OTTBs also knew I loved the breed. It seemed like a no brainer to pursue a career in the racing industry.

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

Generally, I am still happy with my choice to be involved in this industry but it’s not without frustrations. 

-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)?

When I first started out I felt there were a lot of road blocks. Not having family in the business or really knowing where to start was a big one. Being a woman was a close second. As I’ve advanced in my career I have overcome a lot of those but gender not only equality but perception is still a big one that I see myself and my fellow horsewomen still struggling with.

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

I am worried. I think that anyone who is really paying attention should be very worried.

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

Lack of unity, on all fronts. I could go on for days pinpointing different specific topics but I think ultimately, they all go back to unity. We’ve all got to start pulling the same direction which means coming to terms with some really hard things and being willing to truly come to the table with open minds.

-What about its greatest potential asset? 

I think at the end of the day, the majority of people in this business truly love the horses and want what is best for them. If I didn’t believe that, I would have gotten out years ago. I think we’ve all dedicate not only our careers but our lives to this sport and these animals and that builds a community that at the end of the day has great power if it chooses to use it for good.

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

I certainly hope so – that is my plan and my goal. That’s not to say that I don’t make sure to keep some other options in the back of my head. I think it’s irresponsible not to at this point.

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