J.N. Campbell Commentary: A Horse Racing Audit?
The old horse racing nexus continues to hurtle towards some kind of reckoning. What? I cannot say, but what we do know is that we continue to vacillate between moments of shear enjoyment, and that which is mired in extreme forms of controversy. For the sport, the week is marked by the coming of the 51st Eclipse Awards, which is hosted this time around by Santa Anita Park on Thursday Night. While horse racing will have its moment, there is certainly another major event headed our way ... drumroll, please ...
With America's most-watched sporting spectacle next Sunday—no, it has nothing to do with the Winter Olympics—I am reminded every year of the power of the National Football League. As we wait for the Super Bowl (that’s the answer) to kickoff, a day that seems to go on … and on … and on, most would agree that 2021—2022 was a highly-successful season. Despite COVID-19 concerns, some forged vax cards, positive tests galore, and a host of other issues, teams managed to make it through, relatively unscathed. The GOAT may have retired, but the big news was that even the most “regular” of season games were hotly contested. Those Playoffs … they were incredible, most would say … As for the revenue … it rolled … in droves.
However, with the impending crisis following the suit by Brian Flores, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, Commissioner Roger Goodell & Co. are in triage mode. They are being accused of what amounts to serious malpractice when it comes to the treatment of ethnic minority coaches. The ‘03 “Rooney Rule,” appears to be nothing short of lip-service (which most knew), and real change needs to happen in order to move the proverbial ball forward. Goodell has ordered a “civil rights audit,” in order to embrace accountability. Many have wanted answers to the conundrum … how can the NFL, with over 70% of its players being black, have virtually no head coaches of color? Something is deep-seeded here … ingrained … and it has festered for too long.
I was thinking not only how the NFL would respond during this very challenging time leading up to its biggest day, but I also had in mind the notion that if it couldn’t handle this moment swiftly and succinctly … well, what chance does a sport like horse racing have to alter its own course? With the Medina Spirit business unsolved to the fallout from the nefarious actions of Navarro/Servis, plus a host of other disappointing actions by humans, it doesn’t bode well for racing. To put it another way, when you arrive at a seminal event … a crossroads … the decisions you make now, will reverberate into the future. Mind you, the billions generated by the NFL leads the way, and the other North American sports trail … that is the arc of development.
A week ago, I was bewildered and dismayed by the dispatches that were emanating from the New York Racing Association, and their “hearing” concerning the fate of Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert. It seemed to teeter somewhere between an SNL skit (one was shown btw) and a strange dream. Each side seemed to be grasping for whatever evidence they could marshal … on the attack … and it only got worse as the week wore on. Frankly, between some of the inane questions, something was missing. Was this a witch hunt? A finger pointing contest? Or was it just a kangaroo court? I still don’t know …
Then, there was a ray of hope … concerning the irresolution of the Medina Spirit controversy and the Kentucky Horseracing Commission. A subsequent decision might be in the works … a “hearing” on February 7 was set. However, that date, came and went. Reports were then uttered that it would be postponed … and then, of all places, on what’s called “Horse Racing Twitter,” attacks were leveled, and members of the media … colleagues … seemingly turned on one another. It was yet another bizarre twist.
Taking a step back … we all can acknowledge that Thoroughbred racing has a rich legacy, and there are so many proud moments where equine athletes inspired, thrilled, and astounded all of us. Many of us that report on the sport were certainly hoping when the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was passed, and became an “Authority,” that it would do just that … “author” a set of solutions. We are patiently waiting … and waiting … and waiting … for news to come concerning its roll-out.
It's all murky … the effects, once the target date comes and goes mid-summer. Of course, there will be a period where HISA comes online, I understand that. Let’s not forget though, that this is one of those crucible moments, where we have to wonder, if the choices we make now will reverberate greatly into the future. Right now, I am not sure a decentralized approach can coalesce around an Act of Congress. The so-called “industry,” which is divided by regional interests, might look like it’s talking to itself, but is it?
Going back to the example of the NFL, which is facing something that must change, I think Goodell made some shrewd moves. He reacted accordingly, and turned towards the music. Of course, he needs to do more than just convene an “audit,” because there is much at stake. The Super Bowl memories, the parties, the betting … that will all fade once Sunday arrives. In the aftermath of the celebrations, something will have to be done. That’s precisely what horse racing needs … leadership, organization, but also a plan of attack.
Can HISA provide that all-important “audit?” I want to believe it so badly, but I have yet to see the kind of marked progress that would instill confidence. The collective “We,” fans, turfwriters, bettors, the connections, those of us who will be watching the Eclipse Awards … our horse racing moment is coming … are we ready? After Super Bowl Sunday, the National Football League certainly will be …