Kentucky Derby Week Forecast: A Perfect Storm of Negative News?

Don your armor. Or sharpen your sword. Whichever side you are on, the Kentucky Derby is a polarizing sporting event like few others. For this one week each year, America’s attention turns to horse racing. 

And for one week each year, everyone with a gripe against racing wants to capture your ears and eyes–and your sympathy, support and endorsement. Racing supporters have NBC Sports, 142 years of history, and a long list of celebrity guests on their side. 

But love it or hate it, no one on either side will have a dry eye on Saturday when the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home”. With the last note, it’s “play ball”– horse racing controversy style.

It happens every year. You just can’t ignore the Kentucky Derby, and most people can’t resist voicing their opinions, whether pro or con. While the arguments carry on across the nation, the bright lights and media mashing of the spectacle itself almost obliterate the real reason why everyone is there: the horses.

Somewhere among all the party planners, recipes, hat designs and astronomical ticket prices there lies a tradition that has survived in spite of it all. The horses keep showing up. The people keep either arguing about them or ignoring them in favor of bourbon and bow ties, but a core group of sports fans really do care who wins, and really do bet with their brains, not just by choosing their children’s birthdays.

When you scratch some of the glitz off the event and find the real fans and people involved in racing, you find a sport that wants very much to be united and move forward and–most of all–to survive and even thrive. Saturday’s race is the flagship of the sport, the prize in everyone’s eye. They will defend it to the end, because one day, they believe, it will be their year to lead a horse over to the paddock from the barns.

So bring on the news, good and bad. It’s ammunition for the dinner party discussions and bar stool arguments. No one news item is going to change anyone’s mind; much like the US Presidential race, everyone’s mind is made up already. Every story in the news this week does, however, have potential to influence the viewer statistics and betting handle of the race, although the general media’s preoccupation with the political races over the horse races means that it will be more difficult for Derby news to break through.

The controversy baiting over the welfare of the horses began last week, with a feature story in the US edition of The Guardian, which picked up the dialogue from a year ago (and before), when the over-injection of fetlock joints was implicated as a possible link to racehorse injuries.

American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep in 2015 was a respite from many of the controversies over racehorse care, since he seemed to be in good health during his campaign and no charges against his owner or trainer made headlines. It was as if someone had turned down the volume on protest. The suspense was too great: would he do it? (And he did!) We now wait to see what this year will bring.

In late March, The Jockey Club released racehorse fatalities statistics for 2015, which showed a 14 percent decrease in the frequency of fatal injury. Had the results been the opposite, the howling would still be heard this week. The fatalities stacked up this way:

  • On turf surfaces, there were 1.22 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2015, compared to 1.75 in 2014.
  • On dirt surfaces, there were 1.78 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2015, compared to 2.02 in 2014.
  • On synthetic surfaces, there were 1.18 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2015, compared to 1.20 in 2014. Some of the news stories to make you watch (or wonder):
  • Was it a coincidence that the Congressional Horse Caucus held a hearing in Washington last week, to discuss reforming medication and regulations for Thoroughbred racing in the United States? Holding a hearing ten days before the Kentucky Derby insures that their proposed efforts will be top-of-mind this week when racing’s current policies are deplored–or politely left unmentioned–in the press.
  • One of the biggest equine welfare stories of recent months was the announcement on Saturday that the New South Wales government in Australia plans to cull 90 percent of the wild horses, known there as “brumbies”, in the Snowy Mountains of that state. The story has received global coverage, with the possible exception of the United States, which has its own wild horse issues. Will editors feel that they’ve had enough horse news this week already?
  • The Kentucky Derby continues to focus on charity on Friday, the day before the race, with fundraising for charities “Big Pink” and “Hope and Horses” and the inspiring annual Breast Cancer Survivor Parade. Will NBC remember to mention that on Saturday, when the whole world’s watching?
  • At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a sorority cancelled its annual Kentucky Derby party after it was allegedly charged with racism when a Black Lives Matter group of students protested the party last year. The protestors alleged that the Kentucky Derby is linked to glorifying the antebellum south and apparently has some sort of a racist undertone, even though the first Derby was run ten years after the end of the Civil War. Be prepared for pundits on the Right to embrace the Derby out of indignation and for the usual pundits to have comments. The story was widely covered today: will it stay alive as the week goes on?
  • The four-star Badminton Horse Trials, the world’s ultimate three-day event, will be going on in England this week, in tandem with the Kentucky Derby. But consider the difference: at Badminton, as at the recent Grand National steeplechase, the horse welfare charities will be the stars under the “big tent” approach to a huge event involving horses. World Horse Welfare, in particular, is promoting its presence at the event, as it did at the Grand National. Not too many years ago, welfare groups might have felt pressured to either stay away and hold a demonstration at the gates. Now it’s a major fundraising opportunity to be under the tent.
    But don’t look for HSUS, the ASPCA, or any number of American equine welfare groups to be toasting each other with mint juleps or rubbing elbows with the racegoers in Louisville. (Maybe they will surprise us.) The charity aspects of second-career racehorses have certainly opened the door for welfare organizations to be part of the Derby scene. No word yet if any presidential candidates plan to attend the Derby–or if anyone plans a formal protest about any of the many things that the Derby might be construed (or misconstrued) to represent. The Kentucky Derby comes around once a year, and sometimes the most unusual stories take on a life of their own. Unfortunately, they are usually stories that spark controversy. If everyone’s speaking at the same time, not many will be heard above the din, whether the message is as positive as breast cancer research or as negative as racehorse medication policies and their enforcement. No matter your message, you have to compete for media coverage or Facebook clicks or page views. Will the Kentucky Derby be able to compete with Donald Trump for a sliver of news coverage? It probably can, and probably will earn its share. But none of us can know what the angle may be, nor the impact on racing and Kentucky derbies to come.




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