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Post-Preakness: racing's image, crisis PR 101

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  • Post-Preakness: racing's image, crisis PR 101

    In the last 72-hours we all can see there is almost an unprecedented amount of mainstream media coverage on the condition and efforts to save Barbaro's life. From it being a key story through today on the big-three news networks evening news and news magazines (e.g., Nightline last evening) to the infotainment morning shows (Today and GMA) to the local affiliate news programs. Tons of electronic news coverage and print media too.

    So far it’s largely been focused on Barbaro with prior noted breakdowns - largely those with far less happy endings - added in for historical perspective.

    Now the challenge is countering the seemingly more vocal and common anti-wealth and anti-racing feeling from those who likely never watched racing much if at all. People who likely never knew simple things like that the Derby, Preakness and Belmont are different distances and/or that there are standard assigned weights to each horse. Let alone grasp the skill required for a horse to get to the level of any TC race.

    These dissidents in the public hear how much Barbaro could've fetched in the breeding shed and call it a rich man's game (of course ignoring that all NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB players are all millionaires after one season) ...

    This article I'm sure is just one of many that openly speculates the further woes to be lobed upon racing. This ignores the fact that racing has enjoyed some massive crowd growth in recent years and decent tv ratings. I do feel for ABC/ESPN for what will be a tough sell with the Belmont and making it a must seen event this year.

    Just curious, but if you had to now market the sport in this immediate time of image crisis management what would you do? I'm not looking answers of ‘increased testing, expansion of regulations’, etc type of suggestions as those really are more NTRA and JC issues which will be addressed as needed. Rather I’m curious from a PR/marketing respect with the sports image to preserve what it had gained in public interest and maybe even come out of this black eye with gained fans. A tough challenge but oddly this is a sport that looked to the tale of Seabiscuit – an injured horse with a comeback story – on the big screen to boost the sport. The feeling then was to make people appreciate horses as not machines but as humanized athletes … something clearly Barbaro brought to light again.

    A related article: Baltimore Sun 5-23-06 "Barbaro's injury may be too much for racing to bear"

    Barbaro's injury may be too much for racing to bear
    Originally published May 23, 2006
    David Steele - Baltimore Sun

    The question being asked about thoroughbred racing in America right now sounds familiar. But it's a little different. Thus, so is the answer.

    It's sort of like the question of whether baseball would recover from the labor stoppage in 1994-1995, or if the NBA would suffer after the brawl in the stands in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004, or if the NFL could withstand a future Super Bowl Most Valuable Player being tried for murder.

    But those sports aren't going anywhere. Racing was in deep trouble long before the opening moments of the Preakness on Saturday. Since then, a cruel reality has set in that far transcends mere "trouble," a reality the guardians of the sport don't have the strength or motivation to dispute.

    Even if Barbaro doesn't die from his injuries, racing might.

    Every sport at some point wrestles with a perception problem; being strong enough to withstand it often determines how much it becomes part of the fabric. The negative perceptions that arose from this incident are showing signs of being too much for racing to overcome.

    From all directions come factors that create an image of a sport in which the needless, senseless death of an animal that didn't choose this fate, is a distinct possibility every time the gates open.

    If millions of people never consciously thought about that before, they're thinking hard about it now.

    But, one could say, is it too early to say the last rites over a sport with such a long, rich history? Auto racing has survived horrifying incidents borne of the nature of the game. So has boxing, countless times. Horse racing should be able to as well. Right?

    Not from the sound of those most closely tied to it. Of all people, they would keep their chins up and their eyes on the future. Few, if any, have been able to ignore what is unfolding in front of them, in the wake of the sport's defining moment for this generation.

    No less a figure than Nick Zito, as recognizable a face as there is in the business, has compared Barbaro's still-possibly-fatal injury to Hurricane Katrina. In that vein, racing might have to describe its lifespan as pre-Barbaro and post-Barbaro. The name is destined to be synonymous with disaster.

    The morning after the race, as he prepared to leave Pimlico, Zito painted a grim picture. "I guess I'm a 100-percent fan of racing. I love the game, and but for racing, I don't know where I'd be," he said, as reported on the Preakness' official Web site. "It's a sad day for racing. Once again, it casts a shadow on the game. That's the last thing racing needs.

    "The whole story [of the race], unfortunately, was what happened, and it's part of our business."

    It's not Zito's fault, but it's hardly the kind of public relations racing needs. Nor does it help that in almost every paper in the country this week, somewhere close to the list of Preakness winners, was a list of horses that have had fatal injuries in major races. Ruffian. Go For Wand. Charismatic. Prairie Bayou.

    Not much about Secretariat or Smarty Jones anymore. That's the story of the sport right now, tragedy and heartbreak.

    The problems in racing, the reasons the industry is struggling, have all been well-documented. But until Saturday, that's all they were, impediments that kept a little sport from getting big.

    Now, the sport has to worry about going away completely. Good luck to ABC and the Disney dynasty, with all its synergistic power, getting people to watch the Belmont next month. The casual fan will be voting on the sport with its clickers. Any other year, even if Barbaro had been denied the Triple Crown under normal conditions, the Belmont might get a quick peek. The peekers of past years are the conscious avoiders of today.

    The hardcore fans, meanwhile, are enraged. Just as the mistrust and the negative perception comes from all corners, so does the anger.

    Some is directed at whoever decided to let Barbaro get back in the gate so quickly after breaking through early. "What idiots!" one emailer to The Sun wrote yesterday. "There is a lot of cover-up going on here and it is sad." There's a term that bodes poorly for the sport, "cover-up."

    Others are sure that the time between Triple Crown races is too short for the horses to recover, and that there aren't enough good reasons to keep the time the same except to give the sport and its television partners a compact window to conduct its showcase event.

    The breeding and training of horses today has come under fire; some say the allure of fast money comes at the cost of the animal's durability, or its life. Others are appalled at the cost of repairing Barbaro, strictly because of the investment made in him.

    In fact, the more the discussion turns to money, the more one senses that an unbridgeable gap is growing between the sport's hierarchy and its potential supporters.

    So in the face of all of this, how does horse racing survive? How good is its damage control at what has to be its lowest moment ever?

    Those are the questions. But those who have to answer them might soon find out that some damage just can't be controlled.

  • #2
    Of course I'm scrambling for my notes here, after something I wrote up the other day... But I believe the stats for TV viewership were already pretty dismal before Barbaro's tragedy. The Kentucky Derby was down 10% in ratings from last year and the Preakness-- which traditionally has far fewer viewers than the Derby-- was down over 3%. Now add to these weak ratings the gut-wrenching spectacle of poor Barbaro, and any TV ad executive knows that watching horse racing is not exactly how the average TV viewer wants to spend their Saturday afternoon. No ad revenue = No Major TV coverage.

    And that's just the TV audience.

    Other than die-hard racing fans, how many people will now choose not to attend racing, for fear of being witness to a horse breaking down? The colorful, glamorous side of racing is easy to behold. Some of the grim realities? Not so much.


    • #3
      I watched the Preakness at home on Saturday but went to the track on Sunday as one of "my" horses was running. At first, the crowd looked sparse to me. And it was, really, compared to the other days when I've been out so far this season. But I was walking across the track apron and there was a little boy with a ticket in his hand, excitedly running over to the winners' circle because his father had just told him that's where the winning horse would be. Obviously it was the kid's first time to the races and he was clearly having a ball. It made me smile.

      On the local level, I think that in most places, racing is doing wonderfully well. There was a HUGE Mother's Day crowd at the local track. On the national level, not so well. After retirement, horses are forgotten about. If Barbaro continues to do well, or even if he doesn't, one day he'll be the answer to a trivia question on some game show. But he's going to fade from the public consciousness, the same as Smarty Jones has.

      I think Barbaro's breakdown has actually caused an overreaction as far as "tarnishing" racing's image. Until the top horses run over several years with consistent success, national interest in racing will remain low. That certainly doesn't mean people can't go out to their local track and find a hero to cheer on for the whole season. If you live in the Seattle area, I can make several suggestions, in fact.
      It's a uterus, not a clown car. - Sayyedati


      • #4
        I'm pretty sure that racing is not going to "die" any time soon, considering how many horses are being bred daily to accomodate the sport, how many tracks (even very small ones in Nebraska and Arizona and Missouri) are still running, etc. Plus, there's the support of those extremely rich dudes who keep us afloat at the higher levels- we owe a lot to rich dudes as well as to the average horse worker, breeder, etc.

        It's hard to promote interest in a sport when you know that, at any single moment, a publicized race could be marred by a severe breakdown and appal/lose many of the fans they have worked so hard to gain. I don't have an answer to solving this problem, other than by increasing safety measures and trying as hard as possible to decrease the possibility of tragic accident. Which is not the TV broadcaster's job, it's the Jockey Club and other officials' job.

        All in all, racing is a very "niche" kind of sport, not a mainstream, and I don't think there's any real changing that. But if Putt Putt playoffs can survive, and ESPN can take timne out of their schedule to showcase guys rolling in mud and scaling foam walls (what in god's name was that sport?) then I have no doubt that they will still find time for racing


        • #5
          By the way, that article is just depressing as heck I can't even stand to read it... the average "gloom and doom" of sensational journalism... bleah.


          • #6
            In regard to the article I have and always will believe that the horses are started and raced way too early.
            Racing has had it's share of "accidents" how many of those so called accidents do we not hear about ? I would say 99% to the average non track worker.
            There has got to be some change in the racing world. We cannot as a family of horse lovers allow for these things to happen.

            It is possible that Barbaros breaking down was a true accident , however he was still very young as they all are. Something needs to change and after Barbaro I think it will.
            Fans of racing do not want to see this. This shows in the tv ratings , track attendance etc.

            This site below has many good articles you may wanna check out.
            Ms Robin
            Farm Websites & SEO, Low Prices, Barter available!
            ~No Horses to Slaughter clique~


            • #7
              Here's an interesting stat: a poll on MSN (not sure if link will work b/c I think you have to vote first, but here it is: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12916472/ ) as to whether racing is animal cruelty still shows 65% feel it's a worthy sport despite the tragedies that occur.
              "The standard you walk by is the standard you accept."--Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Austalian Army Chief


              • #8

                re poster who wrote: "Until the top horses run over several years with consistent success, national interest in racing will remain low." See story in Philly DN by Dick Jerardi. Goes to the point.


                • Original Poster

                  As I said I am still curious what people think it will require to "right the ship", so to speak, back on course to retain what had been a renewed interest in horse racing.

                  To ensure that NBC, for example, next year doesn't chop the Derby down to a half-hour program, etc.

                  Agreed that a few years of champion horses that last beyond the TC chase (Smarty didn't, Alex didn't, Barbaro won't) is one of those critical missing elements. Funny Cide is still popular despite the spotty record since his quest for imortality.

                  merry98 cited an article in the PA DN by Rich Hofmann: is this it? Hofmann: Racing brings up the rear in safety, Penn Daily News ?

                  Certainly TV is a big partner in broadening the sport so they have an interest and responsibility in managing the reputation.

                  Per this article NYTs 5-23-06 "Breakdown Echoes in Broadcasts of Past Stumbles", the morning after kudos to NBC for its coverage seem to be giving way to detractors. It isn't helped by their own staff:

                  Stevens said he felt the pain more acutely as an analyst for NBC than he did when he was a jockey and would hear horses' bones snap every week. "I think our sport makes us a little cold to it," he said by telephone. He said seeing the grief of Edgar Prado, Barbaro's jockey, "made me feel emotions I hadn't experienced for so many months."

                  He criticized NBC for showing too many replays of Barbaro's breakdown.

                  "It reminded me of when they showed Joe Theismann break his leg on 'Monday Night Football,' " he said. "It was grotesque."

                  When asked if he was repulsed at a lengthy shot of Barbaro raising and lowering his broken ankle, Stevens said angrily: "You saw it. Don't make me be graphic."
                  So should NBC have been blaise about the breakdown and simply suggest "life goes on" and focus on Bernardini and the victory? I think NBC myself did an admirable job with covering the situation, keeping fans informed and did not exploit the footage. What affiliate stations have done since as well as other media outlets is out of NBC Sport's control.


                  • #10
                    horses that have had fatal injuries in major races. Ruffian. Go For Wand. Charismatic. Prairie Bayou.
                    Not at all making light of the situation or what happened to Barbaro or any of these horses, but I just have to ask: Has anyone told Charismatic that he had a fatal injury?

                    I enjoy horse racing and I think most of the horses do too. But, i am not familiar enough with the sport to know what percentage of horses running on any given day break down, on average. Anyone?

                    Proud member of the ILMD[FN]HP and Bull Snap Haters Cliques


                    • #11
                      Breakdowns are much more likely to occur during morning exercise than in races. Barbaro's breakdown, I believe, was either the first or second in a race at Pimlico this meet.

                      I have seen one race breakdown at the local track thus far. Breakdowns haven't been kind to the Breeders' Cup the last few years - Spanish Fern, Funfair, Landseer.
                      It's a uterus, not a clown car. - Sayyedati


                      • #12
                        looks good to me

                        I have been to the track the last few times that Lost in the Fog has raced and there were lots of people having fun.

                        I also had the fun of taking my nephew to the track for the first time. He picked winners in the first three races and was ready to quit 1st grade and become a professional gambler.

                        For my partner's 50th birthday I did a day at the track for a bunch of friends (who had never been to the track) and we got a race and a winner's circle photo and in general a good time was had by all.

                        But I am not quite ready to own a racehorse.
                        A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.--G. K. Chesterton


                        • #13
                          Well, another article on the MSN horse racing site quoted a marketing exec as stating that "The TV audience for horse racing skews female, unlike any other sport."

                          I think that's how TV is going to have to sell it... Seems like a no-brainer to me.
                          "The standard you walk by is the standard you accept."--Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Austalian Army Chief


                          • #14

                            People are just getting tired of the breakdowns of the best. Andrew Beyer of The Washington Post also ran a column the other day (as he does periodically) on how TBs just ain't what they used to be and it's unfair to them to pretend they are.


                            • #15

                              As a racing outsider but longtime lurker on this board, I'll put in my $.02 worth on your question.

                              I'm probably a bit different than the opinion you wanted because I already own 3 horses (one exracer) so I probably think differently about this than the average TV race fan. But what would spur me to become more interested in racing would be to showcase the good things trainers/owners/jockeys/associations do for their retirees. Organizations like Canter and the Exceller Fund as well as local TB retirement foundations....spotlight them during all that run up time (Geez I think ESPN had 4 hours of coverage before the 1.5 hour primetime coverage). Horse owners know about these things, the average "tune in on race day" types may not. There are a lot of really caring owners & trainers out there who really are concerned about the lives their TBs have after racing and it seems to me the public should know more about it. Especially to combat the all the "rich people" stories, etc. It should be a mainstream thing. The way many of these people care about their horses should be in the primetime coverage when the average Joe is watching, not buried in some ESPN2 special. The more the average person hears about what is/can be done for these horses, perhaps they will be encouraged to learn more, become a donor, become a volunteer or even a horse owner for one of these lucky animals. Then maybe the big time owners will donate more seeing that this is what the public wants.

                              I know it's all kind of idealistic, but playing the stories of the rich and privileged becoming more rich and privileged before each major race isn't going to bring in more fans so maybe it's time to try a different approach. Who knows, maybe if someone involved in the inner workings of things could offer a major stakes race for older horses that pays big money....something people could strive for
                              "There is just as much horse sense as ever, but the horses have most of it"


                              • #16
                                Originally posted by Anne FS

                                People are just getting tired of the breakdowns of the best. Andrew Beyer of The Washington Post also ran a column the other day (as he does periodically) on how TBs just ain't what they used to be and it's unfair to them to pretend they are.
                                Good Lord Almighty, what an ignorant article!!
                                "The standard you walk by is the standard you accept."--Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Austalian Army Chief


                                • #17
                                  Originally posted by msrobin
                                  In regard to the article I have and always will believe that the horses are started and raced way too early.
                                  There has got to be some change in the racing world. We cannot as a family of horse lovers allow for these things to happen.

                                  It is possible that Barbaros breaking down was a true accident , however he was still very young as they all are. Something needs to change and after Barbaro I think it will.
                                  This is such a valid point. There are a lot of trainers/owners who would agree that 2yo's do not need to race or even be in training.

                                  However the mighty dollar dictates a quick turn around for your investment. Most do not want to wait another year to see their dollars roll in (if they do).

                                  However, I am hoping that this incident will encourage everybody to look at the long term benefit of horses starting their racing careers later in life.

                                  If you do the math, you could actually end up making more money, as your horse will most likely last longer. But these bigtime races would need to be rewritten according to the age problem.
                                  \"Horses lend us the wings we lack\"


                                  • #18
                                    "Even if Barbaro doesn't die from his injuries, racing might"

                                    That is a bit of a overkill. Horse racing is the largest horse sport and if it can "die" so fast - what will happen to 3 Day eventing or Jumping (Superman?) where horses and people get injured also?


                                    • #19
                                      Originally posted by Sandbarhorse

                                      I enjoy horse racing and I think most of the horses do too. But, i am not familiar enough with the sport to know what percentage of horses running on any given day break down, on average. Anyone?
                                      I seem to recall reading several years ago that the statistics was about 1 in 1000 starters at the NYRA tracks was a catastrophic injury. If you figure there are 9 races a day, with say 9 horses in each, that would be one breakdown in about 12 days of racing. That sounds about right, off the top of my head. Of course, that doesn't include the ones that break down in the mornings.

                                      It was intersting reading Gary Stevens saying how people on the track get cold to hearing horses' bones snap. OF course, you would have to, seeing it so often, but most people wouldn't admit it and it was a very honest reply.


                                      • Original Poster


                                        While we are changing things, get rid of the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Like the 2 weeks, 3 weeks, that is another thing that is never done anymore - except in one race. It's just stupid. The sport has changed. Make the Belmont a mile and a quarter.
                                        Damn I guess the Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/2 mi forgot the memo! Also, hey you turf horses stop running past 1 1/4 mi ... you're making the dirt horses and that author look bad

                                        It's just stupid

                                        Of course the Belmont stakes was from 1867 - 1873 and then 1896 - 1925 run at 1 5/8th miles and its first running was won by the filly, Ruthless, then later by Tonya in 1905. I guess the boys of today just aren't as tough as the gals were back in the day.