The Long View – August 2023

Riding the Elevator

Know what to say when people ask you about the state of our sport

by TC Lane, USTA Chief Operating Officer

It’s OK to be “different.”

In the continued wake of the tragedies involving the unfortunate breakdowns that have taken place throughout the Thoroughbred industry, the Standardbred industry remains a victim of guilt by association.

For any of us known in our communities to be connected to the “horse industry,” I feel confident in placing a wager that your nosy neighbor, mail person or grocery store clerk has changed their line of questioning from “Who do you like in the Derby this year?” to something along the lines of “What’s the deal with all of your horses breaking down?” or “What about all of the drugging lately?”

At the end of the day, yes, it’s all horse racing. In the eyes of the public, we are one—and to them, “a horse is still a horse.” I do understand that—the Standardbred industry cannot afford for our Thoroughbred counterparts to fail—but it has forced me to refine my horse racing elevator pitch, for sure. And, as a member of the Standardbred community, I strongly recommend that you do the same.

 

If you’re not familiar with the term “elevator pitch,” it’s a brief, persuasive statement used to either spark an interest or provide clarification by explaining what your organization—or, in this case, your industry—does. A good elevator pitch typically will last no longer than a short elevator ride of 20 to 30 seconds, hence the name. For our industry, though, you may need a much taller building to get your point across.

A few years ago, I could have gotten away with simply providing a name of one of the Derby horses that I had been following and go on with my day. Now, I am forced to respond to the latter line of questions from “Kenny the Mailman” by explaining that “our horses” are not “those horses” he is referring to. I wholeheartedly refrain from pointing fingers across the aisle, but I also refuse to sit idly back and not highlight that we are truly “different” disciplines.

I try to clarify the “drugging problem” that he is referring to, which is almost always confined to an explanation about the administration of basic therapeutics. But, in the eyes of Kenny the Mailman, it’s all drugging. It does tend to hit him closer to home when I explain that he too would be considered a “druggie” if his employers tested him for his Naproxen use, which, as many of you know, is just the over-the-counter Advil that he takes for his nagging aches and pains. At that point, he becomes somewhat surprised that our industry’s regulations are as stringent as they are. His mind is blown when I explain to him what a picogram is in relation to detection of the levels of efficacy.

 

Outside of racing, I don’t see or hear many hardball questions that we as an industry are not already addressing internally. We continue to fight aggressively—either from a perception or reality standpoint. Nonetheless, they remain troubling to our industry and are being addressed. Joe Public is not talking about performance-enhancing drugs as much, though, in my individual opinion. We talk about it like they do, but for the most part, it’s noise inside our industry that remains the loudest.

In certain circles, the in-tune locals and racing fans are beginning to ask what I think about the Feds taking “us” over. This is where it gets difficult and slightly changes the terrain. I feel compelled to expand on the existing Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), how it only applies to Thoroughbreds at this point, and that the USTA and many other organizations, such as the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NHBPA) and many individual states, have decided not to follow or endorse HISA.

Along with the USTA, the referenced others have chosen to follow a different path, one driven by science and facts that will ultimately create a better game for our industries. As it currently stands, optics instead of science is leading the charge and has caught the unwatchful eyes in Washington. The explanation adds a bit of confusion to the conversation, unfortunately.

Aside from the existing legal proceedings involving the constitutionality of HISA, the regulation in its current form is not designed for us—nor will it ever be, as it appears. You may have read or heard that statement already a few hundred times, but until you see it up close, you may not fully understand it until it hits your pocket directly.

 

As an industry, we cannot afford to sit back and be thrown out with the bathwater in an attempt for others to clean themselves. If we take our eye off the ball and don’t expand on the reasoning as to why we are not the same, we’ve left the elevator with our neighbors thinking that the Standardbred industry simply doesn’t care about its horses. That is far from the truth, and our social license for harness racing can be revoked forever if we fail to step up.

Take the time between races or in meetings to ask your horsepeople’s representative about any fees or regulation changes within your jurisdiction that may be increased to equalize the costs of testing between their work for HISA and your Standardbred testing or administrative costs. The early rumblings are not so comforting in that regard, and I do think we all may feel that pinch sooner than later. In one jurisdiction at least, I have heard that increases will be taking place, so we will be footing more of that bill than you think already, rest assured. And to make matters worse, we get nothing in return but the bill. Those are easy questions to ask your state organizations, so have that conversation.

For those that listen as to why we are dissimilar: Explain to them how Standardbreds are structurally different and how their gait is much unlike the Thoroughbreds in relation to their impact on the track and in comparison. You can speak about our universal testing procedures required of our drivers, trainers and officials; that we provide “certification” of our participants at a higher level than many other sports; and so on.

Disclaimer: At that point, I have a difficult time keeping their attention.

If they remain awake, I further explain the foresight by the decision that was made decades ago by the USTA Board of Directors that focused on how they limited stud books with the intention of sustaining a more durable athlete through genetics. That leadership is one more reason why we do not have the kinds of numbers in horse injuries or incidents. Again, why? It’s because we are “different.”

 

By the time you have read this column, I am confident that you will have read about the Racehorse Health and Safety Act (RHSA), which is being built to provide real safety and interests for both our human and equine athletes—based on science instead of mere optics. If you have not done so, please take the time, as it further expands on how a proper regulatory structure should be built with everyone at the table working together to find a better alternative.

My strongest advice is for you to take the time to educate yourself and digest as much information on these issues as you possibly can. Follow not only our website, but other trade publications, too. You will notice, by reading the assessments of the other horsepeople’s organizations, that the views of the USTA are not in a silo and are in many cases in harmony with others. Please don’t rely upon the opinions of a few “Twitter cowboys” or “Facebook heroes” to control the narrative. I am quite confident that you are much smarter than that.

So, like our horses, it’s OK for you to be “different,” too. Stay tuned for more.

 

TC Lane

 

The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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