Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

Take care of the horses as best you can for as long as you can. Always. Every day. All the time. 

If you need a mission statement for a Thoroughbred racing stable, racetrack, breeding farm, van company, auction company, sales consignor, veterinary practice or any other sliver of the sport that touches horses, that’s pretty much it. Write it down, put it on a poster over the barn door, screen print it on a T-shirt, tattoo it on your forearm, I don’t care. But if you’re involved in racing and responsible for the care of racehorses, future racehorses or former racehorses, that mantra needs to be the bedrock of what you do and how you act.

Racing people know all this, but we really don’t matter. Outsiders – fans, bettors, casual observers – matter and they’ve never seemed so important.

In business circles, experts refer to the social license to operate a company or an industry. Put simply, it is the acceptance of standard practices and procedures by employees, stakeholders and the general public. One way or another, all businesses have social licenses. They just matter more for some businesses.

Racing’s is a monster. The social license to breed, raise, train, buy, sell and race horses forms the sport’s very foundation. Without it, there is no sport. Read that again if you want. If employees, stakeholders and – most importantly – the public don’t accept the way we (because this is on all of us) care for the horses, Thoroughbred racing will cease to exist. 

That’s right, like any license the social one can be lost.

In five weeks this spring, a dozen horses died at Churchill Downs including two on Kentucky Derby Day. In response, Churchill moved the rest of its meet to Ellis Park even if finding a common factor among the deaths proved to be difficult. At Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Day, Havnameltdown fractured his left front leg while moving toward the front in the Chick Lang Stakes. The heavy favorite stumbled, sent jockey Luis Saez to the dirt, and ran another furlong before being caught by an outrider, examined by veterinarians and humanely euthanized on the track. I watched, winced and thought about the people most involved – groom, vets, outrider, Saez, horse ambulance driver, whoever took off Havnameltdown’s bridle. 

Pretty quickly, my thoughts turned to a version of those words at the top of this column, racing’s social license and the pressure it would face. 

Preakness weekend marked the return of Havnameltdown’s trainer Bob Baffert to the Triple Crown stage after missing the 2022 races and the 2023 Kentucky Derby due to suspensions by Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Racing Commission. Baffert’s 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and 2020 Kentucky Oaks runner Gamine were disqualified for testing above the limit for the permitted medication betamethasone, two violations among several in the previous two years. The Hall of Famer served his suspensions, upheld by appeals, and started four horses over two days at Pimlico. Friday, Faiza finished third in the Black-Eyed Susan. Saturday, Arabian Lion won the Sir Barton and National Treasure won the Preakness. Havnameltdown died. Several media platforms broadcast it all. And racing felt it.

When facing criticism, racing people always default to how well taken care of the horses are and how much they are loved – hay, straw, mints, toys, oats, hugs, all kinds of therapies, sports medicine, diagnostics, turnout, training options and progress, progress, progress. 

We leave out the parts about inadequate regulations, aggressive trainers, results-above-all-else owners, cheaters caught by the FBI and private investigators (not the sport’s regulatory bodies), screwy decision-making at multiple levels, runaway claiming rules, lawsuits over potentially game-changing federal legislation, resistance to safer racing surfaces, rules violations that take months (years really) to be adjudicated and all the rest of this mish-mashed sport. 

None of this should fall on one individual, one entity or some subset of the Thoroughbred world. It’s a racing problem that will take all of us to overcome or at least counteract. At every level, people in racing mean well and do noble work. All the progress – nationally, racing fatalities continue to decline – matters. 

But Havnameltdown died in a race, held during a concert with a window-rattling bass line, in front of a half-condemned building owned by a company that can’t find a reliable narrative about the future of racing in the state, for a trainer coming off a two-year ban from the Triple Crown, while people in suits and frilly hats sipped expensive drinks. At best, the scene strained credibility. At worst..?

Go ahead, tell everyone how loved the horses are again – just be prepared to defend yourself. 


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