Industry must adapt, improve messaging, Durenberger says

by | Mar 26, 2019 | Breaking, Business, Maryland, MD Business, Top Stories

Photo by The Racing Biz.

We may not be at horse racing’s end times just yet.

But you can see them from here.

The extinction of both circuses using animals and, in most of the United States, greyhound racing is either a predictor of Thoroughbred racing’s future – or a cautionary tale from which the industry can learn.

Jennifer Durenberger believes it is – or at least, it can be — the latter. Durenberger, a veterinarian and lawyer, gave a well-received hourlong presentation entitled “Can we put the ‘We’ in Welfare?’ to about 60 people March 22 at Laurel Park.

“I think the answer — maybe I hope the answer — is that if we can get the message out, let people know about the other side of horse racing, which is the breeding and agriculture industry and the economic impact that it has, then we won’t end up on the wrong side of history,” she said following the presentation. “If we continue to limit our discourse and our dialog to being defensive when something bad happens on the racetrack, then we could very well wind up on the wrong side of history.”

Growing concerns within the industry about animal welfare, as well as the Santa Anita situation – the track has been closed for more than three weeks as track operator The Stronach Group tries to figure out why 22 horses died there in a span of just more than two months – have made audiences perhaps more receptive to what Durenberger has to say.

“Two years ago this sort of lecture would have been met with a lot of crossed arms, and attendance would have been half,” she said.

But at the same time, her advice is less useful in a crisis situation and more helpful as an overall approach to how the industry communicates to the general public.

As Durenberger sees it, racing’s communications problem stems from much larger societal changes, namely that the average American is now, she says, four generations removed from living a rural or agricultural lifestyle. Most of us have no experience with animals other than as companion animals.

As a result, in one recent survey, the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – organizations presumed to speak for the animals — both ranked higher than either veterinarians or farmers and ranchers when it comes to being credible sources of information about animal welfare.

That’s a problem for a notoriously insular industry in which injuries, and even death, are an inevitable part of the picture.

“People [in the industry] equate concerns about equine welfare with accusations of wrongdoing, and we need to let that go,” Durenberger explained.

The dangers of such standoffishness and inaction are clear, she said. Precipitating events – such as the deaths at Santa Anita – push ordinary people to see Thoroughbred racing as uncaring and cruel. That leads to calls for increased regulation, or even the elimination of the industry.

It’s a scenario that may seem far-fetched, but Durenberger points out that since 2010, six states have banned greyhound racing and a seventh allowed the legislation permitting it to expire, thus also effectively banning it.

She calls for a three-prong communications strategy from the industry:

  1. Argue the industry’s legitimacy;
  2. Address the credibility gap (that sees groups like PETA as more trustworthy); and
  3. Be an ambassador for the sport.

Durenberger says that the industry’s legitimacy comes from its economic impact: not just the $11 billion or so wagered on it, but the additional billions of dollars of impact from racing and from the breeding industry, the jobs its supports, the agricultural land it preservers, and so on.

“There are a lot of dangerous activities … but we decide there’s an economic value,” she said. “The way we get people to think that racing is valuable enough to society is to talk about the industry in its entirety and not just the icing on the cake, which is the live racing.”

The credibility gap, Durenberger says, comes from the perception that, because industry participants have financial skin in the game, they are likely to put their own well-being ahead of the welfare of their horses. Fair or not, that will lead to calls for outside, third-party organizations to make welfare recommendations to the industry.

Durenberger says that the industry should “accept we are non-mainstream” and look at such calls not as an insult but as an opportunity – both to improve existing practices and to reassure the public that the industry hears them and has a genuine commitment to the welfare of its equine athletes.

People in the industry often talk about how well cared-for horses are, and Durenberger’s final recommendation is that industry participants need to share that news with people outside the game. One example of that type of ambassadorship is the nascent, grassroots “I am horse racing” initiative highlighting people in a variety of roles in the industry.

Durenberger says that it has been primarily horsemen’s groups that have requested her presentation – Friday’s was presented by Maryland’s Beyond the Wire aftercare program – but that the audience is much broader than just horsemen.

“The audience is every stakeholder in this industry because we’re all in the same airplane,” she said.

Indeed, to some extent, it is the national organizations and racetrack operators – the most high-profile participants in the industry – who most need to develop coherent messaging and a consistent, predictable response to crises.

Meanwhile, for Durenberger, the response she’s receiving is making her optimistic about the future.

“The questions I’ve had show me that people are really thinking,” she said. “People are very concerned, they’re deeply concerned about the future of the industry and that this is a serious moment in time. That gives me hope.”