Santa Anita situation underlines need for crisis response protocols

by | Apr 3, 2019 | Breaking, Business, Opinion, Regionwide, Top Stories

Photo by The Racing Biz.

The slow-motion disaster at Santa Anita Park – where the deaths of 22 horses led to the weekslong cessation of racing, only to have a 23rd horse die on the first weekend of its resumption – is many things to many people.

A tragedy to the connections of the horse who died. A nightmare to the California Thoroughbred industry. An opportunity for organizations like – strange bedfellows, these – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and The Jockey Club to score political points.

For the rest of the nation’s racing states? They need to treat this an object lesson, and one part of their response should be to create a crisis response protocol: a defined set of steps to follow whenever such a situation arises.

We know Santa Anita isn’t the first track to suffer a spike in fatalities, and it won’t be the last. Laurel Park suffered one, albeit to a lesser extent, a few years back, and a couple of years before that was Aqueduct’s turn in the barrel. And now there are emergent questions about safety at Churchill Downs. That’s to name just a few.

In our fraught media environment, with a public that often toggles between being indifferent to and outraged at racing, each spike poses some level of existential threat to the Thoroughbred industry.

Think that’s overdramatic? Try telling that to Ringling Brothers Circus, or the dozens of dog tracks that have been shuttered as a result of greyhound racing’s having been outlawed in numerous states. “It can’t happen here” sounds good right up until the moment that it happens here.

If there’s a common thread among prior breakdown spikes, it’s that the industry’s initial response has been too late, too slow, and too defensive.

One of the clearest lessons from Santa Anita and earlier tragedies is that the moment the headlines hit the mainstream media is already too late for the Thoroughbred industry.

The narrative – that the tracks and horsemen are knowingly sending horses out to die – has already been written.

No amount of after-the-fact hand-wringing or policy wrangling can unwrite headlines like Why have 21 horses died at a California racetrack since December? as NPR asked mid-crisis, or They killed yet another horse at Santa Anita, as deadspin.com noted.

For a crisis response protocol to work, then, it needs to kick in early – not just before the public becomes aware of a problem, but before anyone is sure there actually is a problem. For example, a state might decide that if there are more than two breakdowns in any one- or two-week period, its response will kick in. There might not be an issue – it could have been a coincidence or bad luck – but when the stakes are the future of the industry, better safe than sorry.

The protocol should include defined actions that the stakeholders will take immediately. These might include bringing in a racing surface expert to ensure surface safety, enhancing pre-race veterinary examinations, or bulking up the drug-testing regime for a period of time.

The protocol should also define a crisis response committee – including members and leadership – that forms as soon as the protocol kicks in. That committee’s charge would be:

  1. To analyze existing data to determine, to the extent possible, the underlying causes of the local breakdowns;
  2. To identify specific practices that tracks, veterinarians, and horsemen should undertake in the immediate term;
  3. To recommend policy changes to ensure equine safety going forward; and
  4. To develop and embed within the recommended actions a communications strategy designed to reassure the public that the industry understands and is responding to the gravity of the situation.

While the committee’s work is important, equally important – both in terms of its work product and in terms of public confidence – will be how it is formed and of whom it is composed.

It is vital that the committee be a creation of, and accountable to, the state Racing Commission. In these situations, the simple fact is that the public does not find racetracks or horsemen credible; fairly or not, they are seen to be the problem, not the solution. As the state agency regulating the industry – and the only actor with the ability to change the rules when necessary — the racing commission is best positioned to balance competing interests and to speak for the horses unable to speak for themselves.

At the same time, it is also critical that the committee not be composed simply of the usual suspects because that, too, would undermine public faith in its work. The group should include not just the track, horsemen, and Commission members but also outside veterinary and other experts.

The committee thus formed should remain active for a period of months following the crisis, and as time goes on, should also bring in other outside participants, including members of the betting public and advocates for animal welfare.

There will, of course, be challenges. There could be legal questions or concerns about the Commission delving into areas it has traditionally steered clear of. Some might cringe at the possibility of repeatedly gearing up responses to what turn out to be non-issues.

But those challenges are surmountable, particularly given how very high the stakes are.

Ideally, the crisis response protocol will help tracks and commissions identify and correct issues before they turn into problems and thence disasters.

Even when it doesn’t prevent the development of the problem, though, a defined crisis response protocol would enable the industry to say something along the lines of, “The Racing Commission immediately kicked in its crisis response, tested the track, improved pre-race examinations, and now is leading a group of experts investigating all of the data to determine root causes and the way forward.”

And that sounds – and actually is — a lot better than waiting until the mainstream news gets a whiff of the story to take action.