Racing and the U.S. election: the trainers who dare to speak out

Deplorables. Emails. Threats. Speeches and tax returns, released and unreleased.  And oh, that video. That video.

There are four days left in a presidential campaign that has left many U.S. citizens hanging our heads in embarrassment, a campaign that has riven friendships and roiled the country, a campaign that has turned social media into a battlefield of partisan perspectives, albeit one accompanied by a resigned realization that one more Facebook post probably isn’t going to change anybody’s mind.

If Thoroughbred racing were a state, it would probably be red … though it’s hard to say with much certainty, as the sport’s participants tend to be a circumspect lot, offering little in the way of public political opinions.

But this election, possibly the most important of most of our lifetimes, has led some of the more intrepid trainers to speak out, beginning a discourse that has generally been more civil than the general public’s has been … except for the times when it’s not.

Even before this election cycle, trainer Graham Motion didn’t hesitate to voice his opinions on social and political issues … and nor does he hesitate to hit the ‘block’ button.

‘Nasty stuff’

“If someone says nasty stuff now, I just block them,” he said. “I don’t go there.”

Known as one of the most congenial, affable trainers in the game, Motion has experienced his fair share of “nasty stuff” from followers telling him to stick to training and stay out of politics, to those calling him a hypocrite and not so politely suggesting that he go back to England.

None of it stops the U.S. citizen from expressing his point of view to his nearly 19,500 followers.

While gun violence and permissive gun ownership laws in the U.S. first led Motion to speak out, he has not shied from stepping into the minefield of presidential politics, tweeting freely about his dismay about Donald Trump’s campaign, behavior, and ideas.

“The way he talks is embarrassing for my kids to hear,” said Motion. “The rhetoric he uses is really disturbing. I don’t want my kids listening to that.”

He is one of the few horsemen on Twitter whose politics lean left. Though trainer Donna Keen characterizes herself as neither a Democrat nor a Republican, her tweets and re-tweets suggest a skepticism about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, even as she acknowledges that taking a stand on social media can have its risks.

Learning to be cautious

“You try not to say too much,” said Keen by phone. “You have to be careful. I’m sure that we have some clients that are Hillary supporters and other clients that think Hillary is crazy.”

Despite her occasional posts, Keen said that she doesn’t consider herself particularly politically active, and she’s learned to be cautious about what she posts as she’s developed her social media savvy.

“Occasionally I’ll post something out of emotion, and then I go back and take it down,” she said. “You have to be careful: people can judge you for your political thoughts or issues that they disagree with you on. And then they can screen-shot it or re-tweet it.”

She has had less negative feedback on her political posts than on her horse rescue work, saying that she thinks that the latter has been a greater threat to her and her husband Dallas’ business than anything she says about the election.

‘Bashing’ horse rescue work

The founder of the Texas-based Remember Me Rescue, Keen said that she gets “a lot of hate mail and bashing” over their rescue business, and she thinks that people are more wary of giving them horses to train because of their work with rescue horses and aftercare.

“And that’s politics, too,” she said. “Horse slaughter is political.”

Regardless of the topic, she tries not to engage when she gets hit with negative comments.

“I try not to respond,” she said. “It’s taken me years to get thick enough skin to be able to do that.”

A few months ago, followers of trainer Jeremiah Englehart were treated to a regular stream of pro-Trump tweets; the New York-based trainer regularly declared himself on the “Trump train” and happily engaged in good-natured political banter online.

These days, the political tweets are fewer and farther between, but they’re still there, and they’re still, though perhaps less passionately, supportive of the Republican candidate. Known at the track for his sense of humor and good nature, Englehart seldom engages in acrimonious exchanges and seems to attract little of the viciousness that Keen and Motion mention.

Taken aback

Sitting in his Belmont Park office, Englehart joked: “I had fun with the first debate. I was tweeting about it, and I thought, ‘There go two more people that aren’t going to follow me anymore.’”

More seriously, he admits he’s not particularly fond of either candidate these days but has no interest in indulging in the sort of negativity that he sees elsewhere.

“If someone is a big Hillary fan, I don’t go to their page and write negative stuff,” he says. “I’d love to see a race where the candidates say, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to say anything negative about the other [person].’”

He was taken aback by a message he received after the release of an 11-year-old videotape in which Trump was heard boasting about sexually assaulting women.

“‘You have daughters,’ the message said,” Englehart recounted. “‘Do you still feel like you’re going to vote for Trump?’”

Different beliefs

Such messages, he said, are rare, though he does admit to ending up “in a little Facebook battle” at one point.

His wife, Robin, has cautioned him about his activity, suggesting that potential or current owners might not share his views. Englehart is mostly unconcerned.

“Are those the people you want to train for?” he asked. “If they’re going to leave you because you have different beliefs?”

Said Motion: “The other day I was talking to someone who works for one of my owners, and she said, ‘I follow you on Twitter, but I don’t tell the boss about your political beliefs.’”

He smiled as he told the story, perhaps because he hasn’t gotten any direct pushback from his owner or lost clients because of his outspokenness.

“Not,” he added, “that I’m aware of.”

Fellow mid-Atlantic trainer Ann Merryman, whose timeline tends to re-tweets, has a decidedly lefty point of view, and she’s largely unconcerned about how owners might view her stance, even though she says she has “a lot of Republican clients”.

“They know who I am,” she said.

Freedom of speech

She has contemplated having a conversation with one of those clients, but she’s faced no pushback either from the owners she trains or from the Twitter community.

Florida-based Ralph Nicks, while declaring himself not “real politically inclined”, takes a First Amendment approach.

“Freedom of speech,” he said. “Everyone should be able to voice their opinion.”

His tweets, too, are pro-Trump, but in conversation he’s critical of both sides of the aisle, suggesting that politicians should spend more time serving their constituencies and less serving their parties.

And, while he thinks the country needs the sort of change in leadership that Trump represents, he also acknowledges that a Trump presidency could adversely affect the racing industry, particularly given the Republican candidate’s talk of ‘building a wall’ at the Mexican border.

“If it wasn’t for immigrants, we’d all be in serious trouble,” he said.

An immigrant himself, Motion shares those concerns, both for the practical, professional repercussions of a shift in immigration policy and for their more philosophical implications.

“My wife and I made a conscious decision to become U.S. citizens because we’re huge fans of this country,” he said. “I came here and I benefitted from everything that’s so great about America. For this guy to be dissing that really just disturbs me.”

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