This past winter at Santa Anita has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. The 23 equine fatalities there since just before the turn of the year placed the facility under a firestorm of opprobrium, which has led to calls, in some of the more extreme corners of the state, for racing to be banned in California altogether.
Yes, that firestorm has lost intensity these past few weeks, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say it has disappeared altogether – rather, it’s spreading to other parts of the country.
“I do think the next track that maybe has to go through this can learn some things from how Santa Anita handled it,” said Camie Heleski (pictured), a professor at the University of Kentucky in the Equine Science and Management program.
Heleski’s entire life has been spent around horses. She grew up on a horse farm, raising, training and showing horses. She has groomed, ridden and trained Arabian racehorses at Mount Pleasant Meadows, in Michigan. For 25 years, she was the coordinator of Michigan State University’s two-year Horse Management Program. She’s sat on numerous national and international equine science organizations.
Now, however, Heleski is based in Kentucky, turning her applied research into equine behavior and welfare, and horse-human interactions onto the Thoroughbred racing industry, with particular emphasis on the notion of racing’s social license to operate.
“Everybody thinks they’re a stakeholder in the industry, and technically they are,” Heleski said. “If they care enough to be out there putting out comments, then we need to consider them as a stakeholder.”
Currently, Heleski is working with a number of co-authors on a broad paper addressing the sustainability of the racing industry, both culturally and economically. The paper is intended for publication in October. But, given the events of the past few months, Heleski is keen to discuss her research before then. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
What do you mean by racing’s social license to operate?
It’s hard to give it a hard, quick definition. A lot of people will get an intuitive sense of what it means. At first, people are like, ‘I’ve never heard of that.’ And then you start to explain it, and it’s like, ‘oh, well, it’s really just public perception.’ It’s not really anything that ever gets written down. It’s not like all the stakeholders were involved, signed a document.
I think one really interesting thing about racing’s social license is that the horses are one of the main stakeholders, and we’re always trying to figure out who’s speaking on behalf of the horse. We’re trying to figure out, what’s the legitimacy of our industry? What’s the credibility? Does this industry operate with transparency? And do we have trust from our stakeholders?
You’ve mentioned before that public perception of the sport is focused on a handful of topics, such as whip use, medication overuse, catastrophic breakdowns, 2-year-old racing and racehorse aftercare.
Somewhere between eight and ten years ago, when I would have a class that was either an animal welfare class or a horse behavior class, I’d always try to have a conversation about the racing industry, because I recognized a while ago there were quite a few students with horse interests who had a fairly negative perception of the racing industry. I decided to dig in and take some polls from these small student groups and those topics just mentioned are what consistently kept coming up.
After doing a lot more research, digging into some of the science, digging into some of the social attitudes, there were a few of those things where it turned out to be a matter of trying to educate people. Then there’s the other issues where we can probably talk til we’re blue in the face, like whip use and Lasix. With those, I don’t know if we’re going to change public perception very much. We may need to be the ones to adapt.
How have recent events at Santa Anita factored into your research?
I started trying to go through as many media sources and articles as I could and put those into folders that I have saved, and we’ve got a few students who are looking into social media comments related to the Santa Anita situation.
How were your students combing through social media, and did they identify any trends?
They actively collected, I would say, thousands of pieces of both news articles and social media comments, and they’ve put them into a database. They’ve come up with an approach trying to analyze different themes, like how many comments are related to 2-year-old racing? How many comments relate to Lasix?
A category that I had not recognized would come up, but on social media quite a few comments fell into the basket, [was] ‘it’s just about the money.’ They thought that people were not concerned about the individual horses, which you and I know is not true, but there was definitely a perception by x number of people that it’s strictly a money thing, and that’s the problem.
Okay, so looking at it through this social media lens, what did Santa Anita and the California industry as a whole do right, and what did they get wrong?
Some of the things that I thought were maybe better than expected is they were more transparent this time than maybe what they have been with crises in the past. They were very open about who they were bringing in to check track surfaces. They talked a lot about what veterinary issues they were going to look into.
Some of your high-level trainers talked very much about the individuality of horses that broke down and maybe had to be euthanized, rather than early on, someone might get caught off guard, shrug their shoulders and go, ‘well, this happens.’ That is an insufficient response when you have people basically in moral outrage.
There’s the aspect that someone really needs to passionately believe what they’re saying, and they need to be speaking from the heart. If it sounds in any way that they’re purely motivated by money, a lot of the public sees right through that.
In those instances when someone honed in on the individuality of the horse and the emotional impact a breakdown has on them, you saw that as having a positive impact on the public – as something that changed the narrative?
That was the way I perceived it. In general, we have this bell curve whereby ten percent of the public believe you can pretty much do whatever you want with horses. Then you have ten percent who believe that no matter what we do, they’re going to be upset with us using horses for racing.
Then you’ve a lot of people in the middle that, when they see a groom whose heart is breaking because their horse just had to be put down, that adds a more personal touch, and I think they start to see the racing industry doesn’t just see horses as machines but as animals with heart and emotion.
Is something like the I Am Horse Racing initiative a step in the right direction?
I think it is. Winx has some of this wonderful social media where they’ve put little clips of her out in the ocean, or being hand grazed, or her nuzzling her groom. Those are things that much of the horse industry not specific to racing values about horse-human interaction.
In some ways, I think maybe some of the strongest critics of the racing industry have been horse lovers from other parts of the industry. That’s been one of my frustrations in giving student presentations, that we don’t evaluate different sectors of the horse industry on a fair and equal footing.
You mean compare and contrast the practices used in the racing industry with those in show jumping, for example?
Right, or Western Pleasure. Sometimes if you can bring the students back to their own part of the horse industry, and say, ‘alright, before you make an attack on racing, let’s talk about a couple of things an outsider might perceive are questionable in your industry.’
But we have to be careful - it’s not like we’re taking turns throwing each other to the wolves. But it’s a good mechanism for the students that I meet with frequently to say, ‘alright, let’s be even-handed here.’
In a classroom, however, you’ve a captive audience. How do you message this to the wider public?
That’s the million-dollar question. Now I’m in Lexington, we have a lot of friends and family who come down to see us during April and October to watch the Keeneland races. And so, I try to have a three to five-minute answer ready for questions that might come up - if someone asks about the whip, for example, or if someone asks what my opinion is about racing 2-year-olds.
What you’re saying is, someone from every sector of the industry should be ready and prepared to respond to an enquiry from the general public?
Yes, that’s a way forward, especially knowing the speed that any comment you make can get around on social media. In my class, we had someone come in to talk specifically about crisis communications. And if you know you deal with something that the public may find controversial, have a couple points that you know you can refer to, or at the very least, have a communicator that you know you can refer a person to.
What could those points be?
I like to say to horse people who aren’t in the industry that I had six years of my life when I was dealing with racehorses, galloping them, and I was able to find out that horses that don’t want to run fast don’t. Yet, most horses when they’re in condition, they truly do love to run. And sometimes that’s eye-opening, as there’s still a decent number of people who think horses run either out of fear or because they’ve been in their stall a long amount of time.
What do you say in response to those who argue the industry shouldn’t allow groups like PETA to the table?
I’m going to answer that in two parts. I think there are lots of moderate equine welfare groups, and then I think we have some very colorful, strong-opinioned animal rights groups.
What has been interesting on the Santa Anita situation, I feel they’ve done a better job than sometimes in the past with going ahead and having the conversation with some of those animal rights groups, and I think it was sensible and a good move because some of those groups would have had more ammunition if they’d been shut out.
We’ve seen the same in other parts of animal agriculture - we may not always agree with some of the strongest opinions presented, but it does push us to think more deeply and to recognize that there’s a certain set of the public that also has these beliefs. And so, we have to ask ourselves: what are we going to do about this?
Another broad industry response to some of the proposed changes, like Lasix and whip use, is that these things have nothing to do with catastrophic breakdowns. What’s your response?
In my mind, these were some sensible tactics to take. It may be we never research out a link to Lasix and breakdowns, but it’s again trying to regain public trust, and until we can figure out a way where we can stop every single catastrophic breakdown, what are other things we can do to show stakeholders that we are extraordinarily concerned about racehorse welfare.
[Whip use and Lasix] are things that get tossed around pretty often on things like social media, and if this is a tipping point, then maybe now is the time to actually do something about Lasix, or to do something about the whip.
Did any of your students who’ve been monitoring social media notice any change in the overall tenor of the comments in response to the recently proposed changes to Lasix and whip use?
I’d have to admit over the last two weeks, I haven’t had a chance to get back to the students to find out if the tone has started to change as a result of these recent proposals. Probably in a month or so, I’d have a better answer to that.
What’s your main takeaway from your research?
If at some point we have a more unified body instead of so many different jurisdictions, it would make it a little easier to have a primary message. If you’ve got one group really promoting the Lasix fix, and one group really promoting the whip use fix, obviously it would be to the industry’s advantage to have a more unified message.
Any of us who gets the chance to speak on behalf of the industry needs to be aware that we’re not dismissive of these external stakeholders. We have a tendency to talk very much to our internal stakeholders, but sometimes, and I don’t really consider myself an industry insider, but we don’t realize how far removed so much of the world is from horse racing.
I’m reminded of something that racing consultant Jennifer Durenberger said, that the average American is ‘four generations removed from an agricultural lifestyle’, and that the emotional importance of the ‘human-animal’ bond is only going to strengthen with each passing generation.
Jennifer also talks about how many people today have a dog that lives in the house with them, so that very much changes people’s willingness to attribute feelings and emotions to horses, dogs, cats.
People are more sensitized to horse emotion than some of the people we grew up with. I grew up with horses in a very rural area, and there were some people who were pretty darn rough and tough on how they handled and operated with horses. And now when I work with my students, they’re much newer to the world of horses, but they’re very open to the idea of horses expressing emotions and that we need to work as hard as we can to enhance their welfare status.
The horse is a confusing animal in many regards. We share all these issues of emotionality in the same way we share with our dogs, and yet we have this aspect of horses as livestock, very traditional livestock. That’s an entirely different conversation, and one that doesn’t automatically have the right answer.