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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mangled Journalism

A bit late to the game (as has been the case on this blog of late) on the NY Times article entitled Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys that graced the front page of the Sunday edition. Was up on a mountaintop on Sunday (Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, MA) and got a late start! I'll post a couple of photos more pleasant than the ones in the Times.

So I don't know what I can add to what's already been discussed thus far. The consensus, at least amongst what I've seen, seems to be that, despite the obvious sensationalism, the article makes legitimate points and addresses issues that we all wish that the industry was addressing instead of the NY Times. And I would wholeheartedly agree with that. But even if we agree with the message, the end doesn't always justify the means when the press manipulates facts and twists the truth to fit its own agenda. So if I repeat ideas expressed before, it's for a good cause. So, with that, a few comments and observations:

- As has been mentioned by others before, the most insidious thing about the article is the way is flows back and forth between issues affecting the thoroughbred industry, and graphically tragic stories involving mostly quarter horse racing in New Mexico. There's little attempt to distinguish the two here - only one of the incidents is specifically identified as being a quarter horse race, even though all but one of them was (I Googled them). For one thing, that makes for a clumsily constructed article; as if there are really two different stories. And, in my own opinion, they probably were. Seems to me that the Times had this story about racing in New Mexico in the can for awhile, but for some reason found it unfit to print. It refers to accidents that occurred late last year, and was probably - again, just my impression - written around that time (and thus the multiple writers it is attributed to). Could be that when the Luck cancellation and the Aqueduct breakdowns became news, it was dusted off - either to add some sizzle to these new stories, or to make the old one more relevant.

Either way, and even if my notion about the construction of the piece is wrong, it's an obvious and blatant attempt to skew the figures and inflame the emotions. It's like writing an article on steroid use in baseball while including a section on alcohol poisoning in some beer league softball circuit. As others have pointed out, if this was a story about horse racing in general, then why not also discuss harness racing? That, of course, would have tilted the article in the other direction given that sport's better record when it comes to safety. So I guess that wouldn't have worked for the Times.

The rest of the article is mostly non-news; Joe Drape's usual rantings - not at all unjustified in themselves, mind you - about the evils of medication and their contributions to the prevalence of fatalities in this country as opposed to jurisdictions with stricter rules; along with criticism of the industry for being unable, in its fractured state, to deal with the problem in a comprehensive manner, and a recap of the recent record of industry dysfunction. Nothing new there. There are however two new twists here....but both of them are bogus in my view:

- I guess NYRA can call off its investigation of the inner track breakdowns and instead just submit this article to the governor's office. Because Joe Drape seems to have concluded in his ultimate wisdom that the problem was caused by owners and trainers being induced by outsized racino-fueled purses to run their unfit animals in the lower claiming ranks. I'm attributing this to Drape because it's not the first time he's jumped to an unfounded conclusion to make his point - recall the article last year in which he declared, based on the scant evidence of a couple of Triple Crown races and visual observations, that the banning of steroids had already resulted in slower but sounder horses. (That article was also deemed worthy of front page placement by the eager Times editors.)

The theory that the large purses is behind the breakdowns at Aqueduct is a logical one and it may (or may not) be supported by the statistics from the Big A, and from the Times' own flawed study, which we'll get to momentarily, that indicate that horses in cheaper races are more likely to break down. But it remains, for now, just a theory, and a relatively recent one at that. One spate of injuries over the course of three months does not make for any conclusions to be definitely drawn, and it is in fact irresponsible to do so. The inner track deaths could have been a statistical quirk...or maybe it was indeed the track despite NYRA's protestations otherwise. Let's allow the investigation to run its course.

- And then there's the Times' study itself which, as I'm sure you've already read, was based not on careful study, but rather by uploading chart calls into a computer and spitting out the ones with comments like 'broke down,' 'lame,' or 'vanned off.' The last two in particular of course do not necessarily indicate a catastrophic injury, or even, necessarily, a serious one. However, though these are referred to as "incidents" rather than "breakdowns," nowhere in the article is that point emphasized. While this analysis may still be useful in pointing out overall trends in a specific state (assuming that vanning standards in that jurisdiction have remained the same over the years), its use to compare problems amongst different states may be flawed. A buddy pointed out to me that "NYRA is extremely cautious in this regard vanning off any horse in distress." If they are indeed more vigilant than in other states, than the Times' method becomes less meaningful in making state-to-state comparisons. Indeed, NYRA in response cited the more comprehensive Jockey Club study that indicated that Belmont and Saratoga were below the national average in fatal injuries.

Whatsmore, there's little analysis or discussion of the Times' statistics other than the one mentioned above regarding claiming races. Not a single word as to how many "incidents" occurred on what kind of track surface? What serious article about racetrack safety these days would not include a single mention of the words "synthetic track?" This is even more glaring considering the mention of the impressively low incident rate at Woodbine, which races only over turf and Polytrack....not to mention the Jockey Club study which indicated that the artificial surfaces may be safer. Instead, we got death and destruction from New Mexico. More than anything else here, that omission clearly shows that this is not at all a serious piece of news reporting intended to analyze and discuss, but rather an example of schlock journalism intended to shock and alarm. And a pretty clumsy one at that.


Frank said...

All good points. Moreover, the use of vanned off horses also ropes in at least some horses in no distress at all -- horses where a jock feels like he may have felt something, etc., that later turns out to be nothing.

Mutaman said...

Good job Alan, as usual. What I don't understand is why "the industry" is not putting more emphasis on this issue.

kyle said...

The hike obviously did you good. That's the clearest-eyed, most insightful deconstruction of the piece I've seen.

steve in nc said...

Yes, it is obvious that the Times reporting team knows very little about horse racing as a sport or as an industry. And their flawed data shows that lack of knowledge.

But you owe them more credit for, as you put it, addressing issues we all wish the industry was addressing (and about which the racing press has done precious little to hold the industry accountable).

The fact that the thorougbred industry may not be quite as bad as the quarters is less important than the fact that it still has big safety problems (and that the drug use affects form and handicapping, which sucks).

The Times spotlight could prod legislators to start hearings, and force the industry to finally address its problems. Something the racing press hasn't done.

I do give Andy Beyer credit for ending his column with the recognition that the industry has NO REFUTATION for the charge that drugs are leading to breakdowns.

The testimonies in the Times article that painkillers keep horses from protecting themselvs, and make it hard for track vets to spot problems, are worth much more than the data.

There is also no denying that offering a $15,000 winner's purse share for a $7.500 claimer creates a financial disincentive to care about the long-term health of the horse.

Safety aside, we're both old enough to remember what racing was like in the U.S. pre-Lasix, and it was a far better game. There are plenty of non drug reasons for that, but the time has come for cleaning up the American game once again and demanding that trainers give horses time to heal, and barring bleeders from racing.

Your point about track condition and surface is well taken. I hope there will be more definitive studies of that issue to go with banning raceday meds.

Figless said...

The larger tracks such as NYRA (especially the NYRA chart caller) tend to have more descriptive chart calls, which can also lead to overstatement of those terms.

Steve, agree with your points but have a problem with the concept (not just yours) that these bottom claiming horses will suddenly get the rest they deserve if purses were lower, as opposed to being pushed for one more race.

Most of these horses are not headed to the farm for a vacation once the purse decrease kicks in, they are headed out of town to minor cicuits, or worse.

Most WILL in fact be pushed for one more race, just not here.

They will no longer contribute to NYRA's breakdown percentage, which I guess from a public relations standpoint should be NYRA's goal, but they are not suddenly out of harm's way.

In fact the entire outcry about breakdowns rings hypocritical when the horse finishing the race in which there is a breakdown in many cases are facing a much worse fate in the very near future.

Sorry to be such a bummer, but until the unwanted horse issue is truly addressed by the industry I just can't take all this public outcry by industry players seriously.