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Monday, October 26, 2009

Pierce Speaks - Time to Spell it Out

Recently, driver Ron Pierce spoke to Standardbred Canada about his ten day whipping suspension in Kentucky and his general feelings regarding the new whipping rules. You can read his comments in full here. While I admire Mr. Pierce for having the courage to go on the record, I think it is time for those who are kicking and screaming about the new rules to face reality.

The old whipping rules are history. The old rules, even if enforced, are no longer valid for modern society. Attitudes regarding animal welfare have changed dramatically over the past twenty to thirty years; what was considered acceptable whipping in the past is no longer considered acceptable treatment to horses by a significant part of society. This is not just a North American phenomenon; it is global. Europe and Australia are instituting new whipping rules not only in harness racing but in thoroughbred racing. While there are only a few states/provinces currently with new whipping rules, it is just a matter of time before these rules become more widespread.

Yes, I know the argument regarding the threat of accidents as a result of the new rules which require drivers to use both hands on their lines at all times during races; the fear being loose lines are an accident waiting to happen. I also know that France and Sweden have been two countries that require drivers to use both hands at all times on their lines for years and they have fewer accidents per race. If there is an increased risk of an accident due to these new rules, it is nothing that can't be addressed by drivers changing their driving style.

Yes, I know the argument that drivers are being forced to change their driving style due to the new rules. You know what? Back in the 1970's a future Hall of Fame driver by the name of Lew Williams came upon the scene and he introduced a new way of driving which forced other drivers to modify their driving style in order to be successful. I would like to think our current crop of drivers have the intelligence and ability to adopt their driving styles to the new rules so after a relatively short period of time people are are not going to focus on how they are not whipping the horses like they did in the past. Who knows, maybe the races will become more exciting as a result of the new style of driving being developed as a result of the new rules?

Yes, I know we may lose some of the old big time gamblers who object to the fact that drivers are not 'beating the living daylights' out of the horses down the stretch despite the fact we know whipping some horses is a useless exercise. I also know we should not be making a decision based on a few months of lower handles because some of these bettors will be back once they realize the racing product is still worthy of their wagering dollars when they cool off.

I know if we don't expose a new generation to horse racing they will never become future gamblers of our product. I also know the vast majority of our new fans/gamblers are going to be introduced to racing by watching racing at the track where they will see and hear any whipping up close so we better cut it down. If they are turned off by the real or perceived cruelty of whipping they are not going to become consumers of the racing product.

More importantly, I know racing's survival in many ways depends on John Q Public's perception of racing more than it does on Joe Gambler gambling dollars.

VLT revenue and purse supplements come to racing thanks to the good graces of our legislatures. They can giveth and they can taketh away. At some tracks, gambling on harness racing may only account for 5 to 30% of the purse account. If the handle suffers a short term drop due to the new rules, horsemen may race for a little less each race. Take that VLT revenue away and then see how much horsemen are racing for; if racing at all. Cutting the VLT revenue sharing becomes a lot easier for a legislator who is being asked by John Q Public why the state is giving handouts to a cruel sport like racing instead of giving that money to education.

John Q Public can also vote to vote to outlaw racing (like done to the greyhounds in Massachusetts and elsewhere) if they feel racing is cruel. Reining in whipping will be a good way to fight this image (though we still have a problem with unwanted race horses). Make no mistake, the day will come where we need to fight this battle and while the runners have the same issues if not more, they are financially stronger to fight this battle so standardbred racing will be first in the cross-hairs.

It is time for our drivers, trainers, owners (and even our current fans/gamblers) to face reality. If you don't give a hoot about tomorrow, then keep doing what you are doing. The fact remains, like it or not, your ability to earn a living depends not only on developing new fans; it depends just as much on the person who never steps foot in a racetrack or places a bet. You better give a damn what the public thinks; as long as gambling is regulated by the government, they have a say in your ability to make a living. You may not like the new whipping/urging rules but this is what the public is demanding so you better accept it if you or your family has any desire to stay in the business.

The bottom line is just deal with it.

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