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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why Pretend It Didn’t Happen?

If you read Jason Shandler’s account of Saturday’s G3 Obeah Stakes over at Bloodhorse.com, you get a good idea about the dominance of Unbridled Belle’s 11-length victory over a sealed sloppy Delaware track.

What you don’t get is any indication whatsoever that the six-year-old Awesome Again mare All Smiles broke down—very graphically—directly before the finish line, tossing jockey Justin Shepherd over her head and obviously with a severely broken right front leg. Instead, the article merely points out that All Smiles “completed the order” of finish, when, in fact, she didn’t finish at all. To be fair, Ron Parker at Thoroughbred Times didn’t even mention the mare’s name in his story, while Joseph Swavy at the Daily Racing Form only wrote “All Smiles was pulled up before the finish, unseating her rider, Justin Shepherd.”

Before I’m accused of being a bleeding heart PETA-type—which is so far from true—let me say I’m not particularly interested in propagating morbidity. Nor am I infringing on some insane belief that, as chattel, the medical condition of horses are not open to public knowledge unless the owners deem it so. Everyone who watched that race saw what happened.

I am, however, all for truth and fact which, unfortunately, appears severely-lacking in much media today, particularly when objectivity is overshadowed by being beholden to industry advertisers. When you shape the story and don’t simply factually report it, you are not truly a journalist—you are tiptoeing the line between journalism and public relations. When obvious breakdowns are not mentioned—in even briefest fashion and not in graphic detail—it implies two things: the industry has something shameful to hide, and/or they simply don’t care, that casualties are part of the price to be paid in the name of “sport” and thus not worth mentioning.

I know I’m quixotic in my thinking about journalism—and, for full disclosure, let me say I entered college intent on becoming a sports journalist and have worked professionally (i.e. got paid) as a feature writer for a small city daily while finishing my dissertation. While I chose what I thought was the lesser evil before which to prostitute myself (the throne of academia), I now realize that, unless you are self-employed, most occupations require you to sell your soul occasionally. It just appears that certain jobs require a higher price to be paid when it comes to being “fair and unbiased.” Or maybe they are just paying lip service to that old adage, and independent, accurate reporting is just a thing of the past in traditional media.

28 comments:

Glenn Craven said...

I'm 100 percent with you on the need to have mentioned the unfortunate mare's breakdown in any accurate and complete reporting of the race. It needn't be graphic, but the story SHOULD say that she broke down and was euthanized (on track or later) and should also report on the condition of the rider.

Interesting that you bring it up, as I'm squabbling with an "Anonymous" over at my blog about what constitutes good, fair and unbiased journalism. (Not to mention somehow needing to defend Google as a viable means of locating relevant information.)

It isn't just some journalists, of which I'm one, who have forgotten what unbiased and thorough reporting are supposed to be. It seems a number of readers don't know and don't care anymore. Maybe they haven't seen enough of it lately to know what they're missing or why it's important.

RIP to All Smiles. At least she wasn't forgotten by everyone who witnessed and wrote about her final trip.

Fran Jurga said...

Valerie, thanks so much for your post and for verbalizing what I've been noticing is a growing trend.

I see it not just in racing but in the sport of three-day eventing where horse crashes and deaths have been higher than normal the past few years. There also seem to be a lot of "media training" seminars going on for trainers and riders to learn how to deal with what's left of the media that might ask embarrassingly frank questions.

In cases like All Smiles', there should at least be a footnote or a short but simple recognition of a did-not-finish and did-not-survive entry if the circumstances involve the well-being of the horse.

RIP, All Smiles, I hope you get more press than the winner.

Kincsem1874 said...

I also agree with your point. As you note, the info can be viewed as touchy from a PR view; however, it is unacceptable to edit out such tragic but noteworthy information from news copy.

Still, it's a bit of a rock and a hard place, even without censorship intentions. To play defender for a moment: Should the news copy mention it, one sentence would not be enough -- how much to write? Is there too much ironic counterpoint for the intent of the piece? Undoubtedly someone will criticize whatever coverage there is from some point of view.

malcer said...

When I watched that race yesterday, I was wondering how such an obvious incident would get handled by the racing media.

Glossing over the incident never works. People will notice the problem anyway, and without readily available statistics and context, gross exaggerations will blossom.

malcer said...

@Kincsem: one sentence would be enough. The report could just include a sentence like "All Smiles broke down near the finish line and had to be euthanized". In this special case you could also mention the extremely prominent way a distressed All Smiles threw her jockey literally a few yards before the line.

It's not about throwing stones every time an accident happens, it's about giving a complete account. And about the difference between a journalist and a PR person.

teresa said...

I completely agree with your major point, Valerie, about the incident needing to be mentioned. And it's one of the many reasons I like Bossert and Fountaine at the News and the Post respectively--they nearly always report on racing injuries.

I wonder whether factors other than editorial choice were in play here. Was there a deadline that needed to be met before official information could be garnered?

And Glenn, I'm sure that as a journalist you know that rider information can't be given out without permission of the rider and/or his/her family--if that's not forthcoming, there's nothing the writer can do about it.

Superfecta said...

Totally agree - even when it turns out the news is fine, a horse going down seems to be left out. I recall seeing a horse fall in a race (also at Delaware Park, as it happens) just before the wire - it turned out she was simply exhausted and was absolutely fine, just a bit bruised, but the recaps of the race never even mentioned her.

We only discovered what happened later because a friend had a horse stabled near the one in question. It should have the very least been mentioned and followed up on - one could have easily questioned why a horse who was not fit enough to be running in that particular race was cleared to go, even if the outcome was a happy one in that particular situation.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Foolish Pleasure wrote:

When you shape the story and don’t simply factually report it, you are not truly a journalist—you are tiptoeing the line between journalism and public relations.

I concur. The problem of breakdowns in stakes races is quite a frequent occurence that this type of "gloss over" reporting is sure to occur again shortly.

The fault may lie not with the writers themselves but perhaps also their editors who have taken a stance to report the "clean version" of the stakes race.

Only if the writers and editors start to cover the good,the bad, the ugly, will the thoroughbred breed start to reverse it's course towards an unraceable, unbreedable horse.

Until then I'm counting on bloggers like Foolish Pleasure to reveal these episodes. No one else will.

Nick said...

I always find it a bit hypocritical that the industry keeps talking about how much they care about the horses and yet things like this happen. Not only are incidents completely ignored but often when they are mentioned I'm left wondering 'But what about the horse?'

It's even worse when you are at the track and it's obvious that *something* is going on with one of the horses and yet there is nothing but silence from track officials. It needs to change.

JLDecker said...

It's been a slow build, but I've noticed it happening, too.

Remember last year, when the Breeders' Cup did "What's Your Perfect Trip?", and I groused about how they'd cut up the footage of Round Pond's Distaff win to omit Pine Island's breakdown in the backstretch?

In short: I'm right there with you, Val. Doctoring the past does nothing to help the future; it makes us look underhanded.

Anonymous said...

I love to watch the race replays on the internet. When I watched the Obeah Stakes and saw All Smiles clearly injured I searched the internet to find out what happened to All Smiles. I came across a piece about her in a Maryland race story where All Smiles went off as the favorite in a previous race. Then I found this. Thank you one and all who agree that the story is incomplete. When this happens, and it does happen, I want to know what happened to the horse that broke down. As many have noted it doesn't need to be graphic. I just want to know if All Smiles was humanely euthanized, received medical treatment, whatever. Without the horses there would be no story.

suebroux said...

It's a sad epitaph for a horse to be presented as "DNF" or "pulled up" as its final chart. I agree that reporting should be concise and complete - graphic details not required.

I'm all in favor of hacking up racing footage in replays to eliminate viewing ugly breakdowns. Watching that kind of stuff over and over hovers around the "morbid curiosity" and isn't exactly great PR.

sid fernando said...

Val, excellent post.

And I've noticed that on these issues of journalistic integrity, it's always the small, same group that seems to comment.

SaratogaSpa said...

This is a disturbing trend. Teresa mentions that the NY Post and Daily News regularly report breakdowns, which is true. However I find NYRA, both on their website and in their handicapping spots on the OTB channel to be lacking.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

You are a credit to quixoticism. My favourite horse ever, Colonial Secretary, died after breaking an ankle a couple years after he finished a long gutsy career. Never saw a happier horse than when he entered the walking ring for the first time each year and saw all the people waiting for him. He died in the middle of his life because he raced so long, for my entertainment. I remember his races, not his death, but I know what happened. And still I pack my papers and binoculars and head to the races on the weekend.

G. Rarick said...

Good post, and I absolutely agree that not acknowledging the obvious makes the industry look either uncaring or underhanded. As to the comment that information on the rider might not be able to be disclosed, I think you're putting the cart before the horse. A journalist can certainly report the accident. We don't necessarily need the medical report on the jockey. But a sentence acknowledging the breakdown would definitely be needed in any decent story on the race.

Anonymous said...

I agree they should include a status report on the mare. I wondered about it all night and finally e-mailed public relations at Delaware Park - here is their reply.

We have just had an update on the condition of All Smiles from the trainer.
Dr. Richardson of New Bolton Center has performed surgery and everything
went very well. The prognosis for her is very good.

They are hoping she may be vanned back to the farm in 5-7 days. She has
been retired from racing but will begin a career as a broodmare at the
owners farm.

Kind regards,

Jayne Lornie
Production/Website Manager
Delaware Park Racing Slots & Golf

tvnewsbadge said...

To not mention the death of that horse is certainly despicable and to cover it up certainly does nothing to improve the already shoddy reputation horse racing has among members of the general public.
Sadly, it's not uncommon among members of the sportin' press. I've witnessed several "incidents" at my local track during the current meet and all have gone unreported, the horses only listed as "also ran".
Of course, these are small time claiming races with unknown horses, so no one notices. But there's something seriously wrong with journalists sugar coat breakdowns even at big events like this one.
Soemthing seriously wrong with the journalists, and something seriously wrong with the system that encourges such "oversight".

Susan said...

See Comment #17 above - The mare was not euthanized - she is expected to recover.

Valerie said...

Thank you all for your passionate comments, and particularly Jayne for the update on All Smiles’ condition.

In this age of pessimism, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in fearing the worst for the mare, especially as it looked so bad when the breakdown occurred. Which is exactly why the initial reports of the race should have mentioned what happened—to clearly, factually, dispassionately note the event so fans and particularly non-fans understand that not every injury results in a tragic outcome, and that such occurrences are not de rigueur for the sport. Accidents happen, but more infrequently than opponents would have you think—horse racing is not a blood sport, and the vast majority of the people involved truly love the animals. Only by acknowledgement, not cover-up, can the industry be held accountable for things that can be done better although, as tough as it is to accept, sometimes bad things happen—although hopefully as few times as humanly-possible.

Anonymous said...

Just to play devil's advocate - there was a time when the local journals all had on-track coverage. Increasingly, these positions are being eliminated. I have worked as a racing official for years at several tracks and I can tell you that, unless the journalist was actually on-site and saw the event first-hand, it is inappropriate to report on a breakdown. Any time a horse pulls up, falls down, etc. the old game of "Telephone" begins and the rumours start flying about death and dismemberment. I cannot tell you how many times over the course of my career I have heard reports about a dead horse that I personally have witnessed later walking the shedrow. To speculate from afar when there is no on-track journalist would be irresponsible.
I don't believe that, in the majority of cases where a breakdown is not discussed in print, that there is a Cover-Up. The majority of major tracks now (including Delaware) participate in the Equine Injury Database reporting system and I can tell you that if a report is not filed in a timely manner, heads roll. The industry is taking the reporting of injuries very seriously.

Gary said...

It is so unbelievable Valerie. Your heart is so refreshing. I didn't check here and I should have. I thought I might be the only one who cared. When I saw the breakdown I guessed it was the end for All Smiles. I am so pleasantly informed here that things look good. In these situations like this nothing at all matters to me except all come out healthy. Unbridled belles great performance was really secondary to me after witnessing such a thing. Whoever brought the update THANKS. It is so so so great to hear this. Thanks to the owner in seeing it through.

tvnewsbadge said...

"To speculate from afar when there is no on-track journalist would be irresponsible."

I witnessed on incident at my local track last year where I was able to later confirm that the horse was put down, even though it took a couple of days of jumping through hoops with track officials.
At the end of the meet, I was able to get the total fatality stats (on the high side for turf)from the track Vet via telephone.

It takes some effort, but accurate information is there for the news media (at least it was at my local track last year)even if there is not an on site reporter, so I don't buy that argument for not publishing the information.

The media simply doesn't think such information is important enough to print.
If they did, you find far less of this "game of "Telephone" begins and the rumours start flying about death and dismemberment."

Teresa said...

It seems like it would be fair to talk to some of the "media" that is being pilloried here before assuming that a lack of caring, an industry-wide conspiracy to cover up, or any other nefarious intent is responsible for the lack of coverage.

It's easy to criticize when few of us are in the position of actually doing this reporting--any media types out there who might like to weigh in?

malcer said...

"It seems like it would be fair to talk to some of the "media" that is being pilloried here before assuming that a lack of caring, an industry-wide conspiracy to cover up, or any other nefarious intent is responsible for the lack of coverage." -

Not quite sure how you arrive at that conclusion. The point of this article and the comments was that the racing media should mention such incidents, and it still stands.

It's the media's job to give a full account, not the audience's job to "talk to some of the media" if they actually want the complete story.

It eventually took an email to the racetrack to get an update, the essence of which would have been easily available for the racing media that evening (e.g. "horse was injured in the race and will undergo surgery"). This kind of turning a blind eye on incidents is precisely what looks like "a lack of caring, an industry-wide conspiracy to cover up".

tvnewsbadge said...

"It's easy to criticize when few of us are in the position of actually doing this reporting--any media types out there who might like to weigh in?"

What disturbs me the most is that you would think that after the public out cry following the Eight Belles tragedy, the media would have become at least somewhat interested in the topic of track safety, and yet reportage it,in my area at least,is non-existent or worse.
After the Kentucky Derby,for example, one fella started an article with the line Nobody died running the Kentucky Derby this year...
It would have screwed up his "point" to mention Stormalory. He went down in a race and was given the needle Friday the day before the Derby, the same day as the Kentucky Oaks.

I realize because no one had ever heard of this horse and he didn't die in living color on national television audience, his death was not news.

I also would certainly like to hear how the members of the media justify this kind of selective reporting.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Anonymous said...

Just to play devil's advocate - there was a time when the local journals all had on-track coverage. Increasingly, these positions are being eliminated.

I have worked as a racing official for years at several tracks and I can tell you that, unless the journalist was actually on-site and saw the event first-hand, it is inappropriate to report on a breakdown.


__________

I watched the replay yesterday and that thought did occur to me. That the writers covering the race were not on track.

They probably wrote the story after watching the video feed of the race. They only had the glimpse of the jockey being thrown at the wire. It wasn't a violent incident (compared to others) so the writers played it safe by ignoring it.

sabre saw said...

Several of these later posts imply (through hypothetical sentences) that All Smiles was put down. Then folks are mislead to believe she died. (RIP All Smiles)

Last I heard she'd undergone surgery at New Bolton with a good prognosis. As Mark Twain once said, "The
reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Good luck, All Smiles!