Sprinting from a Cubs game at Wrigley Field back in 1978, Ray Paulick could think of only one thing: Affirmed and Alydar.
The legendary Thoroughbreds were about to make history in the famous Belmont duel as Paulick burst into a Chicago bar searching for a television set.
Suddenly, the Belmont Park gate sprang open and Paulick was on his feet, shouting at the small black-and-white television set, rooting for Affirmed with a passion that could only be matched by a die-hard Cubs fan. That’s when Paulick realized he was destined to be caught up in the Sport of Kings.
By the next year, he was living in Los Angeles and covering the glory days of racing at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, witnessing Affirmed give the best racing performance he ever saw, at the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Over the years, Paulick earned his stripes as a top-notch racing journalist, most notably as the editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse for 15 years, and as the founder of the go-to online racing industry publication The Paulick Report.
In addition, he has appeared as an industry expert on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and ESPN, and has participated in numerous race-related conferences in the United States and abroad, as well as dozens of local television and radio broadcasts.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Ray Paulick answers questions about the racing industry as a whole, his history and love of the sport, and the growing awareness of the un-wanted horse.
Q: Ray, what was the genesis of the Paulick Report?
There’s an old expression that necessity is the mother of invention. By necessity, I needed to find something new to do after exiting the Blood Horse in 2007.
I was toying with the idea of a lot of different things in and outside the horse industry, and someone suggested to me that they felt there was a need for an independent voice in racing.
Because the industry was at a critical time, it always seems to be at a critical time, I decided to create the Paulick Report and model it after The Drudge Report.
And, Brad Cummings, who was a much younger guy with a lot of energy and good ideas, worked tirelessly to help me hash out a plan for the site.
Q: People have said to me that Paulick Report ‘tells it like it is.’ Is that an accurate assessment?
I’ve always felt, including during the 15 years I was at Blood-Horse, that the industry has escaped a critical media that really hasn’t existed.
I don’t mean a negative media, but I mean one that examines issues, even difficult ones, and reports on it. An industry that doesn’t have critical coverage really has a problem, because you need someone, whether it’s me or someone else, to call out things are important issues, or reveal things that are wrong.
Over the years, there has been fear— and there still is— that if you say something the industry doesn’t want to hear, the messenger will be killed. I find that not to be true.
Q: How did the issue of horse slaughter or OTTB aftercare get onto the Paulick Report radar? And, how has the Thoroughbred racing community reacted to your coverage?
In the 25 years I’ve been in Kentucky, the transformations surrounding the issue of un-wanted horse, has been significant.
Twenty five years ago, when I was at the Thoroughbred Times, and was just kind of discovering the staggering numbers of unwanted horses, and slaughter, there was only one horse-rescue organization I was aware of—the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
At the time, I suggested we do a story on (the TRF), and the reaction was, “Oh God, no! We don’t want people to know how many horses we slaughter.”
When you look in other areas of life, for example, in a family with a child with developmental disabilities, in the old days, the family wouldn’t want anybody to know. In a lot of ways, society has changed in that regard, and in horseracing, a very positive change has come, and awareness has really increased.
Now there are positive efforts on so many fronts, and instead of one horse rescue, we have dozens, if not hundreds, coast to coast.
And the Thoroughbred industry has really responded with the advent of the Thoroughbred AfterCare Alliance, and positive efforts being made at Keeneland, by the Jockey Club, and major stallion farms.
The OTTB Showcase, which we feature on the Paulick Report, is an extension of the growth in aftercare awareness and in the industry’s maturity in dealing with this issue.
Q: How is the horse-welfare movement impacting Thoroughbred racing?
These are not easy issues. And I think with difficult issues, if there were easy answers we would have had them a long time ago.
I was with the TRF board for five years, and I learned that you can’t save every horse, and every horse can’t end up as a hunter/jumper— the numbers of at-risk horses are staggering; but, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something.
Don’t let the impossible get in the way of the possible.
When I joined the TRF, they had just expanded the number of the horses in the herd, and it grew to the point that they couldn’t afford it. And, they didn’t have a euthanasia policy that was aligned with economic or financial common sense.
Euthanasia has to be part of the program. There are some retired racehorses that are incapable of becoming riding horses, because of injuries.
Q: Can the self-examination taking place within the Thoroughbred industry be compared to other professional sports organizations, for example, the National Football League, as they grapple with the issue of head injuries to players?
I think there are parallels.
I don’t know what the tipping point in football, whether it was one of the numerous suicides, or if it was these ongoing concussions. The crisis with concussions is the biggest they’ve had.
We hit a tipping with Thoroughbred racing point in 2008 when Eight Belles broke down, and Big Brown won the Derby and Preakness. At the time, it was acknowledged by Rick Dutrow that Big Brown was on a twice-monthly steroid regimen.
This came after baseball’s tipping point with Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire, and the ridiculous home-run race.
But horse racing has two issues. One, reigning in the overuse of medication, both therapeutic and performance enhancing. Two, we have these former athletes who are basically, in the majority, unwanted at the end of their careers.
By far, this is the tougher issue. Drug problems can be cleared up with increased surveillance and tougher penalties. But, the unwanted horse situation is a much bigger issue, and I don’t know there is a solution for that.
Q: As a national sport or pastime, what has become of Thoroughbred racing?
When I got involved with the sport in the late 1970s, it was a golden era in California. In Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, they were averaging 27,000 people daily, on the track.
In 1980, Hollywood had over a day with over 80,000 attendants, and Santa Anita had 85,000 attend a banner day in 1985, when Lord at War won.
In the late 70s and early 80s horse racing in Southern California, it was huge. It had already declined in NY.
This year, the Santa Anita handicap had 30,000 people in attendance.
The 1970s had three Triple Crown winners: Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Racing was a pretty big deal.
Today the only places that feels like it did back then is Keeneland, during shorter meets the place is jam packed with people. And, Saratoga is the best of the year, and Del Mar also has a great meeting.
Q: Why has attendance dropped off?
A: There’s so much more competition, for gambling and entertainment, and B: You can sit at home and watch racing on your TV, computer, or phone. You can bet by phone.
In Southern California, during its height, it was the only place in entire Los Angeles are where you could bet. Now, the convenience wagering has neutralized necessity to go to the track.
The problem is that it’s at the racetrack where you develop a fan. You don’t develop it on a phone. The only racing that’s on TV is Kentucky Derby and a couple other races.
Q: How important are casinos/slots to the survival of American horse racing?
If there’s going to be a casino near a racetrack, racing is far better off having it at the racetrack itself. This is much better than having to compete with it— I don’t know of any racetracks that can successfully compete with casinos.
Racing’s in a spot where they can’t say no to it. If a casino is going to come to an area near a track, it’s going to cut into the track’s market share.
The problem becomes when the track owners sell to a casino company and the casinos say we don’t care about horse racing.
I’ve seen several racetracks with casinos … and the racing side of the business, with the stabling area, and the track, isn’t as modern as the casino.
Q: How has horse racing changed since you first started covering the sport? Is it possible it will ever be embraced again by Americans, like it was in Seabiscuit’s day?
The glimmer of hope in this is that horse racing is still a great sport!
If the track and facilities are in good shape, and you have good customer service, it can still attract new fans.
The problem with all that, a lot of the facilities, that have been operating as casinos/tracks, they haven’t improved the racing side.
Honestly, the best thing that horse racing has going for it has never changed. It is the unbelievably magnificent animals.
It’s a beautiful sport to watch, it’s exciting, and you can bet on it.
Churchill Downs, with the adoption of night racing, has really started to bring in good attendance. Instead of offering a live race every 30 minutes, they’re making it over into a nightclub atmosphere that is attracting a younger audience.
And Keeneland held an event recently where they gave out 10, $1,000 college scholarships. It was jammed.
But, unlike the old days, when all you had to do was open the doors and people came in, today, you have to promote the sport.
We have a fantastic sport to promote, and Saratoga is celebrating 150 years of operation this summer.
And you can’t enjoy Saratoga on your three-inch iPhone screen. You need to enjoy it by going out to the track, getting close to the rail, and hanging onto your ticket!