Ray Paulick on racing’s future, unwanted horses

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Ray Paulick, founder of The Paulick Report

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?

Ray Paulick and the legendary Barbaro

Ray Paulick, left, with the legendary Barbaro

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?

Santa Anita, where Ray Paulick covered racing in its glory days

Santa Anita, where Ray Paulick covered racing in its glory days

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?

Paulick at his first Kentucky Derby

Paulick at his first Kentucky Derby

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?

Paulick holds Curlin's Horse of the Year trophy

Paulick holds Curlin’s Horse of the Year trophy

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!

15 responses to “Ray Paulick on racing’s future, unwanted horses”

  1. Nikki Smith

    Great article! I love Ray’s insight! Been following him since I was at the U of A’s RTIP program and beyond! Kudos!

  2. Christy

    Love Ray Paulick!!! What great insight from a man who cares. Thank you, Ray. Racing IS a great sport. I get very discouraged by TB “lovers” who hate racing and hate the industry. They wouldn’t have a horse to love without racing and the race industry!!! Our owners and trainers need to DEMAND that their Jockey Clubs create retirement funds. And then they need to utilize them! Then everyone wins. I currently have two OTTBs and volunteer for Kim Clark at Thoroughbred Placement Resources in MD. There is no finer athlete than the American TB.

  3. Richard Vasilaikos

    Third paragraph: “gate” NOT “gait.” Ooops! Nice article, though! Congrats on your third place ESMA.

  4. Eddie De Vivo

    Dear Ray,
    The problem of the unwanted horse and horse slaughter is worldwide. I live in Australia and we have the same problem. I have been an avid fan for over 40 years like yourself through the halycon days of the 70′s to the present time. I also am a breeder and racehorse owner. I believe the problem lies in the fact that we just breed to many horses. To reduce the numbers is difficult even though this is happening as small breeders get out of the game as the Totes and raceclubs are privately owned and the Clubs want big fields to attract racegoers to their tracks and the Tote’s want punters to bet at their agencies. It is an Industry and everything really is geared for Clubs, Totes and the big Studs to make a profit. Somehow this situation has to be addressed as the only way to put an end to the unwanted horse and to horse slaughter is to significantly reduce the numbers worldwide of horses being bred. In America I believe over 100,000 quarter horses are bred every year. These are huge numbers. I don’t know if this figure is right but if it is true I think everyone can see the scale and enormity of the problem. regards Eddie De Vivo

  5. Morgan Skilling

    Great interview. I don’t hate racing per se, as a sport. I agree with Eddie from Australia – far too many horses are being born. And there are rules that create an industry that works to maximize short-term potential profit over long-term health of the animal and longevity of career. Although it’s a small percentage overall of the overpopulation, perhaps a public awareness campaign like there’s been with cats and dogs. I’ve run into numerous people who want to breed their horse so their kids have the experience of a foaling. I have an OTTB who retired sound at 5 and is enjoying his career change immensely. I also adopted a starving 2 year old from a Thoroughbred farm in Louisiana (one of over 50 neglected horses) through the Louisiana Horse Rescue Association. In a better life my rescue would be getting ready to start at the track.

    Horses are expensive, and long-lived. They rely on us for lifelong care. I hope the racing industry realizes that as the public awareness of these issues grows, the pressure to make changes is only going to increase. The industry had better move quickly or it will see changes it may not like be forced upon it.

  6. TBDancer

    I have always loved horses and racing–Swaps should have won that match race against Nashua!

    Like many who watched racing from afar, I was unaware of the “dark corners” of the industry–I’d go to the county fair and think every horse was beautiful. Eventually my eyes were opened.

    With the light being cast into those dark corners today, some of the not-so-good things are being fixed–track surfaces and conditions, working conditions for backstretch folks who are absolutely essential to make racing so “pretty” out there in the bright lights, improvements in surgeries, rehabilitation, humane treatment of retired runners, the disabled jockeys fund, etc. Knowledge is power, and those of us who witness these horses’ connections stepping up to the plate– taking responsibility for horses they raised, owned or trained that are no longer able to race, putting money into rescue and retraining facilities, assessing horses properly for second careers or disposing of them humanely when there is no other option–casts a better light on the industry as a whole.

    There are too many Brave Miners and others who slip through the cracks and are lost, but the industry itself is beginning to wake up to the fact that we out here in “Public Land” do care. We cannot save them all–as Ray said, some racehorses just cannot go on to second careers. But we can be more humane in the dispatching of those who must be “sent on their journey” and build awareness of what else must be done.

  7. Susan F. Spiro

    I have been a recent reader of Mr Paulick’s Forum which is willing to tackle the serious issues of the industry. This Q&A however raises the bar and both the moderator, Ms Salk” questions and the respondent, Mr Paulick’s answers were thoughtful, intelligent and informative. I also respect the comments of Mr. Devivo and Ms Skilling, they are truly addressing the “elephant in the room” issue, overbreeding. Everything else is necessary at this point because the economics of breeding has overwhelmed common sense and the welfare of the horse athlete. I agree that all the suggestions put forth: rescues, owners and trainers more responsible for the animals in their care and the often mentioned mandatory setting a % of all horses winnings and track “takes” to be offered for the after care of these wonderful athletes, need to be a part of the solution at this time, but the overbreeding must be addressed with authority, otherwise not being able to save all the horses will continue to be acceptable as part doing business. One more thing, perhaps there needs to be more Old Friends facilities, real sanctuaries , well funded, to provide employment instead of slaughterhouses. Thank you.

  8. KathrynW

    Nice article! And you had to include that Barbaro photo, just to make me weepy, Susan. Sure brought all those memories back! He inspired so many of us to see where we could make a difference for horse welfare.
    There are so many options now for people to spend their time and money, but there’s nothing like Saratoga, even if you can’t get to the backstretch there. Ray’s right, it is racing’s best.
    I love the athleticism and beauty of horses, that’s the positives of racing. I’m hopeful that the TB racing and breeding industries will see that they put themselves on a dead-end course if they don’t condemn slaughter and ensure more post-racing options for their horses.
    I hope that people will contact their US Congressman/woman and both senators today. Ask them to cosponsor HR.1094/S.541, the Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2013. Contact your two US Senators and one US Congressman via the “find your elected officials” box here: http://votesmart.org/

  9. Valorie

    I am glad to see that people are starting to realize that the “unwanted horse” is a HUMAN problem. We create it, and we must stop it. Horse slaughter does not CURE the problem of breeders over breeding and then dumping their “unwanted” AKA unprofitable horses on the saturated market. (by the way, killing 9 million “unwanted” dogs and cats every year does not cure the unwanted dog and cat problem either because there is no accountability to breeders)

    The racing industry has many black eyes, and as a life long horse lover, have never supported it. Not only does it over produce potential race horses, most of whom will never see their 3rd birthday, but even the small percentage of “successful” horses are discarded when no longer useful. I wish this were the only problem, but when profit and animals come together, there is abuse. Young horses are run on immature skeletal systems and they are pushed past their biological limit. This is why they literally break a leg running down the track. This has never been properly addressed and resolved as the industry just turns the blind eye. Money rules the game, and the horses pay, pay, pay. There is little regard for their 30 year life span, their career if they do not “make it” and their overall well being. I am glad to see that there is one journalist brave enough to talk about these things.

  10. Jackie

    Thank you for addressing this issue of unwanted racehorses,
    I’m in the business 30 years Trainer Rider and I feel the most important thing to address is to stop steroid joint injection there is no control it is over done after the overuse and abuse of joint injections the horses have no Cartlidge left, at this point if the horse doesn’t break down racing or in the morning when the public is unaware of how many horses die, if we could stop the use of joint injections then we could prove x racehorses can stay sound and hold up for showing, so we can find them good show homes ,because the Wormblood have taken over one reason because they’re not started untill there six years old and fully developed, and parx has the most dangerous surface for the racehorse I don’t even know how many horses I’ve seen put to sleep on the racetrack in the morning this year ! I if the trainers complain about the base and the surface they tell them leave if you don’t like it and construction during training hours unbelievable and people in the area don’t even know the racetrack exist they don’t advertise. ? mentioned the casino for 10 minutes on the radio not once about horse racing ? The casino wants to prove horseracing cannot sustain itself

  11. Valorie

    Jackie,
    Thank you for being honest. You have proven my point. Why are we injecting the joints of BABIES? Why are we riding/running babies that, in your words, “are not fully developed”? This is why they break down. The training process itself renders them useless in many cases for other sports. We also have to remember that TB horses are bred to run, and that often makes them too hot for other careers. The reality is that the racing industry is a bad business model based on a very small percentage of “winners”, and the casualties (at least 95%) are so high that this business is not solvent. There are few winners and most lose, especially the innocent animals that don’t sign up for this. They don’t ask to be born into this slave trade. Nor do they want to be washed up and headed for a slaughterhouse before they are even mature. When Eight Belles broke her leg, there was an outcry in the media for change. I don’t see that anything has changed. This industry cannot be trusted to look out for the horse.

  12. Christy

    Valorie, I love and agree with most everything you said, but would disagree with the part that OTTBs are often too hot for other careers. I’ve been riding and training horses since the age of 9 (now almost 41! ACK!!!) and have NEVER met an OTTB who was too hot to retrain. What I have met is inexperienced horse people trying to do the retraining and THAT is not a good combination. OTTBs come off the track with a stellar work ethic. Most of them have worked seven days a week since they were long yearlings. What they need is a skilled horseman to tap into that work ethic and give them a job. The worst thing one can do with an OTTB is to “retire” them or even to “give them time to decompress.” They don’t need time off, they NEED to work. That doesn’t mean they need to “run” or that they need to act a fool. They just need that work ethic redirected. My nine year old daughter has her own nine year old OTTB who came off the track sound two years ago at the age of seven. He is the calmest, sweetest, most docile horse I’ve ever owned, but he MUST work a minimum of 4-5 days a week to keep his mind engaged. She has even taken him swimming while on trail rides. I know hundreds of others just like him. Where we fail the OTTB is putting them into homes that are not prepared to manage their work ethic and their athleticism. That doesn’t make them “too hot” for other careers. It’s make us too quick to hand them over to anybody who wants one. Yet another reason why we must DEMAND that The Jockey Club (my Maryland Jockey Club in particular), not only endorse and fund a CREDITABLE race retiring/retraining program (such at Thoroughbred Placement Resources run by Kim Clark in Upper Marlboro, MD), but that they ensure that each horse goes through one.

  13. Valorie

    Christy,
    I am glad you have had that experience. I have seen some dangerous and hot TB’s that were off the track (made that way with the training). I had one that would flip over backwards and broke my room mates pelvis back in college because she had bad experiences in the start gate.

    I know there are good ones too, however, there are not enough homes with experienced horse owners to absorb them all. You also have to remember that most horse owners don’t ride several days per week. They are often times weekend warriors. Horses that need to be worked several days per week don’t work well in those homes. It’s not a question of can they do other things, it’s a question of suitability and availability to particular homes.

    Obviously, there are not enough homes to absorb these horses. We cannot keep producing horses with no future and ethically, we have a responsibility to stop over breeding them. If it takes breeding 100 horses to produce 3 or 4 that are successful, that is an EPIC FAIL. I wish that the industry would realize that this is not working and stop. No rescue or rehab program (and they are out there) will guarantee these horses live out their lives with permanent homes. That has been proven. There is no band aid big enough for this.

  14. Shelby Kraut

    I think this is a good website. It does explain a lot of different problems. I agree that there are two many Thoroughbreds being born.

    I have been trying to spread the information about the website above.
    It is for a story I have been trying to write. It is about a fictional Thoroughbred Stallion named Devel Ray who started racing before 9/11. He continued his career during and after it. He was an inspiration to help people during this tough time.

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