In the 2011 Jockey Club consumer research study, McKinsey & Company found that “…only 22% of the general public has a positive impression of Thoroughbred racing…” and a meager 16 percent believe that racing “is beneficial for its local community.”

Racing is not held in high esteem by the U. S. population for several reasons, but primarily due to its link to gambling. A sizeable segment is opposed to any form of gambling, as demonstrated by the difficulty of getting casino-type initiatives passed in various states and communities, including Kentucky, the longtime heart of the breeding enterprise and home to America’s most famous race.

Other causes are horse slaughter, on-track breakdowns, and the perception that racehorses are full of drugs. These are interrelated and synergistic and together can convey the unwanted message that racehorse owners and trainers callously look upon their equine charges as little more than depreciable factors of production to be fixed up to race and discarded when worn out.

The well-documented psychological principle of halo effect is a powerful argument for doing everything feasible to address the forgoing issues. The halo effect means that humans tend to generalize, often wrongly, about people and things based on one or a few characteristics.

Owing to the halo effect, we may conclude, for instance, that because a highly successful major college coach appears to be friendly and likeable, he is also ethical and caring. Or a reverse halo effect could plague a “polluting” coal company, even though coal also accounts for about half of the electricity generated in the United States and employs several hundred thousand people.

Racing is vulnerable to a negative halo effect because of its connections to gambling, and its reputation for drugs, breakdowns, and lack of adequate after-care. The more these objections can be mitigated—and drugs, breakdowns, and slaughter can be—the less reason people will have to formulate sweeping adverse judgments about the entire sport.

The halo effect is also fostered by initial impressions. When a person goes to the racetrack for the first time, he or she is apt to formulate lasting attitudes toward racing, positive or negative, depending on what the experience was like. It is unsurprising that people keep coming back to Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar racetrack year after year, whereas the gatherings at seedy racetracks tend to be sparse and reflective of the environment.

At its best, horse racing is an elegant old sport and, at its worst, is a blight. The path forward is for the good people in the industry, who are in the vast majority and who care deeply about the welfare of their racehorses, to vigorously drive out the undesirables. And, unfortunately, this is a never-ending process in most institutions, from blue-ribbon Wall Street firms to established and venerable nonprofits.

Copyright © 2013 Horse Racing Business