Archives for October 2021


The uproar over the Saudi Arabian acquisition of the Newcastle soccer club of the Premier League is the latest example of human-rights considerations emerging in the world of big-time sports. International horse racing is no exception.

The hapless Newcastle club was purchased for 300-million pounds ($409 million) by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) and two partners, British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners.  PIF will own 80%.  With this kind of monetary wherewithal to attract top players, Newcastle is unlikely to be wretched for long.

Human rights activists strenuously objected to the sale over Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and the Kingdom’s treatment of women and certain disapproved citizens.  This resulted in a lengthy legal fight over who would control the Newcastle team if the sale went through. That was finessed when it was agreed that PIF would buy and run the team and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would not have any say.  This distinction is largely meaningless in that the Crown Prince chairs the PIF.

Another target of human rights organizations is the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing.  Because of the Chinese government’s authoritarian conduct toward its citizens in general and its persecution of Uyghurs and Hong Kong freedom fighters in particular, there are compelling reasons for not holding the Olympics in such a repressive country. 

Owners of world-class racehorses are faced with the value-laden decision of whether to send their horses to compete in the world’s richest race—the $20 million Saudi Cup. Likewise, owners must decide whether to continue to race in Hong Kong now that the Chinese government has committed barbaric acts against peaceful Hong Kong dissidents?

Years of experience make it clear that concerns about human rights almost always take a back seat to vast sums of money.  As perhaps the best current case in point, the National Basketball Association and some of its most prominent players are notoriously hypocritical in this respect.  While speaking out often and loudly on various social-justice issues in the United States, they are manifestly quiet when it comes to China, owing to their lucrative business in China and knowing that offending the ruling regime would jeopardize the commerce. 

One school of thought is that sports events are a diversion from the problems of everyday life and should not be mixed with politics, whereas the opposing view is that sports cannot be divorced from societal issues. In the end, an athlete—or in the case of an equine athlete, its owner—must decide for himself or herself where and when to participate, if at all. No one else can make the determination, as it is a matter of personal values.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


The Breeders’ Cup trustees have decided that embattled trainer Bob Baffert will be permitted to run his horses in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar. The potential public-relations damage to horse racing is huge.

Mr. Baffert has the highest name recognition in American horse racing and is arguably the most successful trainer in the history of the sport in the United States.  He is the all-time leading money-winning trainer in Breeders’ Cup races.

Precisely because of his singular accomplishments, his celebrity, and the notoriety surrounding him over his trainee Medina Spirit testing positive for a banned substance in the Kentucky Derby, the worst outcome at the Breeders’ Cup championships would be for the colt to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  The second worst result would be for Mr. Baffert to train the winner of one or more of the feature races on the Breeders’ Cup undercard.

A Baffert win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be prime-time fodder for social media.  It would be like having one of the retired steroid-enabled home-run sluggers in Major League Baseball front and center at a World Series trophy presentation.

The announcers on the Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday telecasts will have to address Mr. Baffert’s history of having entries test positive for forbidden raceday medications, with the most infamous cases being Triple Crown winner Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby and Medina Spirit.  And the “bad optics” for horse racing will be exacerbated each and every time Mr. Baffert shows up for a nationally televised presentation in the Del Mar winners circle. 

With the Medina Spirit Kentucky Derby dispute still unresolved (and a NYRA disciplinary hearing scheduled for Mr. Baffert in early 2022), it would be best for the image of American horse racing if Mr. Baffert turned his horses over to another trainer for the Breeders’ Cup races.  That is highly unlikely, so the next best denouement is for them to lose.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


Bob Baffert is factually the most accomplished American trainer of Thoroughbred racehorses in the long history of the sport.  Similarly, Urban Meyer coached three collegiate football teams to national championships, which puts him in the upper echelon of college coaches historically.  John Gruden is not in the “great” category of NFL coaches, but he is certainly “very good” (as shown by his $10 million annual salary) and coached Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory.

Yet all three of these exceptional achievers suddenly have tarnished reputations, Baffert for his trainee Medina Spirit testing positive for a prohibited substance after winning the Kentucky Derby, Meyer for depiction in a video that went viral of him up close and personal in his Columbus, Ohio, bar/restaurant with a young woman, and Gruden for sending emails years ago containing derogatory remarks about several NFL participants.

A common thread in these episodes is that self-destructive behavior was amplified by a combination of smart phones, social media, email, texts, and the common carrier internet. High-profile individuals of previous eras did not have to account for these modern marvels.

In the case of Baffert, he went on national television shortly after the 2021 Kentucky Derby, apparently unprepared, and blamed the “cancel culture” for his dilemma.  Then he gave another interview and seemed to imply that some unnamed source was out to get him.  The woe-is-me explanations were pilloried in social media and added fuel to an already raging PR fire.

Meyer had a business reason to be in his own eating and drinking establishment, but he should have known that, as a former Ohio State University football coach, he would be swamped by fans…and recorded on smart phones.  This is precisely what happened when a suggestively-dancing young woman approached him while he appeared to be sitting on a bar stool…and a smart-phone visual promptly went out across the internet.

Gruden would likely have survived and remained coach of the Las Vegas Raiders had he made (deniable) oral comments rather than put them in emails.  The emails proved to be the “smoking gun” that ensured his downfall.

Given human frailties, all people whose jobs put them in the public eye have said and done things they would not want to become widely known.  But the singularity of the current day and age is that smart phones make reporters of us all, social media informs the world with lightning speed, and ratings-hungry news sources are always looking for click bait like Baffert, Meyer, and Gruden provided.

Many prudent leaders of business and non-profit organizations do not use corporate email and personal social media, and don’t put themselves in compromising situations.  That way, words and actions cannot be twisted and misconstrued. And legal and public-relations disasters don’t come about by comments or incidents of the kind that ensnared winners, respectively, of two Triple Crowns, three NCAA football titles, and a Super Bowl.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business