RACING’S MISGUIDED MUHAMMAD ALI PHILOSOPHY OF PUBLICITY

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between”

          Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen

On July 22, 1963, fearsome World’s Heavyweight Champion Charles “Sonny” Liston, an ex-con nicknamed “the Big Bear,” knocked out former champ Floyd Patterson in the first round to retain his title. The 2001 movie Ali, starring Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, depicts the brash 22-year-old former Olympic Gold Medalist boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, taunting the victorious Liston from ringside and challenging him to a title match.  That part of the movie is fiction because Clay was watching the Liston-Patterson fight on a giant-screen, closed-circuit television broadcast at Freedom Hall arena in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, along with thousands of other fans who had paid dearly to get in, including Yours Truly, to see less than one-round of boxing.

On my way out of Freedom Hall, I was walking along with a friend in the flow of the chattering crowd when Clay suddenly appeared near me with an entourage and members of the media tagging  along.  Being a somewhat brash youngster myself, of about Clay’s age, I called out something like, “Hey Cassius, how are you going to fight Liston?”  Always a consummate performer, the 6-foot-4-inch Clay approached me with alacrity, followed by a mass of people, and the show was on.  In a state of feigned or real excitement, he began to shout what he intended to do to “that big ugly bear.”  He pumped his right fist into his left hand and carried on for what seemed to be at least a couple of minutes, with me and the crowd laughing and encouraging the histrionics.   The young Clay/Ali radiated the magnetism that made him a superstar and one of the world’s most recognizable persons, even today.

At the weigh-in for the first Liston-Clay match on February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Clay acted so bizarre and out-of-control that some observers, including a physician and apparently Liston himself, thought he was scared to death and/or mentally unhinged.  That night, after evading the powerful Liston’s sizzling punches and surviving blinding linament in his eyes from contact with Liston’s gloves, the 8-1 underdog Clay won the title when Liston could not or would not answer the bell for the seventh round.  Bedlam ensued and Clay wildly proclaimed “I am the greatest,” and “I am the prettiest.” 

Ali grew up watching, on early television, a professional wrestler named Gorgeous George, who played a wretched villain so well that fans packed the arena to see him get his comeuppance.  Ali shrewdly adapted George’s approach to entice paying customers, boost television ratings, and psyche opponents.  In the Gorgeous George/Muhammad Ali school of thought, any publicity is good publicity, as long as it sells.

Maybe so for boxing, but certainly not for horse racing.

Yet in recent years, the publicity that Thoroughbred horse racing has received has been more bad than good.  What’s worse, racing has tended to exacerbate the problem.  How so?  Whenever the sport has experienced low points like the tragedies of Barbaro and Eight Belles, it has overreacted and overcompensated, to its detriment.  In its zeal to “show it cares,” racing has unintentionally shone the spotlight on the sport’s vulnerabilities.

Here are some recent cases in point of how the racing industry is its own worst enemy in disseminating images and words for public consumption.

The general public is, of course, most aware of horse racing in the United States during the five weeks of the Triple Crown.  Many people who never watch another horse race all year, tune in the Kentucky Derby.   Thus the telecasts of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, provide a very limited window of opportunity for racing to present itself in the best light to a large audience of casual viewers who know little or nothing about the sport.  Typically, each telecast tries to build up to the actual race through feel-good human-interest stories. 

Some of these glimpses are beneficial to the sport of racing.  Two, for instance, that come to mind are the tie-in between Afleet Alex and Alex’s Lemonade Stand in 2005 and the explanation of how Colonel John got his name in 2008.  But occasionally, one wonders what the producers were thinking.  In 2008, the Kentucky Derby telecast had a vignette that amounted to regaling an international audience with a soap opera.  We were told about a horse trainer whose tale of woe and redemption involved:  a badly broken man-woman relationship, substance abuse by the couple, the effects on their innocent young daughter, and the murder of the mother by a drug dealer.  Almost everyone appreciates redemption, but is this really the story the racing industry should be telling to a worldwide audience on the sport’s showcase day in America?  Especially a story that reinforces preexisting impressions of racing’s seamier side.  To compound matters, the subject trainer also had a history of medication rules violations with his horses and his Muhammad Ali-like bragging on his own colt and trashing of his colt’s competitors were unflattering.

Simply put, this segment did nothing to burnish racing’s image, already tarnished with allegations of drugged horses, cheating trainers, and rigged outcomes?   Quite the opposite, in fact.  Five weeks later, in the Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, sans steroids, was eased and finished dead last.  On-air commentator and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey candidly (maybe too candidly) said, “It makes you wonder.”

In the past several years, the racing fraternity has rightfully been distraught over the tragic injuries to Barbaro in the Preakness, George Washington in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby.  As a consequence, the industry has been proactive in such important areas as banning medication, improving track surfaces, outlawing toe grabs, and assessing the effects  of  inbreeding and line breeding on durability.  

However, the industry, through its Eclipse Media Awards,  keeps rewarding people for writing articles and doing television reports on the very subjects that have posed a public relations nightmare.   Consider a sampling of titles and subject matter of some of the winning entries in the past three years:

2006:  “Barbaro” (an HBO national television feature about the colt and his breakdown).

2006:  “A Nightmare Right from the Start” (a newspaper article  in a three-part series on the Barbaro injury and surgery.  Honorable Mention also went to an article on Barbaro).

2006:  “Man Whose Job is Saving Barbaro” (a newspaper article).

2007:   “Death and Durability of the Racehorse” (a three-part newspaper series on racehorse injuries).

2008:   “A Rose for Eight Belles” (a touching but emotional essay.   The runner-up article was “Eight Belles’ Breakdown:  A Predictable Tragedy”).

2008:  “Tragedy on the Track ” (the winner in the Audio and Multi-Media Internet category).

Unquestionably, these were interesting and well-crafted contributions by talented writers and producers.  But why so many awards to a theme that dwells on the most negative aspects of racing?   Why some of the titles that are self-indicting and convey mea culpa?  Tell people the bad about racing over and over and over and they believe it,  like Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate to a ringing bell.  Wouldn’t one or maybe two awards on the topic of breakdowns have served the purpose?

If you demur, ponder the following questions:

  • Were the 2009 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to return to the Super Bowl next year, would the National Football League allow the game’s telecast to delve into how the 2009 Super Bowl MVP, the Steelers’ Santonio Holmes, has a background encompassing marijuana sales and possession, domestic violence, and assault?  
  • If the NFL had an equivalent to the Media Eclipse Awards, would the League office sanction an award being given for an article or television program titled “Crippling Injuries and Paralysis on the Gridiron” –dealing with collisions that turned players into paraplegics and quadriplegics?
  • Would Major League Baseball allow the World Series telecast to explore steroid use by players from the present and past?
  • Would the National Basketball Association permit announcers to examine, during game 7 of the League championship, the recent case of the NBA referee who was allegedly on the take from gangsters? 

Am I suggesting censorship?  Yes, absolutely, but call it brand management–always be prudent in what you say and convey about yourself and your product offerings and never intentionally weaken brand equity. 

The racing industry is under no free-speech obligation to provide “fair and balanced” treatment in its own radio and television programs and in the awards it hands out.  There is enough public-relations fallout from newspaper writers who equate horse racing with dog fighting, television commentators who zero in on catastrophic breakdowns, and so on ad infinitum, without the industry piling on.  For instance, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal began its otherwise favorable review of the television show “Jockeys” with a gratuitous aside:  “…the new reality series filmed in part at Santa Anita track near Los Angeles does not, cannot, show the darkest underbelly of the horse-racing world…”

Racing needs to do a much better job of  oversight in what is said on the telecasts it is involved with, in formulating specific criteria for its Eclipse Awards, and generally in presenting the sport in a positive way.  This is not to suggest that subjects like drugs, injuries, and breakdowns should not be broached; dispassionate factual reports, without sensationalized titles and content, are necessary and useful in telling the public what steps racing is taking to correct its shortcomings. 

In the wake of the Eight Belles’ fatality, Steve Crist of the Daily Racing Form rationally pointed out that a breakdown had not occurred in the Kentucky Derby since about 75 years ago.  This statistic does not make the pain any easier, but it does put things in perspective for the public to evaluate. 

Effective public relations avoids giving someone with malice the figurative rope by which to hang you.  Accentuate the positive and work to eliminate the negative by improving track safety, coming down hard on drugs…  Then put your best foot forward in communicating to the public.

Copyright © 2009, Horse Racing Business.

Comments

  1. You’re more of the problem, none of the solution.

    Censorship is not brand management. You don’t fight a bad image by squelching the negatives. This is simply an article of more of the same, pandering to the druggers and cheats, those who control the sport, and the leaders who sold us down the river for decades.

    So the direction of the ship has been altered? MAYBE it needs to be altered, ever consider that? How about fixing what ails horse racing by ELIMINATING what ails horse racing? Drug use/abuse, 40 jurisdictions with no head, holding those who cheat in our sport as the heroes, breeding our jacked up horses 200 times a season, or being the only country that could care less. Race day meds? Silly fines for those caught cheating? Where should we begin? Breeding frail to frail, speed on speed, wanna start a discussion about that? Or how about takeout, or the way people who actually take time to COME to the track are treated? Or the infighting over signal rights?

    Where exactly would you like to dip your toe in, or do you think that clever concealment of the facts, masking of the lack of integrity, more fiddling while Rome burns will simply “fix” the problem. That is NOT Public Relations.

    Your last line is the only one of substance, the only one that will ring true and can “potentially” save our fall: “Accentuate the positive and work to eliminate the negative by improving track safety, coming down hard on drugs…” The rest will follow suit. You won’t have to run around worrying about each breakdown bringing PETA to your doorstep. Horses break down, even in the wild. Your BEST armor is to run a clean, safe business. Remember that we are here to IMPROVE the breed. Demand INTEGRITY in ever aspect of our sport. Legislate change, and enforce fair play. All of this means doing something, not silencing the truth.

  2. I have one more point to add… speaking of Public Relations. How’s the steroid ban going? Thought it was all said and done? That’s what the P.R would have you believe. Did you know that Florida isn’t really ready to do anything about steroids till April? That they are going to issue “warnings” till then? Or would you be more or less concerned to know that the State of Florida is not required to disclose whether there are overages dues to a “special clause” in the States Statutes?

    I suggest we add “transparency” to the long list of things we should do BEFORE censorship, that would greatly improve our beautiful sport.

  3. Wild Horses are injured every day with no one to care for them and what happens to them in the wild? The harsh reality is that when a wild horse gets sick or injured the horse gets a visit from a Mountain Lion instead of a Veterinarian.

  4. I totally agree that it’s important to shine a light on those in the industry who have integrity and class, and that focusing only on the negative will only bring more of the same. But for far too long Racing has ignored various elephants in the room and missed a valuable opportunity to educate the public and clean up its act.

    Fact is, none of your examples – football etc – are parallel to Thoroughbred Racing. Human athletes, unlike Thoroughbbreds off the tracks, are routinely provided a decent retirement. Race horses run the very real risk (30-40%) of winding up at a foreign slaughter house where, sadly, most horses will experience “processing” fully awake. The industry has an opportunity, now, to turn around the public’s perception that race horses – in some cases – are treated as throwaway commodities by putting its full support behind Federal legislation to ban horse slaughter. Widespread improvement of public perception just ain’t a gonna happen by sweeping these kinds of problems under the big hats on Derby day.

    Until racing steps up to the plate and joins the majority of Americans who want to end the sport’s cop out solution to retirement or injury – “From stable to table in 7 days” – no amount of censoring will change the fact that, for thousands of race horses each year, their post-career end will be totally at odds with America’s humane and cultural values. Pretty hard to fill the stands while the public knows kill buyer trucks may be carrying the horses they followed to a brutal end in a Canadian or Mexican slaughter house. The slaughters of Kentucky Derby Winners Ferdinand and Exceller for human consumption overseas prove that no race horse will be totally safe from slaughter until the President signs pending legislation to ban it.

    Better to face the problems head on & show a cooperative plan for solving them. The public is not stupid, after all, and if you let mainstream media frame the issues, it will be all “gotcha” reporting.

    Once transparancy is established and the public’s trust is on the way back, do your positive thing – publicize the heck out of the many, many good and successful people in racing, folks with integrity who treat the horses responsibly, the passion and the beauty of the game. Let the public hear the stories that those of us who love the sport know are the real stories waiting to be heard!

  5. Don’t be a crotchety old fool. I was born in Alabama 40 days after your “15 min of fame” meeting with Cassius Clay and in the ensuing years of my childhood, I couldn’t figure why so many adults hated the guy, who was obviously in my young eyes, the epitome of “talent”.
    They hated him because he was a brash loudmouth, who didn’t deserve the establishment’s respect, much less news coverage.
    Your gripes against, specifically, Rick Dutrow really ring weak, if you know anything about the real racing world. The medication overages of Bute, Clenbuterol, or Lasix do not in any way equate to cheating, and the powerful story of redemption rings as loudly today as it has throughout human history.
    News coverage isn’t designed to please you, or the game. It is news.

  6. I agree with Susan that the best possible publicity will be to get the word out if and when the industry starts truly deciding to fix itself. When clueless reporters were referring to last year’s Breeders’ Cup as “drug-free” simply because of a partial ban on steroids, it really made me sad for both journalism AND racing. There is so, so much work to be done, but trying to cover up the problems and misguide the media by overplaying the few positive steps that have been taken is the wrong way to go. Well-publicized meaningful change must be the way forward.

  7. I heard it in a movie yesterday, thought it appropriate for the current state of horse racing: “Character is easier KEPT than RECOVERED”.

  8. “Dutrow’s sudden success did not escape the notice of the racing authorities or railbirds. He has been fined or suspended at least once every year since 2000 for medication issues.”

    New York Times, May 12, 2008

  9. Hey Furlong,
    Maybe that Finley guy that writes for NYT can do some real work and tell us why there is a complete lack of disclosure from state racing authorities regarding medication test results.

  10. You cannot be serious! If racing is going to survive it has to be cleaned up.
    Expose all the bad behavior, and make the trainers who continually have medication violations move on to another profession. As Jack Van Burg said “It is chemical warfare out there”
    it has to stop, and it has to stop now!

  11. Many of you seem to be missing the point of the article. The gentleman is not saying it should be business as usual, with the cheaters continuing to prosper. He is simply saying that the sport should stop shining its own spotlight on its problems. By all means, clean things up, but how about if we talk about the good and honest people, for a change.

  12. You fail to realize that the sport has NEVER, in it’s history, allowed the spotlight to shine on itself, rather choosing cronyism, silence, cover-up, corruption and subterfuge. It is now, LONG OVERDUE, that the sport FORCEFULLY weeds out cheaters, upholds everything great and beautiful about our sport as guidance, and all else as a cancer. Maybe if over the past 3-4 decades SOMEONE was willing to shine a light, we would have fairness in our sport, a level playing field and a logical, decisive leadership guiding the boat. The author wants to stop calling attention to the “ills” of the sport, in lieu of what’s good?

    Forget the burning building, the lawn is lovely.

  13. I thought it was a good article. Just thought you should know someone did, Bill!

  14. The racing industry cannot tell its TV partners who they can and cannot do stories on. NBC would have been guilty of not covering the story had the network ignored Dutrow, warts and all.

  15. Many of you are not reading the article thoroughly. He never said to cover up anything. The article says:

    This is not to suggest that subjects like drugs, injuries, and breakdowns should not be broached; dispassionate factual reports, without sensationalized titles and content, are necessary and useful in telling the public what steps racing is taking to correct its shortcomings.

  16. Are you guys thick? What Bill said was 100% correct. Any business wants it’s positives accented and its negatives pushed to the side. Bill isn’t saying that the problems of the sport shouldnt be dealt with but racing does not need to continue to deal with them in the publics eyes. Dray you are missing his point entirely. The racing establishment is under NO obligation to air its dirty laundry in the open. Perhaps you feel that fixing the problem goes hand in hand with openness but it is naive to think that the press will not continue to display the negative even after many issues have been dealt with. We have enough bad PR in horse racing without creating more ourselves.

  17. Equidaily.com is referencing this article today and then says “And almost on cue, a reporter writes this astounding line in an article regarding Oregon racing addressing breakdowns: ‘Nationally some experts point out that 30 years ago, a fatal breakdown was almost undeard of.'” What a timely example!

  18. Say what you will, the article clearly states: “Whenever the sport has experienced low points like the tragedies of Barbaro and Eight Belles, it has overreacted and overcompensated, to its detriment.”

    Hello? Overcompensated? I took over FOUR DECADES to BEGIN to implement change in the steroid and drug laws, and even TODAY, these are being trickled out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Do you honestly believe that racing’s “modus operandi” has been to overreact and over compensate when an issue becomes clear? That’s laughable if it weren’t so sad.

    You state as defense “The racing establishment is under NO obligation to air its dirty laundry in the open”. No kidding Don, we have seen it time and again. You are arguing my exact point. Left to their own devices (the EXACT devises as mentioned in this article) racing will CONTINUE to be it’s own worst enemy. Can any one of you honestly say you are happy with the way our leadership has ushered in change? Can you FOR ONE SECOND believe that fairness and decency has been upheld in our sport and for our horses? As an owner, should I be comforted that the 40 different racing jurisdictions have protected my interest for a single second? That super-trainers have the same chances other trainers do? That vets are fair and “chemical warfare” is an enigma?

    This is beyond discouraging. Not only more of the same, but defense of it. Just like giving the Eclipse awards to the cheats. We hold them as heroes, while the fair players, those with integrity, take a back seat.

    Do I think we should go out of our way to publicize what is wrong with the sport? No. But the fix is not to censor, rather, do what’s right so that there are more “good” stories than “bad”. The bad are real, deal with them as such. Squelching them does not FIX them. We need to start addressing the issues with answers, so that the next article that surfaces talks about fairness, integrity, all that is done to protect the breed… How’s THAT for a better answer? We live in fear of PETA, the negative press. Why? Let’s give them something to write about, when the spotlight finally DOES show on the sport (rarely). We lose if we lose focus.

  19. Mr Shanklin states: “Am I suggesting censorship? Yes, absolutely, but call it brand management–always be prudent in what you say and convey about yourself and your product offerings and never intentionally weaken brand equity. ”

    Maybe it’s time to REALLY fix the problem. You know, by fixing the problem. This wont be answered by censorship as brand management.

    If only we would address the real issues, fairness and integrity would BECOME our brand, thereby eliminating the need to manage the negative. Instead, you suggest we focus on quieting the bad stuff. We should be exposing and destroying the bad stuff on a regular basis. THAT is exceptional brand management.

  20. Yes, indeed, you ARE more of the problem than an inspiration for the solution.

    This idiocy you continue to convey in the way of a “woe is me” take on itself by racing as a whole, just perpetuates the industry twirling more quickly around the drain.

    “The only thing we have to fear is FEAR itself”. You and others who write stories like this are nothing other than fear mongers.

    Sir, if you don’t know anything about racing, at least have enough common sense to do a little RESEARCH before attempting to name the horse who won two legs of the Triple Crown in 2005.

    Nobody wants to read drivel like this crap!

  21. EagleEye Po says:

    It’s all about the ‘SPIN’ baby!

    Horseracing has never learned to spin. The industry is more inclined to invoke the “Cone of silence”!

    The Cone of Silence is outdated. You must ‘SPIN’ to exist!!

  22. Some of these posters are hysterical. If you don’t have the facts on your side, use emotion. Ask a trial lawyer.

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  24. Greatings, Thanks for article. Everytime like to read you.
    Thanks

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