McKenzie Ross, a 2020 graduate of the Equine Industry Program at the University of Louisville, retrains retired racehorse Ruthless Warrior at Stoneway Farm in LaGrange, KY in 2018, with help from fellow student Maureen Andrews.
Photo courtesy of Terri Burch/UofL Equine Industry Program
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who was born and raised in Louisville, changed boxing, as well as society at large. Quarterback Johnny Unitas, who played college football at the University of Louisville, was the architect of the two-minute drill. German immigrant J. Frederick Hillerich pioneered the modern baseball bat and founded Louisville Slugger. In horse racing, there’s the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs.
Two miles from Churchill Downs is the University of Louisville College of Business, and that’s where horse racing can find some of the answers the sport desperately needs to keep it relevant and thriving in the 21st Century.
I was the guest speaker at the EQIN 304: Equine Marketing class that is part of the College of Business’s Equine Industry Program on March 17. Although I was there to answer questions about the horse racing and aftercare industries, as well as about my broadcasting and riding, it was the students asking me the questions that I believe have the answers.
Before I even spoke to the class, I had a good feeling that I would learn as much from them as they would learn from me. University of Louisville offers the only undergraduate equine program in the world that is part of an Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredited business school.
Sarah Memmi, who teaches the equine marketing class and contacted me about being a guest speaker, has a sure-thing exacta box of qualifications as an assistant professor of marketing combined with a background working with horses.
During the week before I joined the class, Memmi sent me a list of questions that the students created as the basis for our discussion. The very first on the list: “How do you see the industry moving forward from outside pressures other than ‘We love our horses’? How important would a national campaign be?” I could tell we were going to get right to it.
I enjoyed our discussion, but what I found even more valuable was learning about the semester projects the students were in the process of creating. Although she said she could have chosen other topics, Memmi chose aftercare as the focus of EQIN 304.
“Number one, aftercare is an important ethical issue in racing, and anyone that is going into this industry as a career needs, not only to be aware of it, but to understand it,” Memmi said. “It’s also important to marketing the sport of racing.”
In the same way that the development of racehorses doesn’t start when they arrive at a racetrack because breeding and raising yearlings is an integral part the sport, horse racing is starting to embrace that it also doesn’t end when they leave the track.
“Aftercare is not charity; it is part of the life cycle process of a Thoroughbred,” said Jen Roytz, the executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, who also spoke to EQIN 304. “They can’t race forever, so they need to have a purpose after racing, and they need to have a value associated with that purpose, whether it’s breeding, sporthorse, or recreational.”
That first question that I was presented with about moving the industry forward is something the students began to answer through their Marketing Plan Project Assignment.
Madison Jackson and Reagan Mestre thought of a “Trainer Aftercare Awareness Certification” that incorporates aftercare awareness into the licensing process for trainers at the state level.
“Many times, racehorse trainers are not aware of the ways to properly rehome a Thoroughbred after its career, nor are they aware of the vital role they play in this process,” they wrote.
Sean Collins and Davis Klein proposed “CK Aftercare” in order “to promote aftercare awareness and education in low-tier and low-income tracks within the United States.”
“This issue has come to light in recent times where trainers and owners have had a ‘one more race’ mentality instead of retiring their horse,” they wrote, adding, “We will create an on-track presence and form personal connections with both the horseman on the track and the different local organizations that may take the horses when their racing careers are over. These personal connections will help educate horsemen on the different options and create trust with our organization.”
But because aftercare must address the range of horses coming off the track, Adrianna Lynch and Emily Charnota proposed that prominent auction houses such as Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton could create a “select sale” that would promote higher-end Thoroughbred sporthorses.
“Aftercare is really complicated and fairly new, so that means you have a lot of room to innovate,” Memmi said. “I was really impressed with the work that they did. They came up with some really interesting ideas, and looking back on it, what I’m happy with is that the future leaders in the industry are getting this ethical piece of the sport. They’re into it because they care about horses. They want to do right by the horses.”
The month of May has brought many issues in horse racing into the mainstream. Trainer Bob Baffert gave enough material to the writers of Saturday Night Live to make a mockery of himself and the sport. Then, one day later, Michael Blowen of Old Friends gave enough material to the writers of CBS Sunday Morning to show how moving aftercare can be.
With Churchill Downs suspending Baffert, the city of Louisville may not be as welcoming a place to him as it once was. But, with the growth of the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program, including the addition in the fall of a graduate program connected to an MBA, the city is welcoming some bright minds and future leaders that can revolutionize horse racing if they’re given the chance.
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