By Seth Merrow
April 14, 2009
Our frontpage commentary last week regarding reaction to the Mullins detention barn episode garnered varied responses. Some agreed with what we had to say -- others, well, not so much.
John Pricci -- longtime racing columnist, major domo of horseraceinsider.com, and my colleague on Capital OTB-TV-- took a veiled swipe at the Equidaily piece and darned if he didn't call me a "Kool-Aid spewing apologist"! Additionally, there was at least one blogger and some subsequent blog comments that also reacted strongly to our commentary.
That there were opposing viewpoints isn't a concern -- heck, if you offer up an opinion/commentary and there isn't reaction then it probably wasn't much of an opinion to begin with -- but the basic misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what I wrote prompted my to offer this follow-up.
First, I am not in any way excusing, ignoring, or soft-pedalling a violation of detention barn rules -- whether it was intentional or not. As stated in the original piece, that is "something that certainly deserves attention and discipline from the proper authorities..."
But, as that sentence finished, I'm arguing that the incident should be "...kept in proper perspective."
My problem with the initial coverage and subsequent reaction wasn't that the story was covered, but how it was covered. I contend the story is what it is: A detention barn violation. However it was almost immediately elevated in tone to a cautionary tale of horse-doping and a black-eye for the game -- which I don't think was fair to the racing industry.
The blogger that criticized the Equidaily commentary describes herself as an educator -- so I'll jump into the scholastic setting for purposes of an analogy.
First, let's acknowledge that detention barn rules are essentially "zero tolerance" -- virtually nothing to be administered to the horse. "Zero tolerance" rules -- whether you like them or not -- have the benefit of promoting extreme caution -- because the threshold for violating the rules is typically well below the threshold of "danger" for whatever the rules are trying to prevent.
Now, on to the analogy and a school district with a "zero tolerance" weapons policy.
Imagine a newspaper story headlined "Weapons Violation Leads to Expulsion of 14YO". The story itself tells of 14YO Johnny Smith being expelled from Anytown Middle School after he was discovered with "a small, concealable, collapsible, cutting instrument with two razor-sharp edges, and a stiff, five inch-long knife-shaped tool." Sounds bad, right?
But maybe not so bad when we find out that Johnny was "caught" sitting alone in the locker room using clippers and a file to groom his fingernails.
Yes, Johnny violated the rules, particularly if school policy was clear that nail clippers and files were among banned items. And yes, the newspaper story was technically accurate -- but was it appropriate? Was it fair to the school and to parents of other children attending that school?
Likewise, some of the initial reporting and reaction to the Mullins story seemed, to my eyes, to be at a fever pitch, that while perhaps technically accurate, was not really appropriate. In the same way that it's hard to think of nail clippers as a weapon, it's hard to think of use of Air Power as horse-doping.
But, here's what we saw:
It's not hard to imagine people reading these articles and picturing something quite different than the liquid equivalent of a mentholated cough drop being squirted into a horse's mouth.
And writing that "the substance was labeled as Air Power..." implies that, hey, maybe it wasn't Air Power -- leading to the kind of thinking that was expressed in an email we received, "...no one knows if Mullins may have added his own secret formula ingredients to the canister."
More wink-wink nudge-nudge implication was displayed by articles quoting the Air Power manufacturer's website saying that the product would not "test positive in any race or show jurisdiction in the U.S." To some this seems to demonstrate an effort to skirt the rules [see the "criminal like intent" quote above]. But if a company is supplying products to be taken orally to those participating in a highly-regulated industry, isn't it prudent and reasonable that they would address the issue of whether or not the product would test?
As far as this incident being a black-eye to the industry, I'm not buying it. A trainer entered the detention barn and used a relatively innocuous product. He was observed. His horse was scratched. The detention barn worked the way it is supposed to.
Part of the problem here is that the internet has changed the news cycle. Ten years ago a newspaper could have pushed this story out to meet a Saturday evening deadline and then filled in any blanks necessary over the next day or two. And that's essentially what happened here -- on the traditional media side. In the meantime however, the chatter on the internet reacts to those first reports and the tone has been set. This can lead to a myopic view of the story by some -- reading into it only what they want to see, or even misrepresenting things, to suit their beliefs.
For example, a few days ago a blog featured a post expressing a similar viewpoint to the one I'm espousing here. One of the subsequent comments to the blog stated, "Every single detail I learned about the incident after the story initially broke (AirPower is not only performance-enhancing, but also non-detectable; it has been banned in CA for a long time; Mullins didn't administer the substance, as he claimed, in clear view) convinced me more and more that my early reaction and that of other 'sensationalist' bloggers was no more 'sensationalist' than it absolutely should be."
Among the "details" this cynic learned "after the story initially broke" are some of questionable veracity. First, "non-detectable" is not synonymous with "won't test". One implies hidden, the other means nobody's looking. Second, I'll gladly admit I'm wrong if I missed something -- but I haven't seen or heard anything that indicates Air Power has been banned in California. And third, again perhaps I'm wrong, but I haven't seen anything establishing for certain whether or not Mullins was observed administering the Air Power, although I think the consensus indicates that he was.
But once the tone has been set at a fever-pitch it can take on a life of its own, regardless of the facts that come out later on. Even the media can get caught up in the frenzy and it can become a self-fulfilling story, if you will.
As to the blog responder's assertion that Air Power is "performance-enhancing" -- perhaps it is, but there are many things a trainer uses that are meant to enhance performance. Because something enhances performance doesn't necessarily make it "performance enhancing" in the way we use the term with regard to rules violations.
For example, if a person is running a marathon on a hot day, he will often take drinks of water and perhaps pour some water over his head. The runner using water enhanced his performance -- he certainly wouldn't have run as well on a hot day without water -- but the water wasn't a "performance enhancer" in the pharmacological sense.
It might seem like merely semantics -- but the clarity of these distinctions in these types of stories matters. The writers I've cited here are, for the most part, people we respect at Equidaily. We link to them often and they do fine work. This particular story however seemed overblown by some.
And I'll note that, with racing authorities continuing to investigate, this story could change over time. Paul Moran on Saturday wrote that "Security personnel at the barn... contend that both the substance and syringe were concealed, in fact smuggled into the barn," and some anonymous veterinarians "claim that the interaction of Air Power and some medications... can meaningfully alter performance in horses."
I'll wait to see how the investigation plays out before jumping on the "smuggling" bandwagon -- and I'd need to know a little bit more about what empirical data is available to back up the performance-enhancing claim -- but, though after-the-fact information like this doesn't excuse the heightened initial reporting, it would give pause to reconsider the implications of the story.
The upshot of all of this is: Sure, there a bad actors, there are cheaters, there are lax rules and regulations, there are ineffective regulators -- in racing and just about every other major industry. They should be investigated, exposed and writtten about. But, particularly with racing under fire as it has been over the past year, it doesn't do anyone any good to ramp up stories beyond what they merit. And it's the responsibility of all of us, the racing media, the industry and the fans to maintain proper perspective and be not only accurate, but fair and appropriate in reporting on the racing game.
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