While sifting through yet another pile of holiday mail that tends to move around the house to avoid detection by company, I came across the Jan. 10 issue of ESPN, The Magazine. This struck me as odd since this particular pile of mail appeared to be at least a week old and, unless my internal clock has really gone haywire, it doesn’t seem that we’ve had eleven days of the first month just yet.

I don’t often read ESPN, The Magazine as it seems to be written for people in their twenties. I’m not sure why I receive ESPN, The Magazine, but I believe it has something to do with being an ESPN Insider. I’m not sure why I’m an ESPN Insider either, but being one includes this nice magazine I don’t read.

Every time I do read ESPN, The Magazine, I come across some old friends like Rick Reilly and Kenny Mayne (a horse racing guy). I have trouble reading these guys words of wisdom as ESPN, The Magazine is printed in six point type. This is what six point type looks like. See, what I mean?

But, I digress. On the cover is NEW YEAR! NEW RULES! 31 Ways to Make Sports Better. Now, as a die-hard sports fan, I thought that looked like it could be interesting. So, armed with a magnifying glass, in I dove.

Number one was “mandate universal instant replay.” Works for me. There were additional suggested improvements for golf, baseball, basketball, baseball, boxing, NASCAR and you-name-it . A great number of these suggestions involved “the pace of play.” (Evidently, everybody who works at ESPN, The Magazine wants all sporting events to end sooner.)

And there at Number 28 was BAN THE WHIP. This particular item was not brought to us, the loyal reader, by the folks at ESPN, The Magazine, but, in fact, by Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. Now, I’ve never ridden a racehorse in a race, and I’ve had my share of difficulty steering the ones I did ride in non-racing endeavors, but I’m inclined to agree with Bailey’s point that we don’t need whips and that “reins are still the best way to steer and guide a horse.”

Bailey concluded with “Look, if nobody has whips, what’s the problem? Everyone is still on a level playing field.”

While I’m not a jockey as previously noted, I’m inclined to agree for a variety of reasons. I won’t argue the safety aspect as I’m woefully unqualified, but I will address the public relations and marketing aspect of this issue.

As you may know, following 8 Bells tragic death in the Kentucky Derby, the racing industry and general public were running Code Red on safety issues. In Virginia, having already banned steroids, we decided to conduct an experiment with a more humane whip – the Pro Cush whip they use in England and in jump races in these parts.

The experiment was deemed a success and a number of nationally known jockeys continue to use this type of softer/wider whip both at Colonial Downs and at other major racetracks. In my humble opinion, we should make this a rule.

Why, you are sure to ask?

Short answer: It has less to do with safety and humane treatment of the horses than it does the world we live in, our culture, the perception of our existing and potential fans and, as importantly, the perception of our opponents and the animal rights activists.

Long answer: (Look, you made it this far, you had to see a “long answer” coming.) Folks in racing are reluctant to change. We cling to how it’s been done by horsemen for generation after generation. Clinging to that, and declaring that ultimately valid, is like some kind of badge of honor for industry participants.

Our industry embraces “old school,” but old school doesn’t work in a marketing, public relations, politically correct and information-saturated world.

Let me ask a quick question: How’s that working out? In short, not so well as horse racing has gone from a major sport to a niche sport struggling to keep its audience or build a new one. We clearly don’t get it, yet we continue down the same path expecting a different result. Wake up and smell the plummeting pari—mutuel figures. It’s not just the economy. Our sport is becoming culturally (and economically) insignificant as its flaws are being multiplied and exaggerated in our “uber-connected” society.

Now, let me tell you a quick story. I was in a medical office today, and while I waited (and waited and waited) I couldn’t help but notice the examination room I was in was dirty. OK, let’s tell the truth, it was filthy – the floor was stained, the arms of the chair were stained, the baseboards were grimy, it was really…well, gross.

To put this in relative perspective, let me tell you I’m not opposed to dirt. I don’t care about body fluids or blood or guts or any of that fun stuff. I can’t remember the last time I used the word “filthy.” You know that “five second rule” where you can eat something if it’s on the floor less than five seconds? Well, I have a fifteen second rule and dog hair doesn’t even count as dirt. Heck, as far as I’m concerned you can eat dog hair, it’s good for you.

Simply put, it takes a whole bunch of dirt and grime to back me up. So, while I waited and waited and waited, I finally took a couple pictures with my trusty iPhone and emailed them to a relevant party who needed to know what a mess the place was.

A variety of feedback came back my way, but one in particular is relevant to horse racing’s place in modern society. A very savvy marketing and PR person said, “Imagine the damage that could have been done to that business had you posted those pictures on Facebook, a blog or some other popular web site?” (Not, that I would do that, but it was a very good point.)

And that is the world we live in. Everybody has a platform. Almost all of our potential new customers and our younger existing customers are connected to the internet. In our “twenty-four hour-connected-to-the-twenty-four-hour-news-cycle-world” everything that happens is reported extensively and immediately. Everything said by everybody is important to somebody, and a lot more somebody’s than it was twenty or even ten years ago. Everything has an impact – a fairly big one.

In many ways this is a good thing. Marketing through social networking and information sharing is no longer a thing of the future, it’s our present. However, so much information is available to us all the time that in many ways it is simply overwhelming. The negative impact is simply that bad things seem worse because we simply can’t get away from them as they are retold over and over and over again. Every “Tom, Dick and Harry” can make a Federal case out of your dirty laundry even if it’s a lone sock.

Having said all that, let’s go back to the whip issue. When 8 Bells broke down, the hue and cry was deafening. The backlash was equal to what would have been appropriate had some human actually been at fault. Imagine what it would have been like had the finger of blame landed on the track, the trainer a vet or the jockey?

Modern people who are more urban and less rural have a different take on animals and how they are treated. A writer for Sports Illustrated wrote a piece following the 8 Bells’ breakdown noting that people spend so much time with machines (phones, computers, TVs, etc.) and so little time interacting with actual human beings that “animals are the new people.” In our politically correct world, our young fans and our potential new fans, simply won’t tolerate old racing people hitting the horses (the new racing people) with whips.

That doesn’t even take into account the growing strength of PETA and other animal rights movements, but that’s another story for another time.

Throw away the whip. Learn how to steer. Spend a little more time breaking your horses and teaching them how to turn. Make some new friends with a kinder, gentler horse racing.

All easy for me to say as I don’t break, train or ride racehorses…

Oh, and while were at it, can we get rid of the BCS and have a playoff to determine the national championship for college football?

Jeez, that’s a no-brainer. – Glenn Petty

(Note: The opinion stated above is that of the author. It does not reflect the position of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association or the Virginia H.B.P.A, their board of directors or their members individually or collectively.)