Claire Novak has already enjoyed a storied career in horse-racing journalism, despite her relatively young age. Novak is currently the head racing writer for The Blood-Horse Magazine and has contributed to the New York Times, ESPN, the Albany Times Union, Louisville Magazine, Keeneland Magazine, Kentucky Confidential and many others. Her work earned her the 2008 Louisville Metro Journalism Award for Sports Writing and the 2011 Media Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary.
What do you think is the biggest problem in the horse industry today?
I think there are two main issues that we face. One is an oversaturation of the product, which would be too much low-level horse racing that nobody really cares about. Horse racing always markets and promotes its key events: the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup — the best of the best. I understand that those lower-level tracks are part of the economic makeup of the areas that they’re in.
From an overall sport standpoint, people don’t care about the minor-league, Chuck E. Cheese, Applebee’s-sponsored team, aside from the people who have ties to it in that town. They’re going to want to see the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. And it’s the same thing. People want Zenyatta or Royal Delta — the big-name stars and the big-name races.
When you look at the overall industry in terms of what it does best and what it does worst, what it does worst is low-level racing, and I don’t know how you rectify that with the fact that there are some horses that just don’t compete at a high level. Those tracks do provide an outlet for those horses, but the question is, should they really be competing in the first place? That’s a huge issue.
The other issue that we face is a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability. It’s a very tough problem to solve, because the horse belongs to somebody who’s investing money into it and it’s their business what they do with that horse. At the same time, that horse is an athlete that people are wagering on, or are invested in from a fan’s standpoint. When you take a horse to a certain level in the game where it becomes public figure, it’s kind of like a famous athlete whose personal life is really not any of your business — at some point, they play their game so well, they became so famous, that people want to know about those things. It becomes almost a cross you have to bear, as a person who’s connected to that horse from the other side.
What do you see as potential solutions to these problems?
We all talk about a governing body. We all talk about needing more uniform rules throughout the nation. I really think that until severe consequences are put in place for people who play the system, people who cheat, people who are lying about what’s going on with their horses, you’re not going to have that accountability. We don’t have an organization in our sport right now that really lays down the law or says ‘If you don’t do XYZ, your horses don’t compete. If you do XYZ, that’s illegal, and you don’t get to play.’ … The way the system is right now, people can completely play it.
As far as the oversaturation goes, I think it almost is taking care of itself in that you have lower-level tracks that simply aren’t able to compete. The tracks that are thriving are these big tracks. When people say ‘Oh, the Thoroughbred crop is smaller this year than it was last year,’ I say ‘Good.’ That’s not a bad thing. Hopefully you’ll see a dying off of the mid-level tracks that really don’t contribute anything.
If you were the “racing czar” and could change any one thing about the sport, what would you do?