Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The New Generation: Why My Son Doesn't Like Horseracing

   Last week, during our school's spring break, I took my son to Seattle to visit the Boeing airplane factory. My son is a bit of an aviation junkie, and going to an airport or on a plane with him generally provokes discussion that goes like this:

Ryan: "Mom, do you see that 737-800 over there?"
Me: "The US Airways plane, right there?"
Ryan: "Oh, my god, Mom. That's an Airbus A-319."
Me: "How can you tell?"
Ryan: "How can you tell? It's a completely different style of engineering. Do you see how the wingtips on the 737 are advanced blended winglets? They reduce lift-induced drag and are now available as a standard production line option for all 737s, except of course, for the 600 series, where they're still assessing the applicability."
Boeing's 737 wingtips in the foreground in red are clearly
different from those on the Airbus 319 (in yellow).
Me: "Oh."
Ryan: "The A-319s have wingtip fences. And of course, the new Boeing 747-8i and 8f, as well as the 787-8 and 787-9 have raked wingtips."
Me: "Of course."

   Ryan is 13.
   So, for five days, we spent every minute of every day trolling through a half-dozen museums dedicated to aviation history. We hit the Heritage of Flight collection, where Ryan showed me the oh-so-obvious difference between the B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder (which happened to be the plane that bombed my father's POW train during World War II in a friendly fire incident). It had something to do with two side thingees on the tail...and a 75 millimeter cannon...I think.
Ryan Finley heaven: watching Air France executives
inspect their new 787 at the Boeing factory. Or maybe
it was a 777. (I can't tell the difference, but don't tell Ryan.)

    We saw the Future of Flight center, where we designed our own aircraft; went to the Museum of Flight, where we climbed aboard the original Air Force One; and took the Boeing factory tour twice, where there's some chance Ryan knew as much if not more than the tour guide. No sooner would he whisper to me, "the composite material in the 787 allows for greater humidity in the cabin," than the tour guide would say to the group, "the composite material in the 787 allows for greater humidity in the cabin."
   When I called friends at home to report all of this, one friend said to me, "I wish I had spent my youth being obsessed with something productive like aviation, instead of horses."
    And it made me start to wonder...why isn't Ryan obsessed with horses? It's certainly not his upbringing. He has been to the Haskell and the Breeders' Cup, to our box at Monmouth, to horse farms to see mares and foals, and the retired racehorse we sponsor.
   Had my parents taken me to Seattle when I was 13, I would have coaxed them into taking me to Hastings Park, where I would have obsessed over Kenny Skinner's ROI on the turf, compared to his dirt stats. When I was a kid, we used to go to Hialeah on spring break.
   Furthermore, Ryan is an animal lover, as I was as a child. He participates in the family's dog rescue efforts,  and can't bear to watch any film in which an animal might be harmed. I had to promise him that Secretariat would make it through a whole career unscathed, as would all of his competitors, before we could go see that film.
   And the sad realization I have come to is that racing, for many reasons, no longer feels like a sport that attracts the animal lover, as it did when I was a child. As a teen, I would wander around Belmont, looking at the huge, beautiful posters comparing the Thoroughbred racehorse to the cheetah. "Hay, oats and water" was a gigantic selling point to someone like me, one which I continued to use through my days as a NYRA PR flack to assure visiting media that the people in New York cared for horses like nowhere on earth.
   Today, I'd have a hard time justifying raceday medication to my son. I'd have a hard time explaining why jockeys whip the horses if they love them so much. I'd have a hard time telling him that with a national catastrophic breakdown rate of 1.91 per 1,000 starts (about double what it was at NYRA when I was a teenager), that statistically, every 12 days he would see a horse break down and die on the track, but that it was part of the game. I know he'd feel if that happened, and I know I'd have no answer for him.
   There is a whole generation of Ryan Finleys out there, more sensitive to animal suffering than we ever were. As parents, we'd prefer to say to them that horses don't run when they don't feel up to it, and they only run as fast as they're able without being hit to run faster, and that everything is being done to make sure they don't get hurt. But in our hearts, we really can't.
   We're spending a lot of money right now as an industry to market our product to people who might not know about it. But really, some of us know a lot about it, and aren't finding enough to recommend about it, which leads me to believe that we don't have a marketing problem; we have a product problem.
   If we're not willing to take a hard look at fixing it, we're going to let a whole generation of Ryan Finleys grow up being obsessed about something else.

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