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?
There’s so many things that I would want to do. I would call for a level of transparency and more policing of what’s really going on at the top levels of the game. Lying would not be OK. Because it is now. You can twist the truth and say one thing and do another, and as long as nobody finds out — or even if they do — it’s your horse, and it’s your business. These are athletes. I’d like it to be the same concept as the NCAA: If you’re a talented athlete, and you want to play with them, you have to play by their rules.
To combat lower-level racing, I would start with the breeding industry and the stallions that don’t really cut it. At some point, enough is enough. Move on. I understand that there are bloodlines and sometimes a horse gets hurt and doesn’t reach his full potential, so maybe it does have potential as a sire, but at some point it becomes too much. A horse who’s standing in Oregon for $2,500, is he really helping the game?
I’d also take better care of the horses that are running now, and that all circles back to the transparency and level of integrity and accountability that we hold owners to in the sport. Horse racing may be a business for people who invest their money in it, but a horse is not a stock or a commodity; it’s a living, breathing animal that had no choice in the matter of what it’s doing. So if we’re going to continue to race horses, then we need to make sure they’re taken care of when they’re no longer able to race. The sport is doing a better job of doing that, but owners are still not held to accountability.
There are a lot of owners who are good about following a horse through its journey [after it’s sold or claimed]; there should be no excuse for a horse getting lost. You can follow a horse all the way through its career, and people should be required to do that.
What is it like being in the early part of your career in this climate, where there’s a lot of debate and some uncertainty about the industry’s future?
I think a lot of times in racing, we want to focus on the negative side of things, because there is so much that needs to be fixed. There’s been a lot of growth in the past couple of years even, and I’d say from 2010 to now, I’ve seen things perk up a little bit.
Things like night racing at Churchill Downs, or the way that social media has impacted the sport — there are a lot of positive signs like that, too. So, when people ask me, ‘Do you think you’ll still be around doing this in 25 years? Do you think the sport will still be around?’ I think it will. I think in recent years it’s done a much better job of adapting to the modern consumer and trying to identify with what that person wants in order to be drawn in by the sport. So it’s not all bad.
Sometimes, I don’t feel so confident in the sport; sometimes I just feel frustrated with it. I think young people in any position in racing across the board would tend to agree with that. Young people have a lot of really good ideas, and while there is a lot that we can learn from the generations before us, there’s a lot that they can learn from us.
And a lot of times, we’re more willing to learn from them than they are to listen to what we have to say. When you see companies that have just exploded in popularity, a lot of times, they have young people at the helm (Facebook, YouTube, etc.). If I have a good idea and a way to make something better and it’s legitimate, don’t feel threatened that I’m young. Going forward, you almost can’t choose to ignore what young people say because we are the future of the sport.
I don’t do my job and think, ‘I won’t have this sport in five years, 10 years.’ I think it will continue to evolve and adapt, and it will have a different face than it does now, but there are things about it that stay the same, and that’s kind of what I like about it. There are so many decades of history and tradition, and there are always going to be really good horses, and there are always going to be really good stories, and as a journalist that is, of course, the draw for me.