At the end of this year's 134th Kentucky Derby, the second-place finisher, Eight Belles, collapsed due to two broken front ankles and had to be immediately euthanized.
A swift media backlash ensued for nearly all involved, including the horse-racing industry; the network, NBC, that aired the race; and the Derby's national sponsor, Yum Brands. The incident also gave People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals the chance to make some noise about a sport it has long felt reeked of animal cruelty but has never gone after.
After Eight Belles was euthanized in the shadow of a celebration for Derby winner Big Brown led by Yum CEO David Novak, the blogosphere took aim. The New York Times published some of the comments, including this: "Based on the Yum reps' disgraceful smiling and product plugging -- while Eight Belles was dying yards away from them -- I'll never buy any of their products again." NBC said it informed Mr. Novak about what was happening, but Yum said he did not know the horse's fate at the time.
Jonathan Blum, senior VP at the fast-food-chain owner, said this was the company's third year as presenting sponsor and it will be back again next year. Mr. Blum said Yum is not pushing for any safety-related changes at the track and hasn't met with any interest groups, such as PETA. "Our focus has been on extending our sympathy to the millions of fans of Eight Belles and talking with Churchill Downs and making sure that they're exploring how the accident occurred," he said.
Gene Grabowski, senior VP at Levick Strategic Communications, said this shouldn't have a lasting impact on the company, and Yum should remain silent and let it pass but learn from it. "Once they knew of their error, [Yum] should have had someone monitoring the blogs and immediately had a statement on the blogs apologizing for how it looked," Mr. Grabowski said.
As for the horse-racing industry, Mr. Grabowski said it needs to beat PETA to the punch by launching an ad campaign "demonstrating the care and loving way" these horses are treated featuring lawmakers, regulators and high-profile people with an affinity for the sport.
Horse racing is more like boxing than it is the NBA or the NFL in that it is regulated on a state-by-state basis and doesn't have a single governing body to establish rules or be a voice of authority in times of crisis. The closest thing it has to a nationwide governing body is the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which is made up of several hundred industry stakeholders including tracks, breeders, horseman's associations and the Jockey Club.
Immediately after the incident, the NTRA initiated a crisis-communications effort. Eric Wing, the group's senior director-media relations, said the plan initially focused heavily on media relations and ensuring the news being reported was factual. Then the NTRA began communicating with officials and public-relations teams at all of its member tracks, including all three Triple Crown venues.
Mr. Wing said the NTRA will be communicating with fans and bloggers via e-mail and CEO Alex Waldrop blogged about the incident on the association's website. An effort involving TV and print ads is a distinct possibility down the road, Mr. Wing said.
PETA is planning to stage protests at the other two legs of the Triple Crown: the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore (May 17) and the Belmont Stakes in New York (June 7). Kathy Guillermo, director-laboratory investigations at PETA, said the group will be relying heavily on new media for its communications efforts. On its website it has provided a photo of Eight Belles with links to a chat forum, its blog and a petition for congressional hearings to investigate the horse-racing industry. PETA also asked people to send e-mails to the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. "In the first three days, people sent over 30,000 e-mails," Ms. Guillermo said. "We will keep pushing Congress for hearings and will be sending letters to all 50 state racing commissions pushing for reform."
Mr. Wing said he's not sure what to expect in the coming weeks other than that this will remain an issue. "I don't think Eight Belles' story is going to go away any time soon, nor should it," he said. "Exactly how it will play out, I don't know, because we haven't seen anything quite like this."
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Contributing: Emily York