Is NYRA’s Ban of Horse Trainer Eric Guillot Too Little, Too Late? (Opinion)

A couple of years ago, Saratoga Living ran a feature in our annual horse racing issue, in which one of our writers shadowed trainer Eric Guillot at Saratoga Race Course one morning. The story was accompanied by a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos from the Oklahoma Training Track and painted Guillot in a sympathetic light; after all, he had trained Moreno, winner of the 2014 Whitney Handicap, so he was a bit of a local hero. The upshot of the story was that being a Thoroughbred trainer isn’t as easy as some people might make it out to be—and that sacrifices, both emotionally and personally, have to be made to ensure that the job gets done right.

What the story failed to mention is that Guillot had long been a divisive character in the sport, the type who came off as a bit of a loose cannon—he allegedly cast “voodoo spells” on opponents like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher—but when all was said and done, he’d been given a pass, because he was able to win big races and had racked up more than $13 million in purse winnings over a 30-year career. However, his behavior also often boiled down to pure hatred: All one has to do is scroll through Guillot’s Twitter feed to find countless examples of racism, sexism and antisemitism, which run in counterpoint to what he does for a living, and would get anyone in any profession fired immediately.

It only took three decades, but somebody finally did something about it.

On January 1, the trainer tweeted that he had named a horse in his stable “Grape Soda,” “in honor of” TVG announcer, Ken Rudulph, a black man, and included a black fist emoji as well. (Guillot is half Cajun and white.) For people grappling with what is wrong with “grape soda,” I’d ask you to turn your attention to this 2017 Idaho Times-News article, which explains the phrase’s history as a racist dog whistle: “Grape soda has a history as an African-American stereotype dating back at least 50 years. In the 1960s, African-Americans consumed about 50 percent of the country’s grape soda despite making up just 11 percent of the population, according to the book The 60s by Edward J. Reilly. The drink was popular with African–Americans, then, but has since been used in popular culture and otherwise as derogatory to blacks.”

The horse, whose name seemingly got through the censors at the Jockey Club, which has very strict rules regarding naming conventions of horses—and whose guidelines clearly note that no horse can be given a name that “[appears] to be designed to harass, humiliate, or disparage a particular individual [or] group of individuals”—went on to win its first race at Aqueduct on January 8. (It has since been renamed “Respect for All.”) That day, though, Guillot tweeted that his octogenarian mother had enjoyed the name and that “grape soda” had been his “favorite drink when I was a little boy.” But TVG’s Rudulph saw right through it: “The winner in race #1 from Aqueduct is the perfect example of my issue with horse racing,” wrote Rudulph. “The winning trainer is a disgusting and racist man. But, if you want to make money in this game you have to be able to ignore that stuff. I can’t do it.”

Just a day later, David O’Rourke, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association (NYRA)—the stand-in for Guillot’s boss—had caught on, banning Guillot from entering horses in races at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, and saying this in a statement: “Racism is completely unacceptable in all forms. NYRA rejects Eric Guillot’s toxic words and divisive behavior in the strongest terms. At this time, he will no longer be permitted to enter horses at any NYRA track nor will he be allocated stalls on NYRA grounds. In addition, we will review what further steps may be available to us. Our racing community is diverse, and we stand for inclusion.” While this might seem like swift justice to some, I’m sure I won’t be the first to wonder out loud: Why did it take NYRA this long to ban Guillot—and will all other tracks follow suit? (The Stronach Group, a.k.a. 1/ST, has since banned Guillot at its tracks.) The reason I say this is because at most companies, if you say or do a single racist thing, you’re immediately shown the door. But this is far from the first time Guillot has tweeted something racist. Just in the last few weeks, Guillot tweeted ethnic slurs referring to people of Middle Eastern and Asian descent (December 23, 2020), an antisemitic photo and stereotype (December 11, 2020) and a racist photo and statement (December 9, 2020). How is this body of prejudiced work any less harmful? Guillot had seemingly become comfortable with saying these type of things—but it was the most obvious of examples that got the attention of his bosses.

While Guillot has since tweeted that he’s retired from the sport, he followed it up a day later by tweeting a photo of himself reaching for a bottle of grape soda and writing “Oh no I DIDN’T.” He also tweeted that he named a horse “Tamale” after one of his grooms. And he hasn’t come close to apologizing for his actions. In fact, in a recent tweet, he’s insinuated that it is, in fact, Rudulph who is the racist, not him. In other words, he just doesn’t get it.

I’d like to suggest that no later than today—not tomorrow or next month or the following year—while the horse racing world continues to grapple with the ongoing issue of horse deaths and keeping fans engaged while COVID keeps them out of racetracks, it needs to band together and take a zero-tolerance stance on guys like Guillot. Because, as we found out this past week, if people like that go unchecked, it can have a devastating consequence on the world we live in. And the last thing the sport of horse racing needs right now is another public problem.

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