A Tale of Two Horses: The Kentucky Derby and Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship Ride Tonight

For the first time, The Kentucky Derby and the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship will be held on the same evening – one an event known to all, the other a regional event in the more obscure world of showing Tennessee Walking horses. While the soring of Walking Horses has become a high-profile issue for anyone who knows about that part of horse subculture, the Derby is only now being recognized as a high-profile equine competition from doping of horses is rampant.

Since 1875 The Kentucky Derby has been the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horseracing, until this year due to COVID-19. Normally held in May, this ‘run for the roses’ where fancy hats and mint juleps typically speckle the grounds of Churchill Downs in Louisville. The event this year follows The Belmont Stakes amidst controversy plagued the sport. In January I testified before the Congress about the rampant doping in the sport, and in March, the U.S. Dept. of Justice handed down 27 federal indictments of trainers, veterinarians, and others involved in a massive illegal drug ring pumping racehorses full of cocktails to cash in on millions of dollars and defraud the betting public. Doping, it is thought, pushes horses to their limits and they are breaking down on tracks across the nation.  

The Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred breed registry founded in 1894 with a mission ‘dedicated to the improvement of Thoroughbred breeding and racing,’ has been the industry’s leader in working to eliminate doping and other abuses in the sport. It has taken a principled stance against the slaughter of Thoroughbred racehorses and in 2019 announced its position to curb whipping in America. Animal Wellness Action has joined them, The Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, the Water Hay Oats Alliance, The Stronach Group, Thoroughbred Owners’ & Breeders’ Association, and the New York Racing Association in the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity that’s pushing for passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act (HIA), H.R. 1754/S. 1820 led by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky. and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz. The measure would ban the use of race day drugs, create a uniform national standard for testing and national rules, and put the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in charge of enforcement and regulation that’s overseen by a patchwork of state regulatory bodies with inconsistent rules and penalties.

While the HIA has met detractors over the past few years, support for the bill has consolidated, with especially so with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement this week that he’ll be soon introducing a modified measure, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) that would also accomplish the ban on race-day medication. In his bill, the  U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) will oversee the regulatory program, and there will be a definite set of standards and regulations that mirror international anti-doping guidelines and a provision requiring U.S. tracks to report data on injuries and deaths to the Federal Trade Commission. And McConnell’s legislation has attracted the support of Churchill Downs, which had previously opposed our efforts.

Working with The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred industry to create reform hasn’t always been easy for us, but our coalition partners have always been gracious. We’ve reminded our peers in the animal protection movement that this is a moment when major reform can be achieved. Leaders in the industry are starting to recognize that the welfare of the horses should be at the center of their enterprise.

In contrast, the leaders of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (Celebration), the breed’s World Championship show established in 1939 in Shelbyville have dealt with their horse welfare issues quite differently. The Celebration’s trash cans have been lined with derogatory flyers and photos of animal advocates who’ve been pushing to end the painful practice of soring – the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ legs and feet by applying caustic chemicals such as croton oil, mustard oil, and diesel fuel to the skin and inserting sharp objects into the hooves to produce and artificial high-step known as the “Big Lick.” This routine training practice – a form of cheating and animal abuse — has plagued the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and marred the Volunteer State for six decades.

Since 2013, when several of us spoke out in support of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693/S. 1007, and later testified in support of the measure before the Congress, we’ve been viciously attacked – and have even received death threats from horse abusers in the “Big Lick” segment of the breed. The PAST Act, now renamed in honor of Sen. Joe Tydings who authored the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970 designed to stamp out soring, would amend the HPA to close loopholes that have allowed soring to persist by banning the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on the horses’ feet; to eliminate the industry’s self-policing scheme; and to establish felony-level penalties for violations..

The PAST Act, led by veterinarian U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Ted Yoho, R-Fla., along with Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, passed the House last July with and 333 votes in support of the bill including every single Democrat and the majority of Republicans. America’s verdict from the People’s House was delivered, and the “Big Lick” pain-based high-stepping gait the breed has long desired and rewarded felt a crushing blow.

But PAST has a tougher path in the Senate despite the leadership of  Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Ida., and Mark Warner, D-Va., who have garnered 52 cosponsors for their measure. The bill has nearly unanimous support within the established equine world, with American Horse Council, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Veterinary Medical Association, and United States’ Equestrian Federation have endorsed the bill. Their ability to stymie reform is a political science lesson in the way special interests are able to leverage their influence to delay broadly supported reforms. And unlike their counterparts in horseracing, the trainers, owners, breeders, and major entities in the walking horse breed don’t seem to care that horse registrations, memberships, sales, and stallion service fees continue to decline. From my own personal experience having grown up in the walking horse industry, sadly the welfare of the horse has long been the least important point of consideration to most enthusiasts and the status quo remains.

Just this week, many have witnessed horses at the Celebration that one industry insider told me appeared to be ‘penitentiary walking’ – a term “Big Lick” enthusiasts jokingly use to describe a horse that appears to be so sore the trainer would likely be put in the penitentiary if the inspection and justice system governing the breed actually worked.

Let’s hope, this evening, that the 146th Kentucky Derby will be the last one featuring doped-up horses. That’s a more likely outcome than next year’s Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship being cleansed of horse abuse. The consensus in the nation has formed that soring is a disgrace, but a small group of industry insiders continues to believe that they can withstand the pressures from the outside world. That’s a strategy that may extend the abuses within the breed but also lead to a death spiral for the entire segment.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Dear reader: If you support substantive policy work to protect animals, please consider donating to Animal Wellness Action today. You can give any amount one time, or make it a monthly gift, as many of our supporters do. Thank you for helping us fight for all animals. Please go here to make your contribution.