Thirty years ago, I wrote a magazine cover story about horse racing, arguing the pageantry and pomp that viewers glimpsed at the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races was a veneer barely concealing a set of hazards for horses. There was widespread doping of horses on race day to enhance performance, frequent breakdowns that killed horses and put jockeys in the infirmary, and a transport system that shuttled tens of thousands of mediocre equine athletes from the backside to a network of North American slaughterhouses that took perfectly healthy horses and dismembered them for an export business.
Within the last few years, these problems have come into the light more than ever, and there’s been some momentum for change, with the formulation and introduction of the Horseracing Integrity Act by U.S. Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Andy Barr, R-Ky., now with 257 cosponsors, and U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., with 26 cosponsors. This bill would establish national regulatory standards applying to all tracks, ban the use of medication on race day, and establish one set of rules for everyone in horseracing — the horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, state racing commissions, and fans alike.
Whereas the industry was united in its opposition to any kind of national reform three decades ago, now the opponents within the industry are the outliers. The Horseracing Integrity Act includes The Jockey Club (the breed registry for Thoroughbreds), The Stronach Group (the owner of tracks throughout the United States), The Belmont, The Breeders’ Cup, other racetracks, major trainers throughout the industry, and countless others, so many of them organized by the Water, Hay, Oats Alliance led by Staci and Arthur Hancock of Stone Farm in Paris, Kentucky.
Now, in what may prove to be the biggest moment in the trajectory of this issue, add Mitch McConnell to the mix. The Senate Majority Leader, a master legislator, announced he’s taking charge of the bill and he’s intent on passing it this year. He’s modifying the bill, so it just applies to the thoroughbred industry (which accounts for about 80 percent of the handle of racing), but it will still ban race-day doping and set up a national regulatory scheme to curb medication abuses. He pulled in Churchill Downs — a long hold-out on meaningful reform, the only publicly traded company in the industry, and the conductor of the Kentucky Derby — as a supporter of the newly named Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).
While greyhound racing is moribund in the United States — with just two tracks not having a definite timeline to cease live racing — horse racing operates in 39 states, involves tens of thousands of animals and hundreds of thousands of people, and generates billions in economic activity. It’s one of the biggest businesses in Kentucky and it’s no small enterprise in California, Florida, New York, Maryland, and a set of other states.
Yet even with this big footprint, it’s ailing, with its declining handle an indicator of an eroding and aging fan base. The Triple Crown races still make it into the Sports Pages of America’s major dailies, but the appeal is waning and the interest in the highest-profile horse racing events crests and falls in a flash. When the general public hears about horse racing today, there’s a good chance the news is about horses dying on the tracks or trainers or owners being indicted for doping scandals.
America’s racetracks have turned into crash sites, with hundreds of horses put down after suffering catastrophic injuries in competition. In 2019, 38 horses died at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles County. The calamitous season ended with the death of Mongolian Groom in the final championship race – just 200 yards from the finish line. Like most horses, he was running on drugs. But that was just one venue where crashes occurred, with some of the high-profile and gruesome breakdowns sparking more national outrage from Americans, and more bad press. Last year, The Washington Post, in an official editorial from the newspaper, urged the end of American horseracing.
Horseracing operates under an outdated, state-based, patchwork of medication rules even though it is a national industry. This balkanization of the sport creates confusion and risk for owners and trainers and contains gaps in rules and enforcement. The lax rules of some states continue to contribute to the multitude of deaths, and while many professional sports have taken crucial steps to rid their games of doping, the racing industry continues to peddle them.
The industry has survived this partly because major gambling companies — originally just based in Las Vegas and Atlantic City — expanded their footprint by cutting deals to offer casino-style wagering at the tracks. These co-located operations offered slots, blackjack, roulette, and other games of chance and traditional racing, with some of the take from the casino gambling augmenting the purse money for tracks and often keeping the lights on above the oval raceway.
But at many of these “racino” operations, it’s become a tale of two cities. The card tables are often full and the slot machines blinking and blinging and buzzing on the inside, while at the outdoor venue, the horses and their jockeys heave and hurtle down the track in front of nearly empty bleachers.
That’s especially the case at the minor-league tracks, with their aging infrastructure, stale and smoke-filled haunts, and dreary atmosphere. When they’re not in the money, the horses who fill the cards at these tracks are all too often walked up the ramp of a trailer driven by a kill-buyers and taken on a one-way ride to Canada and Mexico where small businesses slaughter horses for export.
While the industry is in decline, it would be naïve for animal advocates to think that this industry is on the verge of a total collapse. It’s endured for a century and it can shrink further and limp along and continue to cause pain and suffering for countless horses. Animal advocates would be derelict in our duty to help animals by not actively pushing for a national regulatory scheme that includes a ban on race-day doping.
McConnell’s new legislation is the first stop in addressing the problems in horse racing. A second act would be to pass the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which would ban the slaughter of American horses for human consumption. American racetracks should not be a meeting place for horse trainers and kill buyers. Enacting this legislation would foist the responsibility on owners and trainers to provide lifetime care for horses. We expect that of pet owners, and it’s the least we should expect of horse owners.
Horses are the center of this enterprise and, it logically follows, the care of horses should a central priority. McConnell yesterday made an argument for the humane economy, saying that a business built around the use of animals can no longer mistreat its central actors. If the proposed reforms are not adopted, it’s not hard to imagine that the sparse crowds at the tracks will shrivel even more and the next generation will take their dollars elsewhere and bet on entertainment that doesn’t leave a trail of animal victims in its wake.
Please act now and ask your legislators to cosponsor the Horseracing Integrity Act.