When will the horse racing industry get some horse sense?

Rash of horse deaths at Santa Anita signals fundamental problems for industry

More than a few in the horse racing world think the rules about the responsible treatment of animals don’t apply to them or to their industry. Doping horses on race day to enhance performance, according to these “realists” in the sport, is the way it is. In the home stretch, jockeys lash horses with whips, and that’s the way it’s always been. Thousand-pound animals, running flat-out for a mile on champagne-glass legs and given stimulants to enhance performance, breakdown on the tracks with disturbing frequency, but that’s just the price of competition.

Horse racing gets noticed favorably, when it comes to Joe Q Public, three times a year, with the running of the Triple Crown races. That story turns to mud though, when there is a breakdown on this big stage, as happened some years ago with Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby and Barbaro at the Preakness. But the rest of the year, we hear a steady stream of news about horse injuries or deaths at minor- and major-league tracks.

Occasionally the bad news, if it’s startling enough, breaks into the mainstream. A few days ago, at Miami Valley Gaming in southern Ohio, a horse running a harness race crashed and drowned in a pond at the track. The operators finished the remaining races before they fished out the corpse.

But the biggest story — rather, a cascade of stories — has come out of Los Angeles County, where Santa Anita Park this year has turned into a crash site. Twenty-three dead horses since the end of December. At a single track. Except for suspending races for a few days, the operators keep loading the horses into the gates day after day.

A few years ago, and not without controversy, Joe Drape of the New York Times wrote that 24 horses die every week on American tracks. This body count says nothing of the whipping or the on-track or off-track non-fatal injuries. It says nothing of the horses who perform poorly and move from the track to a kill buyer, who sends them to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico.

True believers in the horse racing world think they can manage this, or better yet, keep it quiet. They think they are immune, that the reckless, balkanized manner in which horse racing is organized and regulated across 38 distinct racing jurisdictions won’t throw them off stride.

It’s a naïve view. It willfully ignores a body of evidence that reform for animals is happening across every enterprise using animals – through the courts, lawmaking bodies, the ballot box, consumer choice, or whatever other pathway it may be. No industry can go on doing bad things to animals and escape scrutiny in an era of social media and with tens of thousands of animal advocacy groups operating in a culture that largely agrees with their take on the world.

Look what happened to a SeaWorld (mind you, a company, not an entire industry). A single documentary triggered an enormous backlash against the publicly traded company, with young people especially no longer interested in buying tickets to support a company confining whales in small pools. SeaWorld eventually got, for the most part, on the right side of the debate by ending the breeding of the animals and committing itself to doing better by animals in a range of other ways, too.

Or better yet, take Ringling Bros., also a big company and the big brand in the world of animal-based circuses. It made no attempt to stop using elephants, lions, and tigers in its traveling acts. It found itself in constant battle, fighting to slow or stop the advance of bills at the federal, state, and local bills to ban bullhooks for use on elephants or any use of elephants in the first place. After years of battle, Ringling’s leadership shut down the company, ironically right after it won a big lawsuit against animal advocates. They could win the occasional battle, but it was losing the war and its leaders knew it.

Or take a look at fur trappers in California. Larger cultural forces were slowing eroding their numbers. Then two decades ago, voters approved a ballot initiative to ban the use of cruel traps for killing animals for their fur. Then other laws followed to tighten restrictions on trapping. Now the trappers are facing a bill to ban any fur sales in the state from traps. “My association is not fighting back because trapping is a dead horse in California,” Reed Aiton, the president of the National Trappers’ Association, told the Los Angeles Times. It was a slow death, but make no mistake, it’s the death of the industry in the nation’s biggest state.

By December, there won’t be any jurisdiction in the United States where cockfighting or dogfighting is legal. That milestone will be reached, after hundreds of years of legal cockfighting in many of the states and territories, because the Congress enacted an Animal Wellness Action-backed amendment to the Farm bill to apply the strong federal prohibitions against animal fighting to the entire country.

In perhaps the scariest parallel to the horse racing crowd, Florida voters just wiped out two-thirds of the greyhound racing industry, shuttering 12 tracks in Florida (there are only 18 in the nation). The industry failed to embrace substantive reforms — with concerns mounting about on-track injuries, confinement of the animals when not racing, and doping of the dogs. Nearly 70 percent of Florida voters, when given the chance to weigh in, said the industry must shut down. By the end of 2020, there will be, at most, six greyhound tracks in the U.S. — down from 60 just 25 years ago.

Is horse racing so strong that it can withstand the drumbeat of stories of horses breaking down? They’ve weathered past storms, but so did Ringling Bros. and others until they couldn’t. The 23 breakdowns at Santa Anita are just one more poignant example of horse health and welfare problems that cannot be adequately explained by the industry.

Since the regular breakdowns and the daily doping of horses are what most voters know about horse racing in California, how do you think they’d vote if presented with a ballot initiative to end racing? Nobody in Florida thought 70 percent of voters would end greyhound racing in the industry’s main state – until, that is, they took that action. Then it was too late to change.

The fact is, horses are dying almost certainly because of breeding practices that make the animals less fit and sound and routine doping that enhances performance and gets injured horses onto the track when they should be in the stall. There are a range of other issues, such as track surfaces, early-age racing, the use of whips, and more.

Interest in horse racing has been waning for a long time. It’s been propped up by casino gambling at pari-mutuel facilities. The infusion of cash from the casino operations that is flowing to purses for horse races is masking the industry’s ebbing fortunes. If the gambling industry has been its financier and savior, it can quickly turn into its antagonist if the circumstances dictate that kind of turn-around.

Are young people becoming die-hard fans of horse racing? Anything but that. Horse racing has an aging, male fan base, and it’s shrinking. And it’s just a fact that the industry cannot regulate itself properly.

It doesn’t take long for a few more horrific outcomes on the track to permanently shape the narrative.

There are plenty of leaders in the industry sounding the alarm, led by The Jockey Club, the breed registry for thoroughbreds. The Club issued a damning assessment last week about problems in the sport that its leaders must address. It called for a series of reforms, including the passage in Congress of the Horseracing Integrity Act, to ban the use of drugs on race day.

It’s an attempt by the Jockey Club to save the sport. To alter the narrative and demonstrate that the leadership within the industry is willing to make sacrifices to protect the athletes at the center of the enterprise. But they are facing resistance from some owners, trainers, and veterinarians addicted to drugs.

One big question is, can the growing forces for reform within the industry prevail over the old guard? The even larger question may be, is horse racing facing an irreversible decline, a process accelerated by the intransigence of the very people who purport to be its biggest defenders?

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