This piece is part of a package of stories and commentary on horse racing in Kentucky and elsewhere. For more, click here.
Growing up, one of my favorite things was to go to Churchill Downs. Poring over the racing forms and learning how to bet was an educational, bonding experience I shared with my parents. And the prospect of winning $20, maybe even $50, was, well, dangerously addicting.
Since the 2008 Kentucky Derby, however, I no longer watch a horse race with the same innocent enthusiasm. After finishing second in that race, Eight Belles was euthanized on the track after both of her front ankles fractured.
I’ve gone to the Derby, Oaks and other races since then. But I always watch with one eye closed and harbor stinging anxiety that a horse could die in front of me — for sport.
This tradition-driven, romantic attraction to horse racing that I and many Kentuckians share is now being tempered by a rising number of horse fatalities, perhaps most notably Eight Belles’ but also the recent rash of deaths at Santa Anita. Twenty nine there since December. Churchill Downs’ fatality rate was 2.7 per 1,000 race starts in 2018, compared to 2.04 at Santa Anita, the Courier Journal reported. Churchill was second on the CJ’s list only to Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois, which had a fatality rate of 2.99.
Now is time for all of us, especially the horse industry and government, to look closely at horse racing and make it safer. Because the sport has to change, or it may die itself.
Racetracks and regulators need to enact top-to-bottom reforms to ensure the health, safety and quality of life of the horses. If not, the federal government needs to make the changes for them — or outlaw horse racing entirely.
Step one is forcing transparency onto the industry. In this issue of LEO, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s story “With Race Horse Deaths Under Scrutiny, Kentucky Keeps Details Secret” explains how the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission largely conceals reports on horse deaths and injuries. The claim is that releasing such information would harm the business interests of the owners and trainers and that state law makes veterinarians’ relationships with clients confidential. In some instances, the Commission has refused to release full information on horse deaths by insisting it is contained in “drafts,” which would exempt it from open records laws.
The records that KyCIR managed to get are incomplete, marked with redactions including of, most importantly, the names of the tracks and horses’ owners.
There is no excuse for this.
There is an obvious reason: Kentucky lawmakers have cozy, financial relations with the Kentucky horse industry. But there is no excuse — owners and tracks should be held accountable.
Step two is to create uniformity of regulations. Just as horse owners and trainers chase the most lucrative purses, they also chase the weakest rules and regulations. This is no different than a company moving its operations to a state with laxer environmental standards. The problem is, this will only lead more horses to more dangerous tracks and ultimately their deaths.
Animal rights organizations and advocates, as well as sports writers, have long predicted the death of the industry. This chorus is now reaching a crescendo. California’s governor and senior U.S. senator have called for an end of racing at Santa Anita until veterinarians examine and certify that horses are healthy to race.
This is no small gesture, as Santa Anita is scheduled to host The Breeders’ Cup this November, horse racing’s premier race outside of the Triple Crown races.
A bipartisan bill, the “Horseracing Integrity Act,” has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, and it has been endorsed by, among others, The Breeders’ Cup, The Preakness Stakes, The Belmont Stakes and Keeneland. Churchill Downs’ absence is conspicuous.
Certainly, horse racing is dangerous. It always has been. These are athletes traveling at high speeds. Let’s make it safer.
The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association estimates that the horse industry produces an annual economic impact of $4 billion for Kentucky. By continuing down this path of obstructing oversight, transparency and resisting major reforms, it jeopardizes that entire industry.
With more states legalizing sports betting and other forms of gambling, horse racing risks losing people who don’t want their bets to possibly result in the deaths of animals.
And, if the industry doesn’t change, it risks losing the casual fan — me. •