This piece is part of a package of stories and commentary on horse racing in Kentucky and elsewhere. For more, click here.
For decades, too many in the horse racing industry have behaved as though Thoroughbred racing is a private club they can run any way they want. Broken bones? Slaughter? Our problem, they say.
Even crimes — starvations, beatings, neglect, the illegal use of controlled substances — have rarely been reported to law enforcement.
Over the years, racing has responded to the public’s concern about the well-being of Thoroughbreds with a flurry of promises for reform. After PETA released its investigation of trainer Steve Asmussen in 2014, federal legislation was introduced. But it’s largely been window dressing. Racing weathered bad publicity, waited for it go away and then went back to business as usual.
I’ve never seen an industry act so consistently in its own worst interest.
Here’s my message for the racing industry: You may not have changed, but the times have. The reform has to be meaningful, and it has to happen now.
Following the more than two dozen deaths at Santa Anita Park, the public’s patience is exhausted. Media and law enforcement interest reflect this. Even though dozens of horses have died annually at virtually every Thoroughbred track in the U.S., it was this year that the public joined PETA in saying fatalities are unacceptable. In 2015, PETA called on the San Diego District Attorney to investigate training and veterinary methods after a spate of deaths at Del Mar race track. But it was this year that a DA — in Los Angeles County — agreed to our request to open an investigation. That quickly grew to a task force of assistant district attorneys.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, acted swiftly to enact new rules. Many in racing criticized Stronach executives — for not engaging with enough stakeholders, for engaging with PETA, for suggesting Lasix should be banned, for proposing a ban on the whip and for basically realizing that empty promises won’t cut it anymore.
The Stronach Group is replacing public relations with action to protect horses. There is more to be done and PETA, along with Social Compassion in Legislation, is working with the California Horse Racing Board, legislators and Belinda Stronach to strengthen the current rules in that state.
Track owners in Kentucky, New York and elsewhere appear to be open to at least discussing the same rule changes. Here’s my advice: Don’t be tentative. Embrace change. Be transparent.
At a minimum, the racing industry needs to do the following:
Get rid of the medications. Thousands of necropsies conducted at the University of California, Davis, show that most Thoroughbreds that break bones on tracks had pre-existing injuries at the site of the break. Why don’t the veterinarians prevent injured horses from running? Because the horses have been administered so many medications that they don’t feel sore, and they don’t appear to be favoring that leg. But they get on the track and their bones snap. In the weeks leading up to a race, these horses are on a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, painkillers, sedatives and muscle relaxants. That can kill any chance of visually observing problems, and it can kill horses.
Horses that need therapeutic medication for injury and soreness should be allowed to recuperate before they are trained or raced. All medications should be banned in the two weeks before a race or timed workout.
Install cutting-edge CT scan equipment at all tracks. Sometimes bone injuries can’t be detected visually, even when horses haven’t been administered multiple medications. But technology developed by CurveBeam and Dr. Sheila Lyons can. It can provide 3D scans of a horse’s four legs in just about three minutes. Horses can be walked on the scanner, which has no visibly moving parts and then simply walked off. It’s already being used by physicians for human sports, is much more practical than time-consuming MRIs and does not require injections of isotopes as do PET scans.
Switch to high quality synthetic tracks. The statistics are clear. Fewer deaths occur on synthetic tracks.
Ban trainers with multiple medication infractions. The days of $500 fines and 30-day suspensions must end. Horses deserve better than trainers who repeatedly harm them. Racing needs a three strikes and you’re out rule.
Ban whips. Striking a horse with a stick, no matter how cushioned it may be, is the most visible sign of abuse in racing. It’s cruel, and it’s unnecessary.
Be transparent. The public doesn’t trust the racing industry and for good reason. Tracks hide fatality statistics. Trainers keep injury records secrets. A horse shipping into a state from another may have had shock wave therapy 48 hours before. Because tracks don’t know this, the horse may be raced the next day on injured legs that it can’t even feel. Complete records must travel with each horse, for the protection of the animals.
Don’t sell horses to racing entities that routinely send horses to slaughter. PETA’s just-released investigation of racing in South Korea revealed that on nine dates between April 2018 and February 2019, 22 Thoroughbreds were slaughtered. One was born in the U.S., 19 had American sires and 11 had American dams. They ranged in age from 2 to 13. U.S. racing must refuse to do business with South Korea until it implements a viable aftercare program.
Take care of your horses when their racing days are over. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance has made a good start, but former race horses still end up at “kill” auctions and are trucked to Canada or Mexico where they’re slaughtered. Stop throwing away the animals that provide your livelihood. If the racing industry sees horses as disposable, the public will dispose of racing.
These rules are a starting point, the minimal action that must be taken. They’re not difficult to understand, and they are entirely doable. The racing industry ignores them at its own peril. •
Kathy Guillermo is a senior vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, www.PETA.org.