Keep Up the Heat - By Eric Mitchell

The U.S. Congressional hearings are over. Network camera crews are documenting other stories. PETA demonstrators have gone back to protesting fur coats.

The sting of Eight Belles’ death on Derby day last year is waning, so the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and The Jockey Club no longer roll out press releases with the same frequency about new programs to improve safety, eliminate the overuse and abuse of drugs, and trumpet efforts to shore up racing’s integrity. While the Eight Belles tragedy attracted a lot of intense and unpleasant scrutiny, it lit a bonfire under industry leaders who produced some admirable results within a year. Most notably, all North American racing jurisdictions now ban the use of anabolic and androgenic steroids within at least 30 days of a race; and, the NTRA has implemented its racetrack accreditation program, with 10 tracks approved so far. The accreditation program, which is administered by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, has led to substantial changes at some tracks. One track is now directly affiliated with a racehorse retirement facility and another has implemented pre-race testing for total carbon dioxide (the test for milkshaking).

These accomplishments and others were heralded during last month’s Jockey Club Round Table with lots of well-deserved congratulations.

But here’s the kicker. We can’t stop. We can’t let up the intensity just because the protestors and the cameras have gone away.\

During the Round Table it was stated that in one year the industry has “effectively eliminated the use of all anabolic steroids in the training and racing of Thoroughbreds in this country.” True, rules were adopted to ban race-day use of steroids, but to say steroid use has actually been eliminated is a stretch. Consider the comments by Dr. Scott Palmer, chairman of the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Racing Committee, who said our current medication policy, though well-intentioned, is compromised by a lack of uniformity and financial support in multiple racing jurisdictions. Here is the heart of Palmer’s message the industry needs to embrace:  The time for extended diplomacy is over. To the extent that medication reform can help save our industry, we must act now with deliberate speed and conviction.

Do I hear an amen?

Yes, the industry has made progress, but it’s still behind the curve. Deliberate speed and conviction is needed on all fronts.

NTRA president Alex Waldrop said he visited 25 industry leaders last week in California and believes no one is backing off. Maybe the overt display of urgency following Eight Belles’ Derby is gone, but the will to reform remains strong. It will be the Safety and Integrity Alliance’s responsibility to keep the pressure up, Waldrop said. He added that the gains made to date are modest but are getting noticed outside the Thoroughbred industry and are rebuilding racing’s reputation among sports fans. A recent NTRA survey of 1,200 general American sports fans and 608 people identified as “core fans” shows a slightly better impression of Thoroughbred racing now than existed a year ago and a belief that the efforts to improve safety and integrity are sincere. The survey estimates 44 million sports fans are aware of the Safety and Integrity Alliance. Really? Forty-four million seems high, as it’s one in seven U.S. residents. The survey also shows 57% of sports fans watched the Kentucky Derby this year. Out of an estimated 153 million U.S. sports fans, that’s more than 87 million people. Nielsen reported 16.3 million watched the Derby telecast on NBC this year. Were the rest in sports bars, Las Vegas sports books, and at tracks and off-track betting sites? Maybe it’s possible. I’ve been assured the statistics and methodology of the survey are solid.

All the more reason to push hard for reforms. We have a lot of potential fans out there watching.

Eric Mitchell is Executive Editor for Digital Media at The Blood-Horse


Leave a Comment:


Compared with the gruesome fate -- namely the kill pens, transport trucks and slaughter houses -- awaiting a large percentage (half?) of the 36,000 horses foaled each year, talk of safety measures, medication and fan sensibilities is laughable, and impotent, like fixing a tail light on a plane with two burning engines.

If you truly want to change this industry, commend your readers and all those "potential fans" to any number of horse slaughter videos readily available on the Internet. Racing cannot and should not be saved from this hard fact, a stealth dagger that will soon enough pierce the heart of this sport and kill it forever.

10 Sep 2009 1:09 PM

Pete, 10% of the slaughtered horses are Thoroughbreds, many more come from the huge Quarter horse and Paint world. Thoroughbred rescues are really trying, maybe you can help them.

You're right about the "ban" on steroids...yeah, right, that's why some trainers test before a race to make sure they are clean...what a joke...I haven't stopped watching what they're doing, I've just stopped bugging my congressional folks to intervene...for now...

10 Sep 2009 4:58 PM


Thanks. You're absolutely right about the QH and Paint (many, rodeo) horses. But I've read estimates showing that 10-20% of the 130,000-plus horses slaughtered in North America each year -- so between 13,000 and 26,000 -- are Thoroughbreds. No figure exist on how many of those are racehorses, but even a conservative figure of 10,000 would be appalling news to casual race fans, and enough to render this sport as beyond redemption.

10 Sep 2009 7:43 PM

Mr. Mitchell, Pete, da3hoss,

I read this article yesterday, and there wasn't a single comment posted at the time.  I decided to check back today and observe the replies.  Mr. Mitchell, I do say Amen to your point.  The lack of posting here underscores your point.  It isn't a matter of if it happens again, it is only a matter of when.  The next time Thoroughbred racing loses a horse during a high profile race the PETA fans will be crawling out of the woodwork.  Is this cyclic?  Does everyone forget the safety of the horses and then gang up on the sport when it happens again?  Yes, Pete and 3hoss the way human beings treat horses, all the horses, all through history and all over the world leaves much to be desired.  Thoroughbred racing comes under the microscope because it has an audience.  Mr Mitchell, Amen, say it again Amen.  This is the time to press on about the work to improve the safety of the horse in Thoroughbred racing.

11 Sep 2009 5:45 AM

Thank you for the article. The racing industry need to put the horse's well being first. I invited some non-racing-fans to watch the Woodward Stakes with me last weekend. I wanted them to see one of the greatest horses of our time. That we did. But my friends were appalled at how jockey Calvin Borel repeatedly and vigorously hit Rachel Alexandra with his whip in the stretch. All of my explanations about the high stakes in the race, etc. were in vain as they said that this is a game that treats animals cruelly. How should I have responded?

11 Sep 2009 12:40 PM

Pete, I saw some of the videos in youtube, everybody should look at them.  From now on I'm commited to horse rescue. Every horse owner should be responsible for their horses, if they don't retire their horses and care for them, they should be denied a license,

Thanks Pete

11 Sep 2009 2:34 PM

DonW: I have had the same experience with people I have attempted to introduce to the sport. They were appalled at the use of the whip, especially on horses who really had no chance of winning. Rules in the UK and now Australia have been enacted to prevent abuse. It is issues like this - together with break-downs possibly involving medication issues - that most seem to turn potential fans away from racing.

There has to be a more humane whip that riders can compromise on, but pleading for badly needed change in this industry has, by and large, fallen on deaf ears. The rulers of racing do not appear to care what racegoers think and that is why attendance is dwindling and we are unable to attract and keep new fans.

11 Sep 2009 3:55 PM

The comments about whips and racing are right on. I too was appalled at Calvin Borel's repeated whipping of Rachel Alexandra. He has done this in her last two races. No matter how hard a horse is running, some jockeys continue to whip them again and again. When you have to inflict pain on an animal that is trying it's hardest, it is no wonder that so many are turned off. Borel should be disciplined for this. As for PETA protesting fur, they should be, as should anyone who loves animals. Animals killed for their fur suffer every much as brutality as a horse going to slaughter. Making light of this is never funny.

11 Sep 2009 4:24 PM


You were in a tough spot. Calvin went to the whip 21 times in the stretch. Our national correspondent Steve Haskin wrote about it in his recap of the race.

Some people have felt Calvin used the whip too much, but others say if he hadn't than Rachel may have lost. Steve spoke with one veteran jockey who felt Calvin's actions were justifiable. Another comment made was that Calvin was hitting mostly the saddle cloth and that it wasn't as bad as it looked.

Unfortunately, it didn't look good to many race fans. 

In the end, it was a huge victory for Rachel and now a very important part of American racing history. We'll each have to make up our minds whether that degree of whipping was needed.  

11 Sep 2009 4:38 PM

I have ridden horses all my life and trained race horses for over 30 years.  I was also married to a jockey for a brief period.  So I can speak to the whip topic from several differen angles.  My husband used a whip half the size of the average jockey's whip.  He also used it only as a cue to a horse that now it's time to run at the top of the stretch.  A quick tap on the hip.  That's all that was necessary most of the time.  If a horse is running it's hardest, continued whipping is a great deterrent and actually makes the horse slow down in many cases.  Especially fillies!  I'm sure that RA is the type of horse that gives you her all every time she runs.  In my opinion, there is absolutely no reason at all to whip her the way her rider whips her the entire length of the stretch.  It's actually sickening to watch.

He should be sanctioned and the use of the whip should be modified throughout the industry.  I've seen horses come back with from a race with 6 inch gashes on their sensitive flanks.  I've seen huge welts on testicles, shoulders, and tender underbellies from over-eager whipping.  I've seen riders wildly whipping horses that have broken legs and are trying to pull themselves up.

Banning the use of the whip has been a special passion of mine for years.  I'm very glad that this has finally come to the attention of the average fan.  Maybe now we can do something about it.

12 Sep 2009 7:31 AM
Golden Gate

Thank you Eric for bringing up 1)steroid use and commenters 2) slaughter 3) whipping.

What about steroid use and sometimes overuse in prepping the yearlings for the sales? It seems that this would damage young horses early on...maybe too much bulk on yearling bones?

As far as slaughter goes some states are trying to get slaughter houses of last resort put in. Where horses are bought and there is a veterinarian there for inspection and those horses that are adoptable are put up for adoption and special need horses are allowed to either go to rescue groups who will take care of them or humanely slaughtered. with the meet going to feed zoo animals in US thus funding the program.

This to me is a lot more human then horses being shipped on long journeys to Mexico and Canada and the US zoos importing meat from overseas.  

Aren't the wips being redone? when will all US jockeys have the new style. Also it might be good to have Jockey Club develop sensory force pads to place on hq of running horses to see if the whips make an impact the hurts or one that merely guides and slaps.

Then it would be better understood what the whip actually feels like to the horses.

13 Sep 2009 3:19 AM

Thanks for the article.  You are right that we need to keep up the heat.  I love this sport because I love the horse.  I have a hard time sometimes staying a fan though.  The slaughter issue is the issue that needs to be addressed the most and the one that troubles me the most.  That issue is what will turn me away from the sport.  I would hate to see euthanisia used also but would much prefer that over the slaughterhouse.  If owners can't/won't take care of their horses after retirement they should at least have them euthanized humanely.  They don't deserve the horrible slaughter.  These are live animals not slot machines that can be thrown away when used up or broken.  Irresponsible owners should be racing cars instead of horses then no one would care that they sent the car to the junkyard.  

13 Sep 2009 2:21 PM

If you want to do something to affect horse slaughter in one state that enacted a law for a horse slaughter house this past spring,there's one tactic that has proven to be effective before.

Montana has this reputation of wilderness and cowpokes,
these bring the tourists and they are the state's main income.  If there was a real national platform dedicated to closing these slaughter facilities,urging everyone to vacation elsewhere, bypassing those states allowing and even promoting them.The reason given to legalize it again here "the ranchers were complaining that they had no way to get rid of the old work horses they have".

After all why should they have them humanely put them down when they can make a few lousy bucks off their willing servants. I was raised on a ranch and I have worked on them and never
saw the kind of casual uncaring neglect that I have seen here.

14 Sep 2009 8:03 AM
Soldier Course

Some here have shared their experiences introducing friends to the sport of horse racing.

My effort came in the 2007 Breeders' Cup. I invited several friends over to watch the second day of racing at Monmouth Park. I prepared snacks and a light meal. Everyone came, and I was encouraged when a couple of my friends paid close attention and asked questions. Several times that afternoon I remember being relieved that no injuries had occurred. When Curlin crossed the wire in the Classic everyone was excited. Then the announcer said, "There's a development on the track." The dreaded screen. George Washington. My friends were so upset that they left immediately. I stood alone in my kitchen and wept.  

14 Sep 2009 9:21 AM

OK, so steroids are banned within 30 days prior to racing at every North American track... but when caught, trainers' suspensions are postponed until after important races, or until after the effective end of the season (see: Rick Dutrow's most recent offense).

OK, so Suffolk Downs instituted a "zero-tolerance" policy on trainers sending horses to slaughter... but when it became apparent that the track would lose $$$, the "banned" trainers were re-instated, just in time for racing to start up again. (The written "apology" required of the trainers before they could return was absolutely laughable - basically, "I'm sorry I got caught".)

OK, so the industry loves to toot its own horn on how much it "loves horses" and how "hard" its pushing for reform. As far as I can tell, it's all more of the same - when push comes to shove and there's cash to be had, nothing at all has changed.

Forget an "amen", you get a big "Whatever" from me. For every person in this industry who truly does love horses, there's a hundred more who love M-O-N-E-Y quite a bit more.

14 Sep 2009 10:23 AM

There have been comments about breakdowns on the track --trainers blame the track surface,owners blame unsound genetics (breeding for speed instead of stamina) but the fact is most of these horse get half the number of miles of training per week as horses thirty years ago and most of these miles is training for bullet works and not routes.

The technology is available to scan these racehorses for hairline fractures. Flir infrared cameras can scan horses legs for temperature changes with 1/10 of a degree(heat being a sign of stress).These cameras could spot a large percentage of accidents waiting to happen. By the way these cameras are banned on race tracks--a handicapper would have a field day spotting all cripples in the claimers post parade.  Why not require all entries in the BC and

other classic races to be SCANNED

Are these million dollar racehorses lives worth the cost of a $200 scan ( Or is the racehorse industry still in THE DARK AGES!!!

14 Sep 2009 4:38 PM

The current new rules and future new rules will have no effect on the organizations who 'rule' horse racing-Jockey Club,TOBA, etc.; breeders; tracks; veterinarians;sales/pinhookers; owners and trainers as long as there is no enforcement and inspection of any promulgated rules.  They are too entrenched in the industry and smoking mirrors hide their dark sides.

Eight Belle's death should not have counted for nothing, as well as the hundreds of other equines dying on the tracks.  Larry Jones is a great and honest trainer!  However, the same cannot be said for other 'leading' award winning trainers across the country.  I will always maintain, no matter how much I love Big Brown, that Eight Belles was the real winner of the Kentucky Derby -- BB won due to the drugs in his system! Unfortunately he suffered at the hands of fools also - including his jockey.

Breeders are at fault for her death - she had Unbridled Song's blood in her veins, plus the crosses with Dr. Fager (who had  club feet), Native Dancer (bad feet), Raise a Native and Mr. Prospector. That is a recipe for disaster! Now some fool has paid $925,000 for an Unbridled Songs colt - one wonders how long that poor soul will last at the hands of humans in his races, if he gets there!  May the Universe and God protect him.

These people must not have a heart or Soul in their chests, just dollar signs!

14 Sep 2009 6:42 PM

Megan - you are so right.  The suspensions and penalties are a JOKE.  It is laughable to suspend a millionaire for 30 days or less.  He will just take a vacation or go fishing.  Also, the suspensions usually come at the end of the race meet or right after the big stakes race - some punishment.  You have to hit people where it hurts in the wallet.  Only then will they pay attention and make changes.  I really wish more trainers would come out against drugs and slaughter.  Nick Zito is the only one I have ever heard come out against slaughter.  It would be great if a prominent owner like Jess Jackson would come out against slaughter.  He could use Rachel Alexandra's popularity to do a lot of good things.    

15 Sep 2009 12:33 AM

Megan is so very right about race horses being scanned, pre-race. The scan is non-invasive, inexpensive, and can show soft tissue problems that are not yet apparent, therby saving these horses from incredible pain as they are pushed to race when they shouldn't be. As a former race trainer and current equine thermographer, this diagnostic alone would save so many wonderful horses that give their ALL to us in so many ways.

Eight Belles and Barbero would not have been allowed to run had they been scanned pre-race and evaluated. We will loose this sport due to inhumanity of ALL sport horses if this LACK of caring, conditioning, and pre-diagnostics continues to be allowed.

The scanning process takes little time and the results are immediately available for review. Why not, then, make this a mandatory pre-race evaluation along with drug testing, including the elimination of Lasik?

03 Nov 2009 11:47 AM

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