Pre-entries for the Breeders’ Cup have been announced, and the World Championships are just days away (Nov. 1-2) at Santa Anita Park. It should be a cause for celebration and anticipation. However, the lead-up to this year’s Breeders’ Cup is high on apprehension and not on handicapping and breeders’ awards. It’s been that kind of year.
The anxiety level in Southern California is palpable, as it is all across the Thoroughbred landscape. Make no mistake; let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The sport is under attack. And regardless of what encouraging protocols have been put in place, we’re here to say it’s not enough.
It’s time for the industry to unite, to have a national set of guidelines, and to have a single voice advocating for equine athletes and the very livelihoods of those who care for them.
Events from the last several days underscore the need for a singular, strong, united front.
At Keeneland, one of North America’s iconic tracks, that conducts “racing as it was meant to be,” a fifth horse was euthanized after a racing mishap Oct. 20. Prior to the fall meet, the Keeneland Association went above and beyond to ensure its racing surfaces were as safe as possible and continues to monitor the dirt and turf courses, working with regulatory vets to ensure prerace exams are conducted at the highest level. It has gone to new levels of transparency to acknowledge publicly what has happened on the track. However, Keeneland is struggling for a reason why. The local Lexington newspaper, which dropped its full-time racing writer years ago, has reported on several of the equine fatalities on page one of the sports section instead of a wrap of the day’s stakes action.
Regardless of Keeneland’s best practices, it’s not enough.
In Southern California, in the face of all of the catastrophic incidents throughout the year, the group Horseracing Wrongs has placed advertisements on 22 bus benches that say, “Horseracing Kills / EndHorseracing.com.”
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields; along with the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club (which had a successful 2019 meet without any serious injuries), has implemented a host of new protocols to make its racing surfaces safer for horse and human. However, Oct. 19 another equine fatality occurred at the track. TSG, too, has become much more transparent in reporting each equine fatality, but regardless of how many bases TSG is able to cover, it’s not enough.
On Oct. 8, the Washington Post published an editorial by Patrick Battuello (founder and president of Horseracing Wrongs), “The time for horse racing has passed. It’s time to outlaw it.” Five days later the Post did publish a letter to the editor (from The Jockey Club’s Jim Gagliano and Shawn Smeallie, the executive director of the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity) in response to the piece, “Horses need to be treated better. But scrapping racing entirely isn’t the answer.” The retort made salient points, but, as is often the case, the follow-up gets a lot fewer eyeballs than the lead item.
Regardless of that response, it’s not enough.
Meanwhile, graphic images of a Thoroughbred carcass in a landfill near Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort blew up on social media during the week. The West Virginia Racing Commission and Mountaineer Park Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association responded with releases. Jami Poole, president of the Mountaineer Park HBPA, noted normal protocol was not followed, but by then, the die had been cast.
Regardless of any other statements emanating from West Virginia, it’s not enough.
This horrific episode could not have come at a worse time for our industry. Social media, whether we like it or not, can turn a “local” issue into one with national implications in an instant.
The sport cannot survive if it continues to take the body blows that seemingly come on a daily basis. The Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019, which would unify rules regarding permitted and prohibited substances, was once a high hurdle. Now it appears a unified industry backing the national legislation is just a first, necessary step in stemming growing negative sentiment toward Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Even it will not be enough.
The sport’s media outlets, ours included, are not strong enough vehicles to carry the freight. At the very minimum there is a dire need for a national, centralized spokesperson(s) to deliver the message to the general public and for the industry to get behind a national set of guidelines.
The time has come. Let’s hope it’s soon enough.