Making a stand against social injustice at a racetrack is nothing new. Perhaps the most famous example occurred more than a century ago when Emily Davison walked out in front of the horses competing in the 1913 Epsom Derby in England. Stepping out from the inside bend at Tattenham Corner at Epsom, the suffragette was struck by King George V’s runner Anmer and unfortunately later died having never regained consciousness.
In recent years several protests have taken place at, or outside of, racetracks. Foremost in our mind was at Churchill Downs for last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). A summer’s worth of protesting over the death of Breonna Taylor and other national social injustice issues were addressed during Labor Day weekend in a daylong march from downtown Louisville to the gates of Churchill Downs.
More tied to our sport than regarding national issues have been multiple protests concerning animal welfare at Thoroughbred racing’s larger events and venues. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have proved successful in receiving media coverage for their cause, most notably during the racing season of 2019 in Southern California. Their tenacity has been as ferocious as Grant’s drive to Richmond.
However, none of the protests actually took place on course—not until March 4 at Golden Gate Fields when anti-racing protestors disrupted the program at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California.
The incident was led by a group under the “Direct Action Everywhere” banner, which came well prepared for maximum exposure. Beyond the disruption of the races, the group used drones to capture video that was streamed on Facebook Live. Other commentary appeared on other platforms to push the protest to a larger audience.
The demonstration interestingly did more than stop the races. It also disrupted distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as Golden Gate is serving as a host site for delivering vaccinations for area residents. Misplaced protests do have consequences larger than the issue at hand.
That activists were able to enter the facility, scale a fence to gain access to the racing surface, and then halt the program should raise a red flag for everyone involved in our great game.
On a national scale we have taken huge strides to make the game safer for horse and human. Reforms at tracks and jurisdictions, led by the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, have affected real change. The proof is there via the The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. With 11 years of data from 2009-19, the overall drop in the risk of a fatal injury is 23.5%.
One major problem with this is we’ve done a fairly poor job of pushing that message out. We are in dire need of a national platform to promote the fact Thoroughbred racing is safer than ever before. It will be further strengthened as activity on the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act takes shape after its passage last December…but who is to tell the population at large?
As in any solution, the issue requires time and money. The investment certainly appears to be well worth it.
While the world comes out of a COVID-19 coma and economies and businesses start to open back up, racetracks will be able to accommodate more fans in the not-so-distant future. Track management needs to be cognizant and invest to have the security in place to make sure the next group that plans to hijack a racetrack is stopped. Protocols should be in place for venues large and small with security available to spring into action on any given day of the week.
Anti-racing protestors seem to have the upper hand at the moment. They are able to gain access and manipulate local media to air their grievances.
Now is not the time for sitting idly by or failing to counter on the shenanigans that threaten our very existence.
From a marketing standpoint, we should be able to beat them at their own game and disrupt their progress, not ours.