Yes, I know, for some people the question is probably “Do we fix horse racing?” Is it a sport that has had its day?
For those of us who value the Thoroughbred horse as a breed and its history, however, fixing American horse racing is key.
For those who haven’t been following the issues, a rash of high profile fatal injuries at Santa Anita cast a pall over the sport. The track was temporarily closed, then reopened for the Breeders’ Cup…at which another horse died. The primary cause of the initial deaths: Inclement weather that flooded the track. Del Mar hit the news this week (December 2019) with a death that may be the result of trainer abuse — the trainer concerned was suspended from the track.
Nobody in racing wants to see a horse die. The fact is that the industry has put a lot of money into researching treatment of equine injuries. As a result, a broken leg is not the automatic death sentence it was only a matter of years ago. This research is spreading into the sport horse and rodeo worlds, benefitting all horses, not just high-value Thoroughbreds. But the fact is deaths still happen. And while we may not be able to prevent them, the public is showing a lower tolerance for them.
If horse racing isn’t going to go the way of greyhound racing in Florida, something needs to be done.
So, what should racing do?
Fix Santa Anita
Santa Anita’s track has become a problem. The track has an action plan, which involves reducing the number of racing days and not racing in the kind of bad weather that contributed to the deaths.
However, I have a suspicion that there may be more to the issue. Some people are campaigning for Santa Anita to install a synthetic track; but they already tried that and went back to dirt for similar reasons. I personally would move to temporarily close Santa Anita, move the winter/spring meets to another track, and tear out and redo the track to eliminate any problems under it.
Doping standards for Olympic show jumpers are so tight they can’t give the horses calming supplements.
Racehorses are routinely given painkillers before the race.
This has to stop.
A bill, H.R.1754, currently before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, called the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 calls for the formation of an independent anti-doping authority. Currently, there are 37 different racing governing bodies in the United States, and they can’t agree on the rules. I’m therefore in favor of this bill, although it seems to be stalled in committee (perhaps because Congress has other worries right now. Ahem). The Senate has a similar bill, also in committee as of June, which also adds a clause to prevent people from selling a horse that has been on long-term drugs without telling them. It would be considered fraud.
Either way, every other country that has horse racing disallows the use of painkillers before a race. Using painkillers causes horses not to realize they are hurt and keep running, making the injury worse. Lasix, a commonly-administered drug to stop bleeding in the lungs, is also a performance enhancer and a diuretic, and thus might increase an animal’s risk of heat exhaustion.
We need to have zero tolerance to doping of Thoroughbreds and other racehorses.
Stop Racing in Dangerous Conditions
Yes, even if it’s the Derby. Yes, even if it’s the Breeder’s Cup. Introducing rain dates into the schedule to allow for it wouldn’t…well, NASCAR can do it, why can’t the Jockey Club?
Dangerous conditions would most likely refer to flooding of the track — horses can handle a lot of mud but there are limits — or excessive heat that would be a danger to horse and jockey. This would be determined by an independent track inspector who would be paid by somebody other than the track and who would be allowed to call of the meet, including after it started, if conditions become unsafe. This would be relatively rare…like I said, horses can handle a lot. But Santa Anita has demonstrated that sometimes it needs to happen.
Sometimes the spectators and gamblers need to suffer for the sake of the animals.
Heavily Restrict the Use of the Whip
Now, there are a lot of people who don’t get it and think jockeys should not carry whips at all.
The fact is that the whip is sometimes needed for the safety of horse and rider. Sometimes you need to make your horse move sideways right now to avoid a collision. Sometimes jockeys need to use the whip because these animals, which are reproductively intact for the most part and trained to be highly competitive have been known to try and take chunks out of each other in the middle of the race.
However, using the whip in the home stretch as anything other than a signal to the horse that the finish line nears should be heavily restricted, not so much because it’s a safety problem but because it looks like abuse to outsiders. Sometimes it is abuse. I’ve definitely seen jockeys cross the line. A good racehorse should run when the whip is moved into its line of sight (horses can see behind them remarkably well) and not need to be touched by it. If a slow horse keeps having to be beaten to the line then maybe, just maybe, that horse needs to show up on the Canter listings as a sport horse or trail horse candidate.
As a lover of the Thoroughbred breed, I don’t want to see racing end. I do want to see racing be reformed. Much has already been done…for example, the use of robots to train jockeys rather than real horses spares real horses the hassle of dealing with riders who don’t know what they’re doing. But more needs to be done.
And most of all we need to stop running horses on painkillers. If they aren’t sound enough to run without bute, they aren’t sound enough to run.