Recent media coverage of horse racing is starting to feel like beach erosion. Once it starts, it doesn’t get any better – ever.
The large number of fatalities at Santa Anita Park in the first three months of the year was, understandably, the most dramatic and important story. There were 23 horses who were fatally injured while racing or training at Santa Anita’s tracks after it opened for its annual winter meet on December 26.
Then there was the controversy over the disqualification of Maximum Security who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby, but interfered with several other entrants including, most significantly, War of Will. While the stewards made what, in my opinion, was the correct decision, the sub rosa suspicions did nothing to increase confidence in the integrity of the sport.
When War of Will came back to win the Preakness, the non-racing media’s lead was that of Bodexpress tossing his rider at the gate and continuing to run. This was a remarkable event only to those who have not seen many races. That both the Derby interference and a loose horse in the Preakness could have resulted in serious injuries to both horses and riders did not seem to be a factor in the national spotlight.
To top it off there was HBO’s Real Sports segment on horse racing last week. It is not a program I watch, and have only seen this one and the one they did five years ago following PETA’s complaints about the Steve Asmussen barn. This look at racing every five years was a sickening and horrific look at what are, undoubtedly, some of racing’s worst moments.
As one who follows closely racing, politics and their intersection, I cannot think of a more perilous time for racing’s survival – and I am not talking long-term. The rash of deaths at Santa Anita resulted in leading political figures and the Los Angeles Times calling for the suspension of racing at one of the sport’s most prominent venues. Santa Anita officials did just that in an effort to determine if they could pinpoint the cause of the fatalities. They have not yet, and returned with a remarkable period of no catastrophic injuries for six weeks, but now experienced three in a recent nine-day span.
It is disturbing, albeit predictable, that new fatalities have caused both Senator Dianne Feinstein and The Los Angeles Times to renew their calls to suspend racing until the reason for the fatalities has been determined. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently added his voice in endorsing a number of proposed reforms in the state: “The recent horse fatalities in California are unacceptable. We must hold the horse racing industry to account.”
There are not many certainties in politics, and politicians have been known, to put it mildly, to change their positions. But when an elected official takes a stand on an issue that is emotionally charged, they are less likely to back down and will want to see their concerns addressed.
There is no national voice to counter the assault on the sport’s integrity and value. There are many respected figures in racing, and there are many organizations. Unfortunately, no individual can speak for the industry, and the national organizations are not only useless, but often downright embarrassing.
Groups such as the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent Protective Association and the Association of Racing Commissioners International continue to respond to negative press with the same tired tropes that are easily disprovable or facially ludicrous. Despite years of repeating the same responses, it has obviously had no impact.
The first is the low rate of horses testing positive for illegal levels of medications in post-race tests. The rate is a fraction of less than one percent. That’s partially because testing is only for a limited amount of drugs because the cost of a more extensive regimen is, according to regulators, prohibitive. There is also a wide range of drugs for which there is either no test or violators are adept at hiding their traces.
The second is the claim that racing has “one of the most stringent post-race drug testing programs in any professional sport,” as stated by NTRA’s CEO in response to the Real Sports segment. We literally have to go back 41 years to the drug disqualification of Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image to find a horse of equivalent stature to a Lance Armstrong or Robinson Cano penalized for a drug positive.
The key phrase, however, is “post-race drug testing.” When racing authorities in the United States get serious about drugs, they will emulate Europe and Hong Kong and have a meaningful program of Out-of-Competition Testing. California has promised to strengthen their program. New York’s program is virtually non-existent for thoroughbreds.
Then we have the “those questioning the devotion of horse people to their equine athletes need only to spend a morning walking barns to have such concerns alleviated” line, also from NTRA’s CEO. Well, I have spent hundreds of hours on backstretches and taken thousands of photographs. I have the utmost respect for the hundreds of devoted horse people I have encountered (many of whom are Latino or Latina) who work long hours, often at low pay, and clearly love horses. I could swear under oath I have never seen a horse mistreated.
I also have visited banks thousands of times and never seen a robbery or a bank executive committing fraud. I would swear that under oath as well. That only means that those committed to wrongdoing will do it out of the public eye.
One of the most remarkable refutations of this “feel good” narrative, however, comes from the Association of Racing Commissioners International. It’s remarkable because of its tone-deaf inability to see one step ahead, let alone several. Let’s just quote from the group’s May 6 press release:
“All racing regulatory commissions have been put on notice that the banning of voluntary race day furosemide (Lasix) … is expected to encourage a return to practices deemed cruel, inhumane, or potentially dangerous to the health and welfare of a horse. …
Last Friday, the RCI advised Regulatory Commissions to be on the lookout for horses being given intravenous formaldehyde to combat potential incidents of bleeding. …
The ARCI also advised commissions that it is anticipated that some horsemen will return to a practice … [that] denies a horse food and water for twenty-four to thirty-six hours prior to a race.”
So if you are going to see how well horses are treated, avoid those barns starving horses or injecting formaldehyde.
To complete their superfecta of ridiculous defenses, the national groups and their spokespeople also blame the media and those in the industry who, they portray, as negative voices seeking to harm the sport. Blaming the messenger is never a long-term strategy, and impugning the integrity of many who have devoted their lives to the sport because they seek improvement is as short-sighted.
There are many positive steps being taken to improve the safety of both the horses and the humans who get on their backs. The Stronach Group’s Belinda Stronach announced a number of significant reforms to address both possible causes of the fatalities and public perception problems in March, many of which were supported in Gavin Newsom’s statement. There is also federal legislation that would put a national body in charge of administering anti-drug policies, the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The most publicized reforms have to do with phasing out race-day Lasix and the use of the whip. While neither may have caused any of the catastrophic injuries, anyone who has spoken with a non-racing fan realizes that these are important perception issues. And to be clear, the discussion has gone beyond attracting new fans to the sport. We need to prevent those non-fans from advocating the abolition of all racing.
The Rip Van Winkles leading the national racing organizations may not wake up in time to realize that their strategies are both useless and counter-productive. They need to take serious steps to embrace meaningful reform. Washington Post sports reporter Sally Jenkins recently wrote a devastating piece:
“Thoroughbred racing, more than all other sports, confronts the human participants with their own characters. In any other game, you’re responsible only for yourself. But racing is all about the handling of the horses: At the heart of the contest is the matter of trust, the sacred obligation to do decently and right by reliant creatures. It is the thinnest of lines between a meaningful pursuit and an abuse. The minute a horse’s best advocate is a Washington politician is the minute that line has been crossed.”
There is a tipping point at which the impetus to abolish racing becomes an irreversible inevitability. We are quickly approaching that point. Maintaining a snail’s pace of progress is no longer going to be sufficient to keep racing going. The time for urgency is now, and not when it will be too late.