Friday, May 3, 2019

As the Kentucky Derby Approaches, Deaths Pose Existential Questions for US Racing

A rash of deaths at the famous Santa Anita Park in California has left many wondering about the future of horse racing in America


Tank Team, Unusual Angel, Secret Street, Derby Treasure, Noise Mandate, Amboseli. There will be no statues built at Santa Anita Park in memory of those six thoroughbreds, or the 17 others who died during this torrid winter but if – or when? – the doors ever close on this famous old track, their names will be written in what many in the industry fear could be the final chapter of Californian horse racing.

These are bloody times at Santa Anita. Literally. Over a three-month spell from December, 23 horses died at the track, either training or racing. Equine death has been a gruesome staple of American racing for decades but even an industry inured to ‘collateral damage’ has been shocked by the carnage and the condemnation that followed. There were plenty of excuses offered – bad luck, bad weather, ‘bad apples’ in the industry – and just as many promises to do better. Yet few within the industry are in any doubt it now faces an existential threat. California senator Dianne Feinstein has called on racing to be suspended at Santa Anita, while the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office announced an investigation into the deaths. 

Animal right activists are calling for the abolition of horse racing in California, an attainable goal in a state where the proposition system gives voters the power to write and enforce new laws. “If we don’t make racing safer I don’t think the public will allow us to continue,’’ says Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the California Horse Racing Board and one of the most respected voices in the industry. “We are one ballot away from being voted out of existence.”

It is hard to believe such a fate may lie in store for Santa Anita, an art deco playground synonymous with the golden age of Hollywood and the backdrop for a more recent cinematic rehabilitation of the sport’s image. Seabiscuit the horse won his last race here. Seabiscuit the movie was filmed on location here. 

They built a statue in the little horse’s honour. It sits in the parade ring, a focal point for the sparse Sunday afternoon crowd, and industry veterans are fearful of what lies ahead. “The public think we all cheat and all we do is kill horses, which isn’t true,” says Karen Headley, one of a half-dozen female trainers working out of the track. “Will we still be here in five years? I hope so, because I’ve still got a lot of glass ceilings to break.”

Matthew Chew has been running horses here since 1992. “Los Angeles isn’t like Newmarket, where people live and breath horses. People out here don’t understand that horses really do love to race. All they see are horses dying and it’s completely unacceptable to them. It’s unacceptable to us, too, which is why we have to change now. Truth is, we either get better or we go away.”

A horse is led onto the track for a workout at Churchill Downs. The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP 
 Such pessimistic talk is likely to be evidenced this weekend at Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby marks the sport’s annual foray into mainstream American culture. As ever the fashions will be high and the race card of superior quality. Yet events in California have cast a pall. Even the local newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal was bold enough to describe the Kentucky Derby track as “deadly”, pointing out the 43 equine deaths at Churchill Downs since 2016 are 50% higher than the national average. The Arizona Republic published on a similar theme about that state’s most prominent track, Turf Paradise. Fifty horses dead in the 2017-18 season alone.

How did it come to this? There are as many explanations as there are industry people with opinions. “Greed,’’ says Bob Hess Jr, a prominent California-based trainer. “Management, trainer or jockey – we all want to win, and in striving for that I think we lost focus on the big picture and the big picture should always be the horse.”
More prosaically, a lack of a cohesive national leadership - the industry is regulated in 38 different states by 38 different bodies - is often cited. Rather than confront the problem of equine deaths, the industry has done its best to hide them. Animal rights activist Patrick Battuello runs a website dedicated to naming every horse killed on US tracks - a Stakhanovite task carried out by daily scanning of racecard reports and regular Freedom of Information Act filings. He describes the Equine Injury Database (EID) set up by the Jockey Club as little more than a “marketing tool” – undermined by its voluntary nature and the anonymity of the racetrack submissions. “They believe that if they do not put a name to the dead horses the problem won’t seem as bad as it really is,” he says.

A Jockey Club spokeswoman dismissed these criticisms. She said the EID has played a vital role in the effort to improve the health of horses, while the Club’s recently published Vision 2025 white paper offers a set of radical reforms included in the Horse Racing Integrity Act 2019, now before Congress. “By passing the Horseracing Integrity Act, we will be creating one universal system of medication regulation and a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority administered by the US Anti-Doping Agency – the same body responsible for human athletes, including the US Olympic team.”

The reality is that the legislation has little support among racetrack owners, trainers, jockeys or any other group within the industry. Political backing is limited too, with Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky, having already stated his opposition. If change is to come it will have to come from the industry itself.

The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita, has made the most significant move. The group announced this month it was banning race-day medication, bringing the track into line with standard industry practices in the UK and Dubai (where death rates are as much as five times lower than in the US). “The current system is broken,” declared company president Barbara Stronach. “That ends today.”

Up to a point. While the changes at Santa Anita were welcomed by long-time critics like Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), they were condemned by some within the racing community, trainers and jockeys, who have been brought up in a culture where performance enhancement is viewed as necessary in the preparation of any racehorse. A coalition of the 20 most prominent tracks, including Churchill Downs, announced they would follow Santa Anita’s lead, albeit that the ban on race day medication would be phased in over the next two years, and extended an invitation to more than a hundred other tracks in the US to follow suit.

“These are the first significant steps forward for the industry in a generation,” said Peta’s senior vice-president Kathy Guillermo. “But horse racing needs to be aware that the days of it trying to PR itself out of trouble are gone. It won’t work when people are watching horses break a leg live on TV.”

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Horse Racing Wrongs - Close Santa Anita Horse Races

E.G.L.A Apr 30, 2019  2 min. 1 sec.
Why are 2000 horses killed every year from the horse racing industry? Let's shut it down! www.horseracingwrongs.com

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