Katie Lamb is a freelance writer based in Toronto and southeastern Ontario
In March, I happened on these two tweets by an Englishman named Sam Mansfield: “First time I’ve watched horse racing and I thought football was a sad sport at times, but the first race of Cheltenham had Sir Eric as favourite to win, with people betting £10,000 on him. Not even halfway through the race he gets a horrific injury and has now been put down."
“I know this probably happens quite often but I’m actually in shock at what I’ve just witnessed … so so sad that the dreams of that horse and jockey have been taken away from them within a matter of minutes. Can’t believe he’s had to be put down.”
I still wonder if Sam Mansfield will ever stomach watching another horse race again.
All winter long, the world followed the disturbing reports out of the Stronach Group’s Santa Anita Park racetrack in Southern California. Thirty horses died in races and during morning training. Racing officials and industry folk reportedly fumbled to defuse the crisis as international media and animal-rights organizations swarmed. Meanwhile, state politicians felt compelled to intervene as it appeared the individuals who were tasked with looking out for the horses’ welfare were inept.
It became vividly clear that not only does the racing industry have no idea how to manage this kind of public-relations problem, but it also has no idea how to manage itself to act accordingly and prevent these atrocities from happening in the first place.
Mr. Mansfield is right: A brutal reality of horse physiology is that a fractured leg is often a fatal injury for an equine. Their thousand-pound bodies atop spindly cannon bones and saucer-sized hooves make them naturally – albeit perilously – equipped for speed. Death from a broken leg is a fate that can happen in the wild or a pristine paddock. But what should never happen “quite often” is when 21 magnificent equines die at one place before officials step in and cancel racing.
Both horse people and Santa Anita Park management have their own theories on what went wrong last winter. Owners and trainers say they felt pressure to enter their horses into races to make fuller fields and, thus, encourage more betting at the track (handicappers prefer wagering on big fields where there’s a better chance to find a long shot). A continentalwide shortage of horses means there’s a constant scramble for tracks to supply the demand. Most of the horses currently racing are lower-level horses who run for smaller purses.
In an interview with the Paulick Report, Tim Ritvo, chief operation officer of the Stronach Group, says a rainy fall and winter may have altered the dirt and sand surface.
But this is far from the first time racetracks have been accused of prioritizing profits over the ponies. In 2012, 21 horses broke down over the winter season at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack. After an investigation by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Howard B. Glaser, then the director of state operations, told The New York Times, “concern for the health of the horses finished a distant second to economics.”
Last November, jockeys at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack protested after they said they felt pressed to ride races on Woodbine’s turf course despite making it clear they felt the track was unsafe.
But why does it take a state governor, shaming by the media and jockeys refusing to ride for the industry to wake up?
After the Santa Anita nightmare, Belinda Stronach, president and chair of the Stronach Group, vowed to make fundamental changes to the way her company operates, including widespread drug and safety protocols, hoping to smoke out bad actors who skirt rules by replacing old-fashioned horsemanship with the latest in medical concoctions. These reforms may come from a good place, but they’re largely seen as an olive branch to a public justifiably disgusted with the sport, and leave the skeptic in me to wonder if it’s too little too late. While much of the industry might accept sweeping changes and national oversight of medication rules from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, has declined to sign on to any such reform. This despite the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., calling it “one of the deadliest tracks in America.”
The common refrain by industry folk is that horses are born and bred to run, as if that’s meant to comfort anyone in these dark times. Maybe they forget that after 146 years of being dubbed “the greatest show on earth,” Ringling Brothers’ circus shut down amid changing attitudes toward the treatment of animals. Here in Canada, the House of Commons recently passed a bill ending the captivity of whales and dolphins. People’s attitudes have progressively evolved and right now, horse racing looks as exploitative as sad orcas performing tricks on command.
Horse racing is a multibillion-dollar industry that employs thousands of people and contributes significantly to North America’s agricultural sector. And perhaps riding the “too big to fail” attitude has been its saving grace thus far. You just have to wonder how long before that strategy breaks down?
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