The Safety of the Horses: Racing Must Do Better

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Racing at Mountaineer Park | Coady

The Week in Review, By Bill Finley

It was another tough week for horse racing, as the headlines included another breakdown at Santa Anita and the ugly story of the carcass of a horse who had been competing at Mountaineer Park apparently being left in a pile of garbage at a landfill in West Virginia. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent all equine casualties and there will always be people in the sport who don’t believe they have a responsibility to do the right thing, so there are no easy fixes when it comes to solving the serious problems that have arisen since 30 horses died at the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita.

That doesn’t mean that racing can’t do better. Changes must come, and right now.

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, understood that when there was an alarming spike in fatalities at the winter-spring meet, which emboldened PETA et. al to call for an end to the sport. A team of veterinarians was assembled to go over every horse before they started and even before they had a workout. If there were any hints of any problems, the horses would not be allowed to race. The two tracks also ushered in new Lasix rules, cutting the allowable dosage in half. The Stronach Group banned Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer after he had six horses break down at the two California tracks earlier this year. It was all in an effort to send a message, that the Stronach Group was devoting every resource it had to solving the spike in fatalities.

But where is everyone else? It is troubling that no other racetrack outside of Santa Anita and Golden Gate have taken the steps The Stronach Group has taken in an effort to do everything possible to guarantee the safety of the horses.

Even the Stronach Group has not announced any steps in place at its other racetracks, Gulfstream, Pimlico and Laurel, to emulate the new rules in California. Why not?

The safety protocols at Santa Anita are at least an answer to racing’s enemies. When those same enemies ask other racetracks across America what they have done to cut down on the number of deaths, what is their answer?

At Mountaineer Park, there is none.

The story out of Mountaineer may change, as there have been widespread rumors within the industry that the photos of the dead horse were staged by PETA. Jami Poole, the president of the Mountaineer HBPA, told the Daily Racing Form that his organization was convinced that the truck that took the dead horse from Mountaineer to the landfill left it in the wrong location, which, if true, leads to many unsolved questions.

The dignified and humane way of handling a fatality must involve a necropsy. That is the only way to uncover what may have caused the horse to suffer an injury. Necropsies are also an effective tool in the effort to understand why horses break down and what can be done to lessen the problems in the future. The labs that perform the necropsies are also responsible for the disposal of the remains and aren’t likely to take unacceptable measures to do so.

Though the West Virginia Racing Commission has taken steps to make necropsies mandatory when a horse breaks down in the state, the new rules have yet to be implemented. Had they been, this story would never have occurred.

Any states that do not require necropsies following a horse’s death must change their rules immediately.

It’s all about doing the right thing, which includes transparency. The sport has made strides in this area. Santa Anita has dutifully reported each and every incident and Santa Anita was quick to issue a statement when the horse Satchel Paige (Grazen) had to be put down Saturday. Keenelend, where four horses died in the first nine days of the meet, has also adopted a policy that it will be open and truthful about every incident.

While Mountaineer, where bottom-level claimers make up most of the racing product, doesn’t represent racing as a whole, the way management there has dealt with the dumping of the horse at the landfill is all too familiar. It has not said a word. When the TDN‘s T.D. Thornton reached Mountaineer’s manager of racing operations Jim Colvin seeking a comment on the situation, Colvin hung up on him. That’s unacceptable, and a template for the rest of the industry on how not to act in the face of a difficult situation.

How racing as a whole has dealt with the ongoing problems, including the Mountaineer situation, shows what a vacuum there is when it comes to leadership. Racing needs a strong rebuttal to those who seek to put it out of business, individuals and organizations whose slings and arrows have largely gone unanswered. It needs someone to speak up for the sport when the media comes calling, ready to pounce on the latest negative story.

That is one of the many reasons the sport needs a commissioner, which, unfortunately, is a pipe dream. But even without a commissioner, racing has to figure out a better way to get its side of the story across to the media and to the general public.

At least The Jockey Club stepped up last week, penning a letter to the Washington Post in rebuttal to an opinion column that appeared in the paper written by Patrick Battuello of Horseracing Wrongs, a group that wants to put racing out of business. Jockey Club President Jim Gagliano wrote that Battuello’s case was “flawed” and characterized Horseracing Wrongs as a radical fringe group that wanted to “ban any domesticated animals, including food animals and pets.”

We also heard from the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, which issued an open letter following the Mountaineer incident that harshly criticized how racing is conducted in West Virginia.

“There are horse people, racing officials, administrators and regulators in some states who have allowed outrageous behavior to fester, leaving a trail of terrifying examples for the world to point to as reasons why our industry, which accounts domestically for more than 240,000 direct jobs and $15 billion in direct economic impact, should be shuttered,” wrote TIF Executive Director Patrick Cummings.

Gagliano and Cummings are to be commended for speaking out, but a lot more can be done. It was notable that no one else besides Cummings came forward to speak about what is an unacceptable and damaging situation in West Virginia. That’s because no one is in charge. There won’t be a commissioner, but that doesn’t mean that The Jockey Club, the NTRA and other leaders within the industry can’t do more to get a positive message about the industry to become a bigger part of the narrative.

An Australian television program called 730, which is part of the ABC network, recently ran a scathing anti-racing piece that revealed abuses when it came to the horse slaughter issue. The industry moved swiftly. Racing New South Wales, the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission, Harness Racing Australia and Racing Victoria all issued statements defending the sport. Australian Hall of Fame trainer Lee Freedman took to Twitter and wrote, “I am broken hearted at the ABC report. If we don’t make real changes, the court of public opinion will bury racing.”

Racing can’t afford to be silent and it can’t be afraid to adapt to a changing culture, one in which the public as a whole will not accept a situation where it believes animals are put in unnecessary peril.

As Cummings wrote: “When change is floated in the horse business, responses are often negative and tinged with reasons why our business could not accept such change. Get over it. Change or fade into oblivion.”

Heed his word.

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