This is a festive day in Lexington, the opening of Keeneland's spring meet, our annual celebration of dogwood blossoms, sundresses and seersucker, burgoo and, oh, yes, horses.
The film released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month and the related story in the New York Times offered up something uglier — a gritty, nasty view of backside indifference to these extraordinary equine athletes.
The film, shot in the barn of Steve Asmussen, a leading trainer whose horses include 2011 Derby runner up Nehro, featured his longtime assistant, Scott Blasi. People in the industry assail PETA, saying it's out to destroy not to reform racing, and decry misrepresenting an investigator as an employee to get the unauthorized footage.
But, whatever PETA's goals and methods, the footage served as a painful reminder that in racing horses too often are sacrificed rather than celebrated, medications are administered not as therapy but to mask symptoms and pain during a race.
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That seemed to be the take of Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club. In a statement released last week he complained that Thoroughbred racing has been too slow to take up national medication reforms proposed in 2011.
So far, of the 38 states that have racing, only four — Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Massachusetts — have adopted the rules. Phipps brought out the big hammer, saying that if the rest of the states don't get serious, the Jockey Club is prepared to ask for federal oversight to protect horses.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission adopted the new standards earlier this year. Before they can go into effect they must be approved by two committees of the legislature.
John Ward, executive director of the Racing Commission, predicted that by late June or early Kentucky will join the other four states.
We would have liked for Kentucky to be first rather than at least fifth (several other states are at about the same point in the process so we may be further down) but this is progress. For trainers and veterinarians who want to obey the rules this will provide clarity.
However, for those who don't obey the rules, the proposed reforms also include a national system for tracking violations and assessing penalties that apply in addition to state penalties. Kentucky has not yet taken up this important aspect of the reforms.
People break the rules and endanger horses to make more money. When a violation means a slap on the hand, rules are broken. When getting caught means losing your livelihood for a long time, or permanently, the equation changes. It's as simple as that.
Clear, scientifically based medication rules with very strong and certain penalties will make horses safer.
Ward said the commission hasn't put the penalty aspect on the agenda yet but said, "I have a feeling it will be sooner rather than later."
Soonest, we'd say.