Like most people who flock out to Keeneland every spring and fall, I’m a casual horse racing fan. I like to watch them prance in the paddock, then stretch out down the track in a pulsating mass of muscle and speed. I believe they love to run and present as evidence of that the sight of Bodexpress, who ran the entire Preakness after losing his jockey at the starting gate.
As a Lexington resident, I also appreciate the deep economic underpinning of horses around here, from the foals that gambol in our fields to the less scenic work of breeders, farriers, feed merchants, veterinarians, and grooms. Its economic impact, according to one study, brings about $4 billion a year.
That’s why the current state of racing seems so scary. It’s both abhorrent and tragic that it took the deaths of 29 horses at the Santa Anita race track in California to crystallize the numerous problems that racing faces. That’s just one race track. In Kentucky in 2018, horse fatalities jumped from 20 in 2017 to 36 in 2018, an 80 percent increase.
Yes, it’s a complicated situation without simple answers, whether it’s the track surfaces or new medications, as my colleague Janet Patton recently explained, or old ones. Are medications like Lasix breeding weaker horses? Do jockeys overuse whips? Breeders, trainers, owners, tracks, they all have their own perspectives, arguments and jealously guarded fiefdoms.
But let’s step back and look at it from the perspective of a casual fan: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO WATCH HORSE RACING WHEN THEY’RE SCARED A HORSE IS GOING TO DIE. Because of the industry’s reluctance to face this one simple fact, it’s now attracted the attention of PETA and politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who last week asked Santa Anita to shut down.
Now let’s look at it from the perspective of a Kentuckian: Can you imagine what would happen to the breeding and sales industry in Kentucky if California banned racing? And if you think that’s hyperbolic or gives PETA too much credit, ask a circus elephant trainer how things are going.
That’s why attention has returned to federal legislation of Lexington’s own Congressman Andy Barr. The Horse Racing Integrity Act seems like a common sense approach, one that even a casual race fan can understand. First, it creates one central oversight authority that creates and administers the same medication rules, just like just about every other sport in the nation. It would ban race-day medication, which mirrors international racing rules.
Barr had a similar bill two years ago, which faced opposition from big organizations like Churchill Downs. But Barr thinks the bi-partisan bill, co-sponsored by New York Democrat Paul Tonko can pass this time around. Similar legislation recently appeared in the Senate. Barr hopes his bill will get a hearing this summer.
“I certainly think it has more momentum because the problems at Santa Anita raised the public’s awareness and lawmakers’ awareness that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed,” Barr said. “What we want to avoid is legislators who are overreaching — we want to prevent them from doing something like ban the sport because they’ve heard from PETA or some other group. It’s so important for the industry to demonstrate a record of integrity and safety and show everyone we’re treating these animals with humane practices.”
A group of tracks, including Keeneland, Churchill Downs and all the Triple Crown tracks, recently announced they would start phasing out race-day Lasix medication starting next year. That’s a start (and possibly an attempt to do an end run around Barr’s bill) but one oversight agency still makes the most sense.
Churchill Downs remains opposed to the bill, Barr said. Spokesman Darren Rogers didn’t respond to several requests to talk about the issue.
“I remain disappointed that Churchill Downs opposes my bill, but having said that there are many actors within that coalition who support it,” including Keeneland, Barr said. “Kentucky absolutely has the most to lose if nothing is done.”
Also, he points out, there’s a lot of competition for our entertainment dollars these days, and new fans simply won’t download that TVG betting app if they perceive there’s cheating or animal abuse. More transparency would also help. The Jockey Club reports racetrack fatalities; some tracks report race day deaths, others include the training days as well. When the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting asked the Kentucky Racing Commission for records on the 43 horses that had died at Churchill Downs since 2016, they were turned down. The commission said the reports were drafts and therefore “preliminary,” a popular but nonsense argument to get out of open records requests. There’s nothing “preliminary” about a dead horse.
Like Keeneland and the Jockey Club, PETA supports Barr’s bill, although he doesn’t publicize it because PETA is seen as too extreme, said Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice-president there. But she says that if the industry doesn’t get behind it, we’ll see “the end of horse racing.
“It really is at that point now,” Guillermo said. “If the rest of the country doesn’t embrace this change, the number of people opposed to horse racing will just continue to go up. People have evolved on their willingness to tolerate deaths on the race track.”
A 2018 Jockey Club report found that only 22 percent of the population has a positive view of racing, according to the Blood-Horse. The sport simply isn’t baked into the national fabric in the way it is in places like England and Ireland.
In March, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, who is herself a former Thoroughbred owner, wrote a kind of eulogy for horse racing in the L.A. Times. (Read her novel “Horse Heaven” for an often heartbreaking insider account of racing.)
“Like a lot of former fans, I never loved racing for the betting — I loved it for the beauty of the animals,” she wrote. “What drew me was their beauty, their individuality, their pleasure in their job, whether it was running, jumping or standing still. But after breeding some, sending them to an honest and caring trainer, and writing a novel about the racetrack ... I backed away.
“I do not know whether racing can be saved, or whether it should be saved,” she continued. “I am no longer a fan.”
Yes, there will always be rich people to buy racehorses and race them. But the industry also depends on the fans, the ones who go to racetracks, place one bet or many. We don’t care about the arguments or the power plays or politics. We just want to watch horses run without dying. We want the problems fixed. Even to a casual fan, it seems pretty obvious that racing will ignore us at their peril.
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.