Talk Back: Racing Breakdown

By on May 9, 2008 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

The death of Eight Belles at last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby has spurred a national debate over horse racing and the safety and welfare of the animals (NPR’s Tom Ashbrook led a discussion of the contrasting perspectives on Wednesday’s "On Point" program, which you can listen to here).

In my blog earlier this week, I argued that the industry had no major watchdog organization, and that I thought this was an unhealthy situation. It would be better for the industry to have an organization nipping at its heels and making it stronger from a humane perspective. In terms of spectator sports involving animals, The HSUS decided years ago to concentrate on dogfighting, cockfighting, hog-dog fighting, and greyhound racing (which we oppose), not horse racing (which we do not oppose). You can read our policy statement here.

That said, we feel an obligation to weigh in and work with industry to improve the treatment of the horses. There are very obvious and identifiable problems in the industry, and no responsible voice can deny these deficiencies. My strong preference is for industry insiders to drive change—partly because there are many racing enthusiasts who care about horses.

For years, there have been bursts of attention to the problems with horse racing generated by breakdowns, drugging scandals, or other highly publicized cases where horses have been caused harm. The big issues that the industry must confront are the racing of 2-year-olds (the animals’ skeletal systems are not developed enough to take the pounding from racing), the widespread use of drugs on race days (horses should be racing just on hay, oats, and water), track surfaces (there are superior alternatives to dirt tracks), overbreeding ("surplus" horses are being sent to slaughter), and selective breeding that has made horses more vulnerable to breakdowns. These issues have been debated for years, but there’s not been enough action to institute lasting reforms. The very public death of Eight Belles is a moment for the industry to drive change, and we’ll help the industry with these changes.

Blog readers have weighed in from varying perspectives. Among the comments we received:

I’m sorry Wayne, but you do not have all the facts about horse racing. Yes, I agree, do not change your priorities. The horse racing industry is trying to take care of its problems. I am a member of HSUS and I totally disagree with your "position" as far as horse racing is brutal and inhumane. Get off the subject. —Sandra Kozlowski

I’m sure there are well over two breakdowns a day in pastures with horses "just being horses" running around on their own time. I’ve been a long supporter of The HSUS, and there are issues the horse racing industry needs to address, but to downgrade horse racing and call it inhumane is incorrect in my opinion. Most trainers and owners want the best for the animals in their charge. You can find poor trainers and owners in any area involving animals. —Kelly Woodham

As an animal lover and a horse owner, I am OUTRAGED by the most recent "accident" at the Kentucky Derby. This must stop. I don’t care what argument the opposing sides come up with; it is cruel and wrong to force a 3-year-old baby horse to run its heart out for the glory of man. It’s no "freak accident"; the horses are forced to run and run and run and run. Their whole short three years are filled with running and training. No one asks them if they want to; they are conditioned to know they have to. Most never get to spend time in a grassy pasture, play with other foals, or just be a horse. They only know hard training, and a small stall because they are worth too much money to let out and possibly get hurt before they earn their owners lots of money. When does it end? Horse racing isn’t about the love of horses; it’s about the love of money. It’s time those of us who have had the unbelievable experience of having a loving and respectful relationship with this magnificent and giving creature stand up for them and end this cruel practice of running them until they drop. —Christi

I was relieved to see The HSUS take on this issue. I think pressure should be put on those involved in the sport to make racing safer for the horses. If that’s not possible, then maybe we shouldn’t be racing horses in the first place. —M.B.

Why are the animal welfare groups waiting for them to change themselves? I have read some of the comment postings included with some of the news articles and the horse owners, breeders, and trainers that are posting have no intent to change. Mostly they say that the treatment the racehorses receive is better than the treatment most people get. I really don’t know who exactly it is that they are kidding. Many people don’t pay attention to the horse racing industry because they think it is abusive to horses. I doubt the industry will change itself. —BD

Weigh in we must! An industry so motivated by revenue will not police itself. These animals must be defended! —Susan Mudrey

Thank you for writing this, but I would like to see The HSUS start getting involved in advocating for the animals in this industry NOW. Something needs to be done because like many have said, these are only two horses that we actually know about—it happens to at least two every day! I for one will never be able to watch another horse race again after the heartbreak of Saturday. —Dawn

Thank you Wayne Pacelle and The HSUS! I have three off the track, well-bred horses that were tossed to the curb when their racing life ended. Even the breeders don’t take responsibility for these horses once their horse racing life has ended! Even though one of the horses is a grandson of Seattle Slew he was left for slaughter! It really bothers me that these magnificent animals don’t have the advocacy that dogs and cats do simply because for the most part the masses aren’t as familiar with the life of a racehorse or the lack of a safety net for them. Thanks again so much for your voice! —Denise Smith

Wayne: As usual, you’ve gotten it exactly right. In order of magnitude, the horse racing industry—a cynical, exploitative enterprise if there ever was one—pales beside factory farming, animal research, and other horrors. That said, there’s something wrong here. I agree with you—the industry (in no way is it a "sport") should seek solutions to the problems you accurately point out. If they don’t, HSUS, and other groups, are well-justified in going after them. —Vic in Chicago

Very well said. I’ve wondered for awhile now why this hasn’t been a larger issue in the animal welfare discussion. While acknowledging that there may seem to be more pressing and blatantly cruel issues such as factory farming or dogfighting, we simply can’t turn the other way as thousands of horses die every year in the name of entertainment, and wagering no less. My only suggested amendment is that animal welfare organizations, including HSUS, should involve themselves regardless of the humane initiatives which the animal racing industry will, or likely won’t, take. Thank you for an excellent post on the subject. —Ben DeVries

Mr. Pacelle: I’ve written you a few times about The HSUS taking a stand against horse racing and dog racing to get both blood sports outlawed. You graciously called me last year and we discussed this issue. While what happened to Eight Belles is certainly tragic, hopefully people will see exactly what horse racing and dog racing are—legalized abuse and brutalization of innocent animals—and no longer attend races. Unfortunately, racing will continue until it becomes unprofitable to the people making money exploiting animals. Thank you for all you do. —Mary Fleming

I have long wondered at the attraction of animal racing, be it horse, dog or any other animal. The cruelty suffered by these animals to line the pockets of the owners and fleece the pockets of the gambling public is a pock on our nation’s face. It is sad that a death needs to occur to bring this subject national attention. It is a beautiful sight to witness the joy of an unfettered horse kicking up its heels, not one that is driven to speeds that will ultimately kill. Let’s stop giving this "industry" a free pass to continue the suffering. This is just one instance of a long list to be questioned and challenged until it ends. Never stop asking WHY? —Janet Werderits

Horse racing should not get a pass from animal rights activists. It’s disgusting to see these beautiful animals being whipped to the finish line while those who have money at stake cheer at the sidelines. This "sport’s" glossy veneer cannot hide what is a macabre spectacle, not far removed from, as William Rhoden points out in his article, dog fighting. —Linda Azarone

Beating a horse to make it run faster and faster is not entertaining, nor humane. This sport should have been stopped years ago. How is this any different than dogfighting? They train the dogs to fight to death. In horse racing they train the horses to run to death. All done for human entertainment and money. Let’s put an end to this cruelty like we are doing with dogfighting. —Judy Ascoli

I am so glad to see your organization taking a stand on the cruel sport of race horsing. What happened to Eight Belles was the one of worst things I have ever seen. I will never watch another horse race. These horses are raced at much too young an age and pushed beyond what their bodies are capable of handling. Please stay on top of this. Thank you so much for looking into this. —Joyce K. Barnes

I used to really enjoy watching the races—after all, horses are gorgeous to watch. But I once went to a local track and two horses in back-to-back races "broke down." It really soured my feeling for the "sport." If they would just breed them for less speed, stronger bones, and raced them older—then maybe. —Karen

It was with great anger, disgust, despair, and tremendous sadness that I watched that filly, Eight Belles, run the race of her life last Saturday, only to break down just having crossed the finish line. I would imagine little thought was given to the tragedy as the gamblers stood in line to collect their winnings. Shame on the horse racing industry. I would say changes need to be made. We are only seeing a fraction of all of the breakdowns of these magnificent creatures as they train for the big races. I, for one, have watched my very last horse race. —Mary A. Fisher

Please do not let the story of Eight Belles and horse racing go. I was the state veterinarian in thoroughbred racing for five years. This is only the tip of the iceberg of what really goes in racing. —Martha A. Hunt

Thanks Wayne and HSUS for addressing the issues facing the sport of horse racing! Eight Belles and Barbaro are only two of the MANY—in this country and abroad—which have been destroyed because of racing injuries—either from the track, the starting gate, colliding into each other while racing, breeding, medication, during training, etc. Hopefully, these issues will be addressed by the horse racing community. I will no longer watch horse racing events after seeing Eight Belles destroyed on the track seconds after winning second place in the 134th Kentucky Derby. She gave her heart and soul—and she gave her life to race and to show the colts. I recall when I was nine years old and I watched on television as Ruffian, another great racehorse and filly, was destroyed on the track. The safety and welfare of racehorses is a must and should be PRIORITY for those which race horses. Thanks for bringing this horrible tragedy into the light—I hope it will make a difference in the lives of thoroughbred racehorses the world over! —Jan

I strongly encourage The HSUS to stay on top of the situation with racehorses. The industry needs oversight to prevent premature and cruel deaths as the result of a money-making venture that has long been unregulated. The number of deaths has reached an unacceptable level. —Lin Douglas


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