With American Pharoah in 2015 becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed accomplished that feat 37 years ago, there was a buzz in the run-up to the Preakness about whether the previously undefeated Nyquist could come one big step closer to replicating the biggest accomplishment in the sport. Yet Nyquist’s third-place finish, losing to Exaggerator and Cherry Wine, wasn’t the worst news of the day.
The big news for animal welfare advocates came after two fatalities on the track. Homeboykris, the winner of one race, collapsed from a heart attack as he was being walked back to the barn. Only minutes earlier, he had been standing in the winner’s circle. The second horse, Pramedya, was euthanized on the track after stumbling and fracturing her front leg on the turf track in Baltimore.
It doesn’t appear that doping contributed to these horrible outcomes. Roy and Gretchen Jackson owned Pramedya, and they are both strong believers in not using performance enhancing drugs on their horses. The horse who likely suffered a heart attack, Homeboykris, was the victim of a rare occurrence among race horses, and the owner and trainer have offered to make public the medical records, showing a level of transparency that I applaud.
But both cases remind us of the fragility of these animals, and how there are inherent risks in the enterprise of racing.
The risk is compounded when the horses are doped up, raced too young, and bred for champagne-glass legs (valuing speed rather than durability) — all of which make them more susceptible to breakdowns on the track.
These incidents happened to two horses who weren’t being doped, and they’re unfortunately an anomaly in that way – doping is widespread in the racing industry, and there is no national regulatory authority for racing.
Doping is typically utilized on race day to enhance the horses’ performance or to mask injuries and to get unsound horses on the track – a shameful practice in our society, and one that is counterproductive to building a humane economy. Some of the biggest names in training, such as Rick Dutrow – who trained Homeboykris in the past for a previous owner – and Doug O’Neill, trainer of the favorite, Nyquist, are chronic violators of the modest, state-based anti-drugging rules. America’s horse-racing tracks, all too often, are turning into crash sites.
Right now, regulation of this industry is balkanized, with each of 38 racing jurisdictions having its own set of rules. They allow different medications, varying levels of permissible medications, different penalties for violations, different rules on which horses are tested for drugs, and different laboratories to do the testing. Without one single regulating body, racehorse owners and trainers who are barred from racing in one jurisdiction can simply move their business elsewhere.
This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports – perhaps more so, since the equine athletes cannot speak up for themselves – we need national standards to prevent unethical trainers and veterinarians from doping horses to improve their chances of winning.
With so many tracks owned by major casinos, there are now very high purses for the owners of winning horses. That results in many owners and trainers gambling it all on their horses – by putting injured horses on the track in order to recoup their investment in the animal on the off-chance that the horse may win. At dozens of lower-tier tracks in the United States, horses are racing too frequently, racing with drugs in their system, and being put at risk by people who care more about profits than the horses or the jockeys.
Many leaders within the industry, including the Jacksons and The Jockey Club, are coming together to find a common set of reforms they can rally around and convince Congress to embrace. The HSUS has joined The Coalition for Horseracing Integrity in order to push that discussion forward. The coalition is pushing for federal legislation that would establish a uniform set of rules, testing procedures, and penalties, created by the non-profit U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the same agency that monitors Olympic sports in the United States, to rid racing of unethical drugging and doping of horses. Such legislation is crucial to protect the animals and jockeys in an industry that has proven it cannot and will not regulate itself.
We should not need breakdowns and horse deaths to trigger reform. We have plenty of information now to take action and put USADA in charge of running an anti-doping program on American racing tracks. For this sport to retain credibility with the American public, and not be viewed as allowing a free-for-all when it comes to safety and humane treatment standards, Congress needs to act before it finishes work this year.