Congress must get on track on horse racing reform

By on June 23, 2016 with 21 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

The Triple Crown races are over for the year, but thousands of horses dash every day around the oval at tracks in 38 racing jurisdictions – Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds in harness racing, Quarter horses, and Arabians. Too many of these horses will die from catastrophic breakdowns because of inconsistent humane standards in the industry, and owners and trainers are too often gambling with the lives of these animals. Others will be shipped to slaughter plants if they aren’t promising performers, allowing owners to get a couple of hundred bucks and dispense with the lifetime responsibility of feeding and stabling.

In 1989, I wrote a magazine story about these problems and others – from early-age racing to dangerous track surfaces to breeding the horses for speed rather than soundness. Much to my dismay, there’s been too little reform of the horse racing industry, which is racing as many horses as ever despite waning interest from fans. The industry has maintained a balkanized regulatory framework, and Congress has sidestepped its responsibility, despite having approved an Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 that regulates wagering.

Except for the high-profile Triple Crown races and other major showcase events like the Breeders’ Cup and the Saratoga race meet, horses today are typically running at tracks in front of sparsely filled bleachers. That circumstance exists because of declining confidence in the sport and a shrinking and aging fan base. But why then hasn’t the market solved the problem and why haven’t more tracks shut down?

The reason is that billions of dollars are still flowing into the industry from federally sanctioned interstate simulcasting (which offers remote betting) and because so many  horse racing tracks have now turned into fancy casinos, and the tracks are getting a piece of the action from the other, far more popular forms of gambling, such as slots, card rooms, and roulette. National gambling companies were able to secure casino-style operations in dozens of states by hitching their wagons to the existing pari-mutuel horse racing facilities. The horse racing industry, seeing a source of revenue for their declining industry, let them set up the casinos but in return secured purse money for the top-performing horses along with state-imposed racing requirements, even if there are no fans in the grandstands. It is these subsidies and government policies that are especially keeping the marginal tracks in operation.

But that still doesn’t’ explain why there has been insufficient reform in the industry on animal welfare. With so many reforms in the last few years in animal agriculture, animal testing, fashion, and other sectors of the economy, there’s been stasis in horse racing. That’s partly explained by the absence of a determined advocacy group focused on pushing reform, along with insufficient motivation within the industry to demand better outcomes for the horses.

I think that changes today.

I am excited to announce that The HSUS is going to step up its efforts to reform horse racing and as part of that, we are creating the HSUS National Horse Racing Advisory Council that will take on the biggest issues for equine athletes in the racing industry: widespread doping which causes perhaps as many as 24 horse deaths each week, expanding horse retirement opportunities, and ending the slaughter of retired racehorses for human consumption.

The council is made up exclusively of horse-racing professionals from around the country, led by Joe De Francis, former CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, which is the corporate parent of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes). Joe, a steadfast champion of the welfare of horses, believes as we do that everyone who makes or has made a living from the horse racing industry has a moral obligation to take all reasonable steps necessary to protect and enhance the welfare of the equine athletes that are the heart and soul of the sport and the business of horse racing.

Other members of the council include Jim Gagliano, president and COO of The Jockey Club, the breed registry established in 1894 that is playing a central role backing federal legislation to end doping of horses; Chris McCarron, thoroughbred horse racing Hall of Fame jockey who’s won all three legs of the Triple Crown  twice; Staci Hancock, notable champion breeder; Allen Gutterman and Stacie Clark-Rogers, both life-long industry professionals; and Joe Gorajec, former executive director of the Indiana Racing Commission.

These leaders will also serve as advisors and resources for the legislative and regulatory work of The HSUS’s own Equine Protection team, and will help continue our efforts in collaboration with the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity – a group The HSUS joined in 2015 to push the discussion on equine welfare policies forward. The coalition is aggressively advocating for federal legislation  — H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, introduced by Reps. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) — that would establish a uniform set of rules, testing procedures, and penalties, created by a board headed 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. That legislation is desperately needed to protect the animals and jockeys in an industry that has proven it cannot and will not consistently regulate itself in the current system comprised of a patchwork of 38 different racing commissions with many different sets of rules, often deficient ones when it comes to animal welfare.

In my book, The Humane Economy, I describe the decades of history and events that led to our recent partnerships with major food retailers, entertainment companies, fashion giants, and others, with our discussions and their new policies producing paradigm shifts in our relationship with animals. These industries recognized that they had to adapt to confront a changed social and cultural landscape when it comes to the treatment of animals. It’s time now for the horse racing industry to be a part of that change, and it can happen with a push from both the outside and the inside.

Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to horses. If we are going to put them to work for our entertainment, and use their gift of great speed, we must do so with tender care and take every reasonable step to assure their safety, at every stage of their lives. They are remarkable athletes, and many of them may love to compete, but they are conscripted into this enterprise. They are not volunteers. It is not too much to ask Congress, which enables this entire industry to operate by allowing gambling nationwide through the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978, to advance legislation that will put an end to practices that are disabling and killing horses on the tracks every day of the year in the United States.

Help The HSUS end the suffering of horses »

Equine, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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  1. Debbie Peterson says:

    Horse racing is cruel. The worst are the breeders. The most horrible trainers feed them drugs to mask pain. Run two year olds with underdeveloped legs. It is not the sport of kings anymore. The cruelest is their horrific death in Mexico. Stabbed in the back hung up and butchered all while fully conscious

    • Ms Moose says:

      Ms. Peterson: Wow! These are some fierce, bitter comments! I wish you could visit with my horses and see what raising and racing and retiring them is really like. I don’t know if you know any breeders, or have gone to a racetrack; but all I know is : my horses enjoyed their time at the track, and they are enjoying their retirement years, too!

      • Tova Saul says:

        You are the exception to the rule. The fact is that the industry as a whole stinks to high heaven. Men + animals + money = horrendous cruelty.

      • cindy says:

        some horses are not as lucky as yours..i am happy to hear that you are caring for your horses long after you see what others go through and suffer? maybe it would be good to look it up.they are sometimes forgotten and starve and die horrible deaths..thank you for being a caring person..

      • Heidi Mignogna says:

        I also have to say that although horse doping is a huge issue, I also have concern for horses who are merely an “investment” proposition for an individual or group of people. Then, when the horse has an unsuccessful racing career, they end up in the slaughter house. New laws need to be in place that retirement homes or sanctuaries need to be set up. Horses are not disposable commodities. If you breed and own race horses, than you are responsible to find a safe, loving environment for them, even if they’ve never won a race.

      • Cat Fortier says:

        You are likely not the problem. You know there IS A PROBLEM THOUGH, right?? You have to know it’s gotten out of hand. So why fight people trying to make things better for the beasts you say you care about? Why would you fight it?

  2. Sally Palmer says:

    I am so appreciative of these opportunities to learn the facts behind things like horse racing and marine life shows that have long appeared to be fashionable, or fun, or even educational. Clearly the more people are given the chance to see the facts like those presented here, the more they can know to support changes to end the horrific treatment of these beautiful beings that have done so much for humans through the centuries. Thank you, Wayne, and all those you noted for the industry leadership in creating The HSUS National Horse Racing Advisory Council. Horses were a beloved part of my early life, and I never dreamed then these terrible things were happening behind the scenes. I will look forward to seeing the victories this new council will win on behalf of these animals I have so long admired and respected.

  3. Bruce Cohen says:

    Horse racing = Animal cruelty

  4. Barbara G. says:

    What needs to be done post haste is the passing of the Senate Safe Act S.1214 and the house bill H.R. 1942. All congress seems able to do is fight each other over every little thing. I believe there is enough cosponsors to bring H.R. 1942 to the floor for a vote but its the Senate that refuses to even consider bothering themselves to cosponsor their own bill S 1214 They don’t seem to care much whether the race horses are sent to slaughter or the other 160,000 that end up killed in Canada/Mexico just so they get their donations from lobbyists that represent the breeders and numerous other stakeholders such as ranchers and the racing industry, never mind the the doped up horses that are sold out the back door to slaughter loaded with drugs such as Bute that humans are not supposed to ingest which has been known for decades.

  5. Jennifer Wirth says:

    We need uniform policies in place to ensure safety on the track. We have been seeking to prevent older horses (at a minimum, ages 11 & 12) from racing, as well as a limitation on the number of times a horse can run without breaking their maiden and restrictions on bringing a horse back after a mulitiple-year lay-off.

    In 2015, 83 Thoroughbreds started in a horse race (excluding Steeplechase) at age eleven. Only one won, CHAFEE JOHN.

    The same year, 26 12-yr-olds started in a horse race. Not a single horse won in this age group.

    There is an age when they are non-competitive and where that line is drawn is debatable for younger horses. However, it is pretty clear that no horse is truly competitive at age 11 and 12.

    Nonprofits spend significant amounts of money trying to purchase these horses in claiming races or at kill pens. If policies were in place to stop “racing them to death” and the SAFE act were passed, rescues and retirement havens could put this money toward the actual care of the horses, rather than being forced to financially reward kill buyers and irresponsible owners through purchasing the horse.

    I hope these concerns become a part of your initiatives because these policy problems on the track impact the funding that aftercare organizations have off the track.

  6. Robynne Catheron says:

    Thank you for shedding more light on this issue, Wayne. Horse racing has become a vile and greedy source of “entertainment.” Behind the shedrows, it brings out the worst of the worst, encouraging the most inhumane and heartless behavior in people.

    Almost everything about it is hateful and sorrowful, from slaughter and nursemare foals to drugging to mask pain and breeding for toothpick-thin legs, and starting them under saddle as 18-month old babies. What these horses go through would kill the strongest of men, yet it continues, driven by power and greed, because no one has the balls to stop it.

    I hope and pray the HSUS, in partnership with every other animal welfare advocacy group, can put a stop to this cruel and dirty industry.

    • halchka sangowicz says:

      Robynne Catheron, bravo for your education; you can really make a difference when you take to soul all the facts. Thank you.

  7. Paula Underwood says:

    Really? You really expect Congress to care about horses, when they don’t even care about people? Here’s hoping they will do SOMETHING!

  8. John Scheib says:

    As a hardworking advocate for horses, who is active in the national efforts to stop horse racing due to its horrific nature at every turn, I am fully aware of the cruelty that happens from birth to death for animals in this industry. Including, how large a percentage of racehorses are slaughtered every year. Ironically, HSUS has dealt my teams and associates nationwide, the greatest blow we have ever had in our attempts to save horses. Millions of your followers now think the sport can be cleaned up. You have set us back years with your unthinkable position that this industry can and will change in any meaningful way. Any entertainment activity which causes the animal participants to be killed in action and slaughtered by the thousands (which will never stop) needs to be opposed immediately and forcefully by anyone who loves horses. If HSUS, in the most generous sense, is able to stop an unrealistic 50% of the deaths in horse racing, there will still be thousands dying for entertainment. That is a fact which sadly will only be proven after years of the HSUS efforts to clean up the sport. You will change your position then, I am sure. But it will be far too late.

    • Susan McDonough says:

      I have been a supporter of the HSUS for many years. I’ve worked with your investigators, side by side on cases pertaining to dog fighting and animal hoarding ever since 1991. Overall, I believe the HSUS does a lot of good when it comes to animal welfare, that’s why I’m shocked that you would support the illegal blood sport and enterprise of horse racing! The only way to “fix it” is to end it. This industry whips, drugs, injures maims and kills horses, all for gambling. How is this any different than dog fighting? For over 15 years, as a NYS BCI Investigator, I’ve traveled all over New York State teaching the anti-cruelty laws to police and communities. I’ve stressed the fact that NYS Ag.& Mkts Laws Article 26- 353 & 361 address the fact that the over-driving of animals is a misdemeanor and ANY interference of RACEHORSES is a felony. I’ve never had one person disagree with me. It’s time for the HSUS to take a stand and help us end this cruelty!

    • Tova Saul says:

      100% right.

  9. vibeke hansen says:

    grådighed a er mennesket værste sygdom, de tænker ikke på heste, når heste ikke kan mere, får den lov til at ende på slagterhuset— grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—fandens indstilling det skal være forbudt at tjene på hunde og heste væddeløb—————- hvis det bliver sådan stemt—– ingen stiller op. ??? tror i derude det samme som mig ??

  10. JR Anderson says:

    HSUS…horse racing does not need reform…it needs to be shut down completely!! Why are you pandering to an industry that you know kills horses? The violations of the racing industry against horses has been well documented and the data and statistics are irrefutable. Not my opinion, not anyones opinion. These are FACTS. Horse racing kills, maims, dopes, confines & beats horses. There are daily racing and training fatalities. Many have been confirmed by the states in which the fatalities occur as is required under federal FOIL (freedom of information law). There is also absolutely no question that the racing industry ships thousands of horses to slaughter annually. With millions provided in each state for Thoroughbred breeding incentives, not ONE penny is allocated from that money or registration fees to after career care. Horse racing ….the only sport that kills their athletes while the fans cheer. As barbaric as the carnage in the Roman coliseum. It has to end.

    • Tova Saul says:

      Great response. I was surprised to see that HSUS was teaming up with the leaders of the horse-racing world to bring an end to the cruelty. It doesn’t make sense.

  11. Linda Ketteridge says:

    It is blatant cruelty to see racehorses being whipped to go faster on TV. Right in front of our eyes. How can this be?
    If racing cannot be stopped at least make some humane changes to the sport. Raise the maiden racing age to one that correlates to the mental and physical maturity of equine species.
    Breed for quality, not quantity so less horses end up at the knackers!

  12. Nicole Arciello says:

    I am disappointed with the HSUS for choosing to help reform an industry that kills thousands of horses a year.

    “If we are going to put them to work for our entertainment, and use their gift of great speed, we must do so with tender care and take every reasonable step to assure their safety, at every stage of their lives.”

    This statement is use only by you for horseracing, but not dog racing or other forms of animal entertainment, of which the HSUS is opposed.

    So, I ask, why support an industry rife with cruelty and death, if you do not support the others and have active campaigns for them to end? What do you have to gain from this, Mr. Pacelle?

    The horses will gain nothing from this. This is a disgrace. It’s inexcusable, irresponsible and a slap-in-the-face to animal activists everywhere.

    Nicole Arciello – Co-Founder, Horseracing Wrongs (horseracingwrongs (dot) com)

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