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.