As the horses paraded up to the Churchill Downs starting gate last May at the Kentucky Derby, America's greatest horse race, months of eager anticipation gave way to sudden bursts of applause from the fans. These fans were cheering for the horses, for a moment, their horses. Loading into the gate, their horse, in their eyes, was a winner, a Kentucky Derby champion. As I looked in amazement at this spectacle, at the unfettered joy of the people, some literally hanging from the rafters, I knew that this was one of the defining moments in my life. I was with 150,000 people, dare I say fanatics, in the positive sense of the word, observing a brilliant competition of horses and jockeys. I was now part of the rich Kentucky Derby history.
Contrast the Derby scene with the statement by the California governor, Gavin Newsom, just months later calling horse racing “a sport whose time is up.” How does one explain such an incredible juxtaposition? Who has the governor been listening to, I wondered. And who is telling racing's positive story to its critics? Yes, Santa Anita, my home track, ran during the torrential rains earlier in the year. I had thought at the time, living in nearby Pasadena, that this was not wise. Apparently, according to one track official, the dirt had to be packed down over and over due to the rain and this may have caused a hardened, unsafe racing surface. As horses broke down in excessive numbers an outcry was understandable.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, made many changes with safety protocols – not the least of which was putting in stronger procedures for spotting unsound horses before they raced. As this latter measure was implemented, It became apparent that the problem of horse safety was multifaceted and went beyond track maintenance issues. And, of course, horse safety issues did not arise at Santa Anita as an isolated event but had been a relevant topic for many years. Other tracks have had similar issues with horse safety and the public perception of horse racing has suffered with changing attitudes about animals in general.
The Breeders' Cup rightly decided to remain at Santa Anita for the championships, satisfied that The Stronach Group had addressed the safety issues at Santa Anita earlier in the year. Kentucky Derby trainer, Bob Baffert, has called Santa Anita racetrack the most beautiful in the country. For a Southern California that hasn't had much time for tradition, Santa Anita, built in 1934, just reeks with tradition. I have seen Hollywood royalty there, from Elizabeth Taylor to Cary Grant. For sheer pleasure, just watch the horses working out in the mornings with the piercing San Gabriel mountain range literally on top of you, a scene of beauty married to beauty.
Track officials were understandably on pins and needles as the Breeders Cup approached this November, not for the usual reasons of preparation and volunteer coordination, but for horse safety. The procedures for screening horses for a variety of issues were new and being worked out. And then there was the added political pressure. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the California Horse Racing Board calling the Breeders' Cup event at Santa Anita “a critical test” for the future of the sport in California and the United States in relation to horse injury or death. Talk about holding an event with a hammer over your head! With the new protocols, veterinarians scratched a few horses that were scheduled to race at the two-day event.
Finally, Breeders' Cup day arrived. As I approached the track I could see a small group of people with signs protesting horse racing. On the other side was a group in support of horse racing and industry jobs. The critics had signs that went beyond horse safety issues. Their signs led one to believe that horse racing purposely kills horses. The signs implied that horse racing was like hunting. I knew that horses were very well cared for by attentive horsemen during their racing years.
Even more disconcerting was that the signs of some critics implied that the horsemen and fans were somehow morally lacking in character for being a part of the Thoroughbred racing industry. It became apparent that these critics were not reformers but wanted to end horse racing, period. They were intimating that it was they who had the better love of horses and they who knew what was best for them and that those in the industry who lived with and worked with the horses did not.
Of course, the owners and horsemen and fans love their horses. Witness trainer Ron McAnally, now in his 80s, sitting out in the mornings at Santa Anita, still tearful when telling stories about his best horse, the great John Henry. McAnally would often travel to Kentucky to see the old gelding at his retirement home at the Kentucky Horse Park. Santa Anita has a statue with the likeness of John Henry on prominent display.
Horses are bred to run and run fast. One of the greatest stretch duals in racing history took place at the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in 2016 between Beholder and Songbird. I wondered: have these detractors ever seen the beautiful action of horses like Songbird and Beholder in competition laying it down in a spirited battle? Would they even want to look? Did their self-proclaimed morality, a priori, prevent them from seeing the entire picture? Were the politicians seeing the entire picture or just following the noise?
When the arguments of the critics of horse racing and their self-appointed higher morality is laid bare, one argument remains. And it is really their only argument. Horses die. Yes, they do. And, many in the industry want to avoid talking about that fact. But talk they must. Reform is needed, and with new procedures and time to refine their implementation, many, many mishaps that lead to the euthanasia of a racehorse can be avoided. There is little doubt in that.
But the myopic moralists, if I may call these critics, whose morality is higher than yours and ours and mine, do not want to take their own arguments to their logical conclusions. Horses die in racing by mishap. Yes. But horses also die in nature. They die from misstep, illness, and the vagaries of feast, overproduction and then starvation that goes with nature and natural selection. They die from thirst. And in the absence of the constant care with racing, Thoroughbreds would undoubtedly be thrust onto government lands that already have problems with wild Mustangs. The self-proclaimed moralists do not want to acknowledge that horses die in nature. They cannot bring themselves to say it. For the moralists, nature is wonderful and Darwinism is fake news.
Indeed, the people of a higher morality ultimately deny any kind of human interaction with man and horse. Even putting a saddle on a horse is seen as oppressive. The extremist nature of their position is not evident at first glance, but we can see that the moralists really deny the legitimacy of the human species in its interactions with the natural world.
What Is To Be Done
Horse racing must tell the whole story, its story. The horse racing industry has to organize itself politically at all levels. The industry needs its own political action committee (PAC). It needs structure that will provide a commissioner of racing and an office of publicity. And it needs to modernize.
The biggest issue in horse safety is to prevent unsound horses from ever getting onto the track. Of course, regulation of drugs is important. The industry must decide how much medication is too much. Particular attention should be given to unraced maidens and to older horses. The latest diagnostic equipment should be employed to search for potential problems with a horse. Uniform standards must be established nationwide.
Standardized medical charts should be available on all horses. Horses that have been on any kind of layoff need to be well scrutinized before their return. Horses that are dropped significantly in class should be examined for soundness. Work patterns must be analyzed and explained by the trainer. The lower claiming levels may well have to be removed from the tracks if indeed most of the horses have medical issues at these levels. Slower horses are fine but unsound horses simply should not be on the track. The over-racing of certain horses needs to be questioned. The use of the whip should be further limited.
Critics: Yes And…No!
The critics started out by pointing to areas where the horse racing industry has been negligent. This was positive. But criticism has devolved into a kind of hatred of horse racing and a disparaging of all who are involved in the sport: horsemen, owners, workers and fans. The industry must alert the public and the politicians that beyond stimulating necessary reforms needed to bring horse racing up to modern standards, the critics of horse racing hold a very extreme position that is based on a false, unscientific view of nature. Furthermore, everyone should note that the critics deny virtually any interaction of humans to a horse. They deny the right of humans to take pleasure in most interactions with a horse. This is an aberrant view and its absolute nature will not just stop with the horse but carry on to other animals.
Armen Antonian, a PhD in political economy and political philosophy, is a lifelong racing fan residing in Pasadena, Calif.
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