Racing in California has a lot of problems.
In the last 10 years, Bay Meadows near San Francisco and Hollywood Park near Los Angeles have been closed for development. Land on which most racetracks, farms and training facilities sit is more valuable for other uses, whether residential or business. A 2011 increase in takeout designed to boost purses for horse owners has not panned out, according to a recent report, but it soured many horseplayers on California racing. Costs of ownership are spiraling, some say out of control, while the state legislature has so far turned a blind eye to any kind of relief for the industry. Animal rights protestors became a daily presence at Del Mar during the state's premier race meeting.
But California gets a lot of things right.
It was the first state to take horse racing fatalities seriously, starting a necropsy program in 1990 at the University of California-Davis that is a model for the industry to help understand the cause of such injuries. Its regulatory board has tackled many difficult subjects in a very public and transparent way – from synthetic racing surfaces to the voiding of claims to out-of-competition testing – and has taken more heat than it's received in platitudes. California established the first owner-funded aftercare program, CARMA, upon which the national Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is based.
And now California again is leading the way with an awareness campaign through a co-op organization, Cal Racing Cares, and its website, www.calracingcares.com, designed to educate the public about the care given to Thoroughbred racehorses and the extraordinary measures taken to ensure their safety.
Watch the video below and imagine a similar public service campaign that could be broadcast online and at racetracks throughout North America, with one major caveat: those tracks and the state agencies that regulate them cannot talk the talk if they do not walk the walk.
Are private racetrack veterinarians making decisions that are always in the best interests of the horse, as former American Association of Equine Practitioners President Dr. Jeff Blea says in the Cal Racing Cares video? Are racetracks and regulators in other states using the science available, plus resources like the Equine Injury Database and enhanced track maintenance procedures, to improve safety? Are regulators hiring enough veterinarians to conduct pre-race examinations and monitoring the soundness of horses in the mornings and afternoons? Are they vigilant in drug testing – both post-race and out-of-competition – to prevent abuse of the animals and ensure integrity in the game?
The answer in too many states, sadly, is a resounding “no.” That must change if racing is to win back public support and ensure itself a healthy future.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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