A survey entitled “Causes Americans Care About,” undertaken earlier this year by Ketchum, a global public relations firm, reveals the No. 1 cause among people in this country is animal welfare. Forty-one percent of those surveyed listed it as their top cause, followed by children's education, hunger, disease research and disaster relief.
It's not just a short-term fad.
In June at the annual convention of the American Horse Council in Washington, D.C., Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the 233-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums, issued this warning: “The public's demand that animals be cared for at the highest possible level is going to increase.”
There is, Ashe said, “a growing affection for animals” by the general public.
Zoos and aquariums are among those who have been targeted by animal welfare groups over perceived mistreatment of animals (think of the effect it's had on SeaWorld, which ended its captive breeding program of orca whales or on the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Yet Ashe said the number of visitors to American zoos and aquariums increased from 193 million in 2016 to 200 million in 2017.
How? Association members spent more than $216 million in field conservation and, Ashe said, have turned the Association of Zoos and Aquariums into “one of the world's largest animal welfare organizations.”
They have made the public's No. 1 cause their cause, too.
Everyone who works in the zoos and aquarium industry, he said, has a role in protecting and enhancing its image.
“Our responsibility is to gain the confidence of the public and keep the confidence of the public,” Ashe said.
The same can be said of horse racing.
Everyone who works in this industry has a role in protecting its image. That includes exercise riders, jockeys, trainers, assistant starters, veterinarians and racing officials, among many others. That's not just at Keeneland or Saratoga or Santa Anita but at smaller tracks throughout the country.
Everyone's actions matter.
Three recent incidents at Pennsylvania racetracks are troubling to me in what they convey to the public and how they can shape a negative image of the sport.
The first two occurred within a half-hour of each other at Penn National on Sept. 28. In the second race, Miss Swisher, a 5-year-old mare with 32 previous starts, refused to run a few strides after breaking from the starting gate. Jockey Julio Hernandez could be seen on video striking the horse excessively in the neck or shoulder area with his whip as she pulled herself up, lifting his arm over his head before striking her.
In that night's third race, a 2-year-old filly first-time starter named Keltoi was fractious behind the gate with jockey Inoel Beato having already dismounted. The filly then reared up and flipped over backwards. Nevertheless, she was loaded in the gate and showed brief speed in her race before tiring to be fourth. While my assumption is that a veterinarian was stationed at the starting gate and gave her a green light, the optics of this are not good. In some jurisdictions, when a horse flips, it is an automatic scratch. In my opinion, that should be standard practice everywhere.
The final incident is from Sunday, Oct. 7, in the second race at Parx Racing. Georgia Bonnet, a 4-year-old filly making her 23rd career start, was racing just off the rail at the top of the stretch and began to lug in. Jockey Tyrone Carter switched the whip to his left hand and, according to Equibase footnotes, “hit Georgia Bonnet repeatedly on the left side of her head through deep stretch.”
I assume stewards will meet with Carter this week to review the incident.
A jockey riding in a low-level claiming race at Penn National or Parx may not consider him or herself an ambassador for the sport or an advocate for the horse, but this role, whether they like it or not, is part of their job. Stewards and regulatory veterinarians, likewise, need to understand that their actions – or lack thereof – will have an impact on how the public views our sport and help them form an opinion about whether we are treating or mistreating their No. 1 cause.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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