There's no question that horse racing is a spectacle. There are few moments as breathtaking as 20 1,000-pound thoroughbreds surging through the homestretch of Churchill Downs at nearly 40 miles an hour.
But at what cost?
Each year, hundreds of horses die while racing and training. This is the only sport in our country where we accept – even expect – athletes to die in competition.
According to The Jockey Club the number of horse deaths is trending downward, but the group still reported 493 dead racehorses in 2018. The number is likely higher as not all tracks report.
Attention lately has been focused on Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles where 29 horses died this racing season, which started December 26 and concludes this weekend. But this doesn't even rate as a particularly bad year for that track.
Last season, 44 horses died there; during the two seasons before that, 64 and 62 died respectively. So in just four seasons of racing, at just this one track, 199 horses have died.
How can that number be acceptable to any of us? How many horses have to die before we decide it's too many?
In my opinion, the public isn't aware of the terrible toll on horses, and until those numbers are understood, we'll continue to see more deaths.
The only solution is to take a close look at racing across the country. And as the California horse racing circuit moves this month from Santa Anita to Los Alamitos and then to Del Mar, both tracks should receive the same level of scrutiny that Santa Anita has come under.
Something is wrong and it needs to be addressed.
According to The Jockey Club, the United States sees between 2.5 and 5 times as many racehorses die compared to other racing countries. That means they're doing something right and we're doing something very wrong.
One clear area of difference is the use of medication. Unlike other countries, the United States has no national standard regarding the use of medications on horses.
With horses entered to run more races more frequently, medication becomes an important tool to keep horses able to compete.
Legal drugs are frequently used to counteract pain or to make horses run faster. It has to be considered whether these medications lead to longer-term health issues and whether the cumulative stress from the overtraining that these medications allow leads to increased injury and death.
One of the questions that has gained particular prominence is whether drugs should be given to counter symptoms or conditions that would otherwise prevent a horse from racing. The drug Lasix in particular has become so widespread that it is administered to the vast majority of horses before races.
This isn't because all the horses need it, it's because in addition to preventing bleeding into the lungs, it also acts as a diuretic, allowing horses to lose weight before a race and giving them an advantage.
In my opinion, if a horse needs a drug to treat bleeding into the lungs, it shouldn't be racing in the first place. And if horses are routinely given such a drug purely for performance reasons, it ought to be banned from the sport.
Many racing countries like Japan and Australia don't allow Lasix on race days and some, like Germany, ban its use outright.
The United States also doesn't have standard regulations for the use of whips or limitations on the number of practices and races a horse can run in a given time period.
We don't even have consistent, mandatory reporting requirements for horse deaths at race tracks, so it's impossible to know the full extent of this problem.
These are all areas we need to look to for possible reforms.
Reforms are needed
It's important to note that some reforms have already been made. Perhaps because of the national spotlight on Santa Anita, California in particular is moving in the right direction.
The California Horse Racing Board will consider a plan to ban the use of Lasix for 2-year old horses beginning in 2020 and eventually eliminate the drug entirely. A national consortium of 20 tracks has a similar – though voluntary – plan in the works.
We should investigate whether these changes can be accelerated to remove this drug from the sport entirely.
California is also in the process of implementing new rules limiting the use of horse whips, and the state legislature is moving forward with a law that would give the oversight board authority to immediately suspend the license of a racetrack if the safety of horses or jockeys is at risk.
And last week Gov. Newsom reached an agreement with Santa Anita to require an additional review of each horse's medical records and training history before it's permitted to race. This new protocol should be extended to all racetracks in California.
These are all good changes, but they don't substitute for a comprehensive review of what other actions have been taken at foreign tracks in order to reduce the deaths of horses here at home.
It shouldn't take hundreds of dead horses to make progress toward a safer sport. We don't accept that there will be athlete fatalities in other sports; it should be no different for horse racing.
There will always be risks for horses and jockeys in this sport, but we should be doing everything we can to ensure that the number of fatal injuries is as close to zero as possible.
Horse racing has a long tradition in this country, but that tradition is on the downswing. Fewer Americans go to the track each year, while at the same time, more and more stress is being placed on horses to make money. The result appears to be dangerous conditions that contribute to dead horses.
We need to take a long, hard look at the future of horse racing in this country, and we need to do it before more horses needlessly die.
Dianne Feinstein represents California in the U.S. Senate. This commentary was originally published by the Southern California News Group and is republished with permission.
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