Although the spike in fatal breakdowns at this spring's Santa Anita meet were months ago and thousands of miles away, they were very much on the minds of attendees at the 53rd International Conference of Horseracing Authorities today in Paris. The afternoon of the conference was devoted entirely to equine welfare, with a series of panels focusing on racing safety, aftercare, and public hot button issues like whip use.
Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, reminded international authorities that a crisis like the one he has experienced this year in Southern California could just as easily happen elsewhere. Arthur said that social attitudes toward animals have changed significantly in the past few decades as people begin to view animals increasingly as companions with human-like traits and less as livestock.
“There is a real risk that in California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, and in many ways, an international trend-setter, racing could end,” said Arthur, who pointed to peer-reviewed research indicating that worldwide, there are about 1.17 fatalities for every 1,000 runners.
“Worldwide, that is a very large number of horses. Many of you in this room, and this isn't a criticism, are a step away from the flesh and blood of those fatalities. I've been there. Many of these fatalities are ugly, very ugly.”
Arthur acknowledged the United States has a rate roughly double the international average.
“My international colleagues would like to believe the relatively liberal medication policy in the U.S. is to blame,” he said. “I agree permissive medication is a factor but from my perspective, the problem is more complicated than that.”
The running of horses on dirt surfaces and the use of claiming races all factor into that escalated rate, Arthur said. And, in Santa Anita's case specifically, increased rainfall resulting in a “compromised racing surface.”
“Santa Anita should be an example to everyone how quickly an animal welfare issue can race out of control,” he said. “For anti-racing, animal rights advocates the Santa Anita racing tragedy is the opportunity they've been waiting for. They are not letting up. Anti-racing rights advocates are making sure that print and electronic media and elected officials are aware of each and every racing fatality.
“If there's been any positive from this crisis, it's the opportunity for reform.”
Besides fatalities, Arthur said activists seem especially focused on whip use, which he believes is the other big ethical concern for American racing. In his opinion, three of Santa Anita's fatalities were exacerbated by whip use, because he observed a horse apparently faltering or dropping back, likely due to an injury. Those horses were subsequently whipped, which he believes may have worsened the situation.
Not everyone agreed that the whip is a public perception or safety issue. Andrew Harding, executive director of the IFHA and executive director of racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said he doesn't believe fans in Hong Kong have much concern for whip use. In his previous experience as an administrator in Australia, Harding said the addition of restrictions on number of permissible hits actually seemed to draw more attention to the problem, rather than dispel it.
One of the themes which recurred throughout the program was the degree to which racing should shape its reforms based on its loudest critics. For the most part, speakers agreed, there isn't much point in hoping to quiet animal rights activists, because they won't be satisfied until racing is gone.
“Even if we managed to lift all these issues the activists would still ask for more because their primary objection is that we simply use animals,” said Dr. Paul-Marie Gadot, Head of Licensing, Registration, and Control of France Galop. “They promote a world where animals enjoy the same rights as the human being. The very fact that we ride and work with horses puts them off.”
Indeed, others agreed, the point of safety reforms should not be primarily to fight back against animal rights groups – they should be researched and implemented simply because it is the responsibility of racing authorities to minimize risks as much as possible. It's commonly accepted that the vast majority of the public is neither a racing industry insider nor an animal rights advocate. But it would be a mistake, some speakers said, to pretend that often-silent portion of the public does not hear the negative messages distributed by animal rights groups. Dr. Brian Stewart, head of veterinary regulation, welfare and biosecurity policy for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said he believes there are more potential racing owners out there who hesitate to jump into the sport because they don't want to be dogged by friends and family asking them about whip use and horse deaths. Craig Fravel, who is finishing up his time as president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup, admitted his own daughter recently expressed that despite growing up attending races and being an avid equestrian herself, she no longer enjoys horse racing.
“She had grown disillusioned with racing because of two things: medications administered to horses to convince them to run faster and farther and perhaps sooner than they should, and the second was she couldn't stomach the use of the riding crop,” said Fravel. “When we talk about how we're going to attract the next generation, by all accounts someone who's grown up in racing and seen the best of it, ought to be the next generation and she has turned her back on it.”
Fravel, who is about to begin a new role at The Stronach Group as CEO of Racing Operations, agreed with Arthur that the days of the whip may be numbered.
“I think there are a lot of things in this industry we hold onto without great need. In my personal view, that would be one of them,” said Fravel. “I think we can look at reasonable restrictions on the use of the crop or ultimately the elimination of it. Horses will still run. The best rider will probably prevail along with the best horse.
“In California 11 years or so ago we had a proposal before the California Horse Racing Board to eliminate anabolic steroids in racing or training. A large number of people in the racing or training community said, 'If you do that, we won't fill a race next week.' Regulation went effective, races took place and we went on as if nothing had happened. I think there are dozens of things we could look at and question if we really need them.”
Fortunately, authorities agreed there are a few things that can be done. Many of them want to see better data collected on young horses—how they are managed and how they are medicated before they begin training, and more detail on breakdowns.
For another thing, many agreed that in moments like this Santa Anita struggle, racing has failed to show the public its heart.
“There is one solution – occupy the media field by telling our beautiful stories, and we have beautiful stories, not only of the winning competition but those that move the public and the people,” said Gadot. “The love we have for our horses, of the lad caring for them, the lives our breeders live every day.
“It's not interesting for people to see a horse living in a palace. They want to see the love of the owner, the trainer, the affection of the lad.”
Longtime French trainer Criquette Head-Maarek agreed with Gadot that there's a difference between telling and showing the public that horses are well cared-for.
“We trainers do well at maintaining welfare,” she said. “It's in our best interest [to do so.] But the public doesn't see the same thing we do. We have to open our stable, that's for sure.”
British racing just finished doing exactly that, having wrapped up The Henry Cecil Open Weekend at the end of September, allowing visitors to tour training yards, veterinary hospitals, and studs around Newmarket as a charity fundraiser. Victoria Carter, deputy chairman of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, suggested one simple thing that anyone – including readers – can do to help: open a Twitter account and share photos of racing behind the scenes. Use a hashtag (Carter suggested #WeLoveHorses but in the United States, the #IAmHorseRacing campaign has already established a tag that works) to make those posts easy to find.
“The problem is not the level of care we bring to our horses,” said Gadot. “The problem is in the media space.”
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