Tuesday, May 1, 2012

New York Times and Horse Racing

The New York Times published yesterday the second in its series on equine deaths in horse racing. If you have the stomach to read it click here. The first article focused primarily on statistics. Yesterday's piece looked at causes.

I am a professional horse trainer, but the closest I get to racing is starting horses before they race and training them for careers after they race. My time on the backstretch is spent looking at horses who are retiring and in need of new jobs.

I approached both of the New York Times pieces defensively. Horse people are like religious zealots. We all worship horses and thereby are bound together as a community. When outsiders criticize us we react in defense. For me, a person who devotes his or her life to the care of these glorious creatures is a brother or a sister whether they groom at the track, own a farm, ride in horse shows, or train. I hesitate to criticize my peers.

Yesterday's article, however, disarmed me.

Horses are injured and die on farms every day even when cared for meticulously. Anyone who has been around a breeding farm knows this well, and the causes are as diverse as nature itself. When horses are injured in the work that we ask them to do it breaks our hearts even more. We blame ourselves or whoever was responsible.

I try to keep in mind, however, that in most cases our horses love their work. This is particularly true of a Thoroughbred that is lucky enough to be a racehorse. Racehorses are pampered more than any other equines, and the "work" that they do is being allowed to gallop in an open space on ground that is designed for their physical comfort in the company of other horses. They love it.

The New York Times article was not about the devotion of humans to their racehorses and the glorious life that they lead. It was an effort to shock its readers and get a reaction. It described the use of anti-inflamatories as having feed  "laced" with painkillers.

When I was done reading and let myself reflect, I found myself hoping that the powers that be in racing (to the extent that there are any) were listening, and that change would come.

You bet that track owners should stop looking the other way when horses being barely held together with  legal or illegal therapies are used to fill races. Track owners like Penn National Gaming, Inc.complain about the cost of accreditation through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's (NTRA) Safety and Integrity Alliance. Shame on them. Shame especially on the ones who only own a track because it's a way to get a profitable casino. Maybe we in the horse industry should organize boycotts of their casinos until they get their NTRA accreditation.

You bet that the claiming game is racing's most insidious force working against horse welfare. Owning a horse is a responsibility. Claiming one because you think it has a few good races left in it and then masking its injuries to get someone else to claim it when you think it won't win anymore is a disgusting form of horse ownership. When somebody buys a horse they are taking responsibility for that horse's future. The quick and easy transfers of ownership through the claiming process turns these horses into a disposable commodity.

I am a Marylander and have one more year in my service as president of the Maryland Horse Council. I have a naive dream that our Maryland Jockey Club adopts the slogan "Maryland Racing: Where Horses Come First!" Wouldn't it be exciting to test some horse welfare and safety standards that go beyond what any track in America has tried, and then to market racing as a place for horse lovers to gather. Come to the track to learn about Thoroughbred horses. We will show you how they are cared for, how they are trained, what they can do in careers after racing, and what makes them earth's most powerful and graceful domesticated creatures. Bet on a horse and be part of the action.

I also have a dream that the work of the Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) and its friends in the sport horse and racing worlds make owning an ex-racehorse so fashionable and honorable that prices for the sound horses retiring from racing rise to at least the bottom claiming price. When demand for ex-racehorses grows, the incentive to squeeze the last races out of unsuccessful horse is reduced.

Two time World Champion Bruce Davidson proclaimed at an RRTP event in Kentucky last week that "The Thoroughbred horse has the best temperament of any breed." Let us spread that message throughout the horse world and be there to receive these great animals when they retire from a well managed racing life that provides them with a solid foundation for a second career.


  1. Steuart, This is extraordinarily compelling and articulate. For those of us not completely familiar with the machinations of the racing world - but who love Thoroughbreds - this is an even greater "call to arms," especially in support of RRTP. Thank you. And for all you high school/college students out there, this is a great example of persuasive writing.

  2. My new little horse "Seriously Mate" came to me from Penn National via New Vocations. Makes me wonder even more about her past. She is very sweet and smart and I look forward to bringing her along into a new career. She raced 16 times, though, and definitely has some wear and tear. I wish that veterinary records were more accessible.

  3. Hurray Steuart - someone needs to call out the dogs. I am amazed that tracks are allowed to operate when they are not accredited. Laurel Park claims to have an aftercare program and names Kim Clark and her organization as this program but they are NOT accredited and have no formal agreement with Kim! In my conversations with Mike Ziegler of the new TAA organization that's forming (I believe you are a part of this as well) that was one of the points I made - there has to be TEETH in whatever this new group puts together, teeth to create the environment of accreditation of tracks and penalties for non-compliance, TEETH in the application of requirements, standardization of medication rules across the country and clear outlines for testing and penalties for violations. The insidious result of the influx of monies from gaming to the lower ranks of claimers purses is a sad and eye-opening look at what is bad about racing. Recently I have been looking for my next TB broodmare, I found a lovely 17HH mare with a wonderful pedigree perfect for racing and sport horse breeding (I breed dualy for racing and sport swapping years) turns out she was run what looks like on xray over and over with increasing damage to her knee that now has traumatic osteoarthritis that will cripple this lovely 5 year old in no time flat. It is so sad that when I looked at her less than stellar race record the trainer and owner chose to keep running her and not retire her when she was obviously done. This happens all to often and with the purse structure form gaming it will happen with more frequency. Thank you Steuart for your tireless scrutiny and for calling out this horrible turn of events.

    Robin Coblyn

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  5. This is a great post. I think the most compelling point -- which appears in the second to last paragraph -- is worth emphasizing. Mr. Pittman raises the need for altering the economic incentives that exist on the track. As much as I would like to hope that those involved would be motivated by their love and respect for these animals, I am afraid like so many things, the bottom line is just that, the bottom line. Mr. Pittman and his colleagues already has worked hard to offer a new incentive -- that of a viable market for retired racehorses, provided they are sound. He hints to the possibility of creating some "dis-incentives" as well in the form of regulation. Let me toss out a couple of more specific ones: Why not make casino licensing contingent upon stronger protections for the animals? If you want those slot machines so badly, you have to run a safe track. That could me tougher sanctions for trainers who dope, regular reporting of mortality statistics, tightened standards for ownership, etc. This is where the "TEETH" come in as suggested by Robin Coblyn. But, from where I sit, the teeth have to reached deep into the pocketbook for them to have an impact.

    Changing the market for racing will be difficult and take time, but I don't think it is impossible. But, it will take a smart, strategic imposition of incentives and disincentives -- or should I say, carrots and sticks (sorry, I couldn't resist).

  6. Great article . Thoroughbreds are lovely horses and deserve respect.
    If they cannot be used and are crippled after racing then I would suggest euthanasia , instead of a hell trip to Canada /Mexico.

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  8. I applaud your dreams Steuart. May we all work together to make them come true.

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