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.