By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The coronavirus pandemic is not the only problem plaguing the horse racing industry as it prepares for the first of the Triple Crown races at Belmont Stakes this Saturday with altered schedules, shorter race times and a TV-only audience.
This past year has placed the sport—and its key players—under more scrutiny than ever before because of a string of horse deaths, including 18 this year alone at Belmont Park and dozens more at Santa Anita and other racetracks throughout the nation. On top of that, the indictment earlier this year of 27 trainers, veterinarians, pharmacists and drug distributors in a doping scandal has generated more suspicion and skepticism among the sport’s watchers.
As a result, the industry is in greater need than ever before of convincing its dwindling audiences that it cares for the health and welfare of the horses it depends on.
There is no doubt that the horse racing industry today is in disarray and crisis. For decades, some trainers have used the absence of clear national medication standards to push horses to their limit with the use of drugs that can be harmful and even deadly for the animals. The problem began when Congress, in 1980, decided to leave it up to states to come up with their own rules on what drugs to allow in horse racing, leading to a confusing patchwork of state laws with no uniform national standard regarding which drugs are permitted or penalties for doping—a loophole irresponsible trainers take full advantage of by moving horses between states. Congress has since tried to fix the problem over the past four terms, with no success.
The horse racing industry itself, instead of penalizing such trainers, has rallied around them by creating a system that does not even require the bare minimum of accountability. For instance, at present racetracks are not required to report horse injuries; the only ones who do so do it voluntarily. According to The Jockey Club, only 35 out of 113 operating North American racetracks participate in its voluntary Equine Injury Database, a national database of racing injuries that tracks the frequency, types and outcomes of such injuries.
It is not too much to ask all racetracks to report all incidents of fatality and injury. Expanding this database will allow better monitoring of racehorses throughout their careers. Since different states now have their own policies on which drugs are permitted and penalties for doping, horses could be receiving different drugs when they travel to different states for races. All of this needs to be tracked in one single place for the welfare of the animals.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund are urging all 38 state racing commissions to voluntarily report all racehorse injuries and deaths into an electronic database and make such information available to the public. This crucial information can be used to not only assess injuries at specific racetracks and compel safety changes, but to improve transparency into racehorse health and injuries throughout a racehorse’s career.
It is also time for Congress to set things right, and we are pushing for the passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, which will establish a single set of national medication standards as well as create the necessary regulatory force to implement them through an independent regulatory body led by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). USADA polices medication policy for our Olympic athletes and is the gold standard for ensuring that sports are clean, and athletes protected from trainers who place winning above all else.
There is reason to hope that we will succeed this year in getting this important bill through. The rising number of horse deaths and the indictment of trainers and veterinarians who were allegedly participating in irresponsible drugging has finally focused greater attention on the problems in the racing industry, and it is heartening that even stakeholders on the inside are now speaking out for change. In a scientific report issued last year, The Jockey Club called for reform, warning that “without these reforms, the future of the sport will continue to wane.” Trainers, including Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, have called for passing the Horseracing Integrity Act "to protect the horses who are the stars of the show."
We simply can’t afford to wait any longer while animals continue to suffer. It is time for horse racing to change course and put the animals it relies on above its profits.
To coincide with the start of the Triple Crown season, we are launching a new campaign, #NotAnotherHorse, focusing on the safety and welfare of all horses. We are demanding that not one more horse should be slaughtered, trained abusively through the cruelty of soring, or die on a racetrack. And to do so we need to pass three key federal horse protection bills: the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which will permanently end the slaughter of America’s beloved horses, both here and abroad; the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which will finally stop the decades-long torture of Tennessee Walking Horses, forced to perform an artificial, high-stepping showring gait through painful practices; and the Horseracing Integrity Act, described above. Please contact your members of Congress and ask them to support these important bills so no horse ever suffers at the hands of a bad trainer or is slaughtered for food.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.