Wednesday, November 29, 2023

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

2023 could have been a watershed year for the welfare of racehorses in the U.S. with the historic implementation of national racetrack safety and anti-doping programs. Yet the anti-doping section of the new law was late in implementation due to continued pushback by a few laggards using the courts to prevent it. With the spotlight on the tracks, horse deaths in racing continued at a rate that was frightening and unacceptable to the American public. Doping scandals and deaths surrounded each of the Triple Crown races.

Despite these grim developments, interest in racing still flourishes and some betting handles were at an all-time high. But the world of horse racing has been shaken, and the industry must not only implement these urgent and obvious reforms but make horse safety and welfare its absolute first priority.

The passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act in 2020 was a significant marker of progress. However, the law’s implementation has been constantly obstructed by certain parties in the industry. Lawsuits challenging the authority's constitutionality are ongoing, and proposed legislative measures threaten to undermine reform. Some states, including Texas and Nebraska, have opted to not simulcast their races across state lines so they can dodge federal oversight, while Louisiana and West Virginia are operating under a court injunction that prevents the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, created by the Act, from regulating thoroughbred racing in those states.

Even in states where support for reform is strong, there are differing opinions on the best way forward, for example in the appropriate use veterinary technology. California champions the use of PET scanners as a means of enhancing race horse safety, while some in New York remain unconvinced of their value. These differences between two states with well-established regulatory systems highlight how regional variations impact the safety and uniformity of horse racing nationwide. Certainly, too, they bolster the argument for federal oversight. The patchwork approach to reform is one of the reasons that horse racing is in such poor shape.

On the fundamental issue of fatalities, the industry must adopt and enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward any practice or condition that results in horse deaths due to racing. No reasonable person would support a system in which the gambling stake literally depends on the lives of the horses themselves.

On the related problem of rampant illicit drugging of horses, the anti-doping program established under the HISA in May could be decisive. Of the top thoroughbred racing nations, the U.S. leads the field as the deadliest for horses. Doping’s long and unchecked history is probably the reason for this, but the current state of affairs is intolerable. We commend the improvements already made in drug testing and enforcement, track safety protocols, veterinary care and the emphasis on necessary rest and recovery for the horses. And we concede that a little time may be necessary for the full impacts of the national anti-doping program to be felt. However, lives are hanging in the balance, and we can’t afford to wait for change much longer.

Investigation reports from the HISA did not single out doping as the sole culprit but instead outlined a broad spectrum of risks associated with horse racing. This variety of threats underscores the necessity of a unified federal regulatory body capable of imposing consistent and rigorous standards across all racing jurisdictions.

There is a deeper moral problem that makes fundamental change an uphill battle: In some states, racing authorities and interest holders have come to view horse deaths as an unfortunate yet inevitable cost of the racing business. Such a view will be the death knell for racing in those jurisdictions.

Representative of this alarming perspective are the comments by veterinarian and New York State Equine Medical Director, Scott E. Palmer, VMD, concerning HISA’s investigation at Saratoga. Palmer claims that the mortality rate of the general horse population of 1.4% is statistically higher if not comparable to the mortality rate of racehorses at Saratoga this year, which he calculated as 1%. He states that, “[t]hese statistics indicate that horses that race in New York are as safe if not more so than those that live on farms in non-racing capacities.”

However, the 17 horses who died at Saratoga this year, who had collectively won more than $6.5 million dollars in their short careers, were all between 2 and 6 years old, and the very study Palmer referenced indicated that horses aged 1 to 5 years across the nation had a death rate of only 0.5%, and not 1.4% or even 1% as Palmer claimed. Based on this data, racehorses at Saratoga this year died at a rate double that of horses in the general population, despite receiving highly specialized care.

We believe that the only way for racing to move forward is with a resolute commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on harmful practices and a unified front to put the safety of the horses above all else. Thankfully, the new HISA authority and forward-thinking horse people share our position. 

Federal legislation and the establishment of the Authority demonstrates a national commitment to making the care of the animals that are central to horse racing the top priority. It sends a powerful message that the welfare of race horses is a priority, ensuring that their lives are treated with the respect and care they deserve, from foal to retirement.

There has never been such heavy moral and practical scrutiny of horse racing, and the future of horse racing hinges on its ability to reform at a pace faster and more determined than any Triple Crown race. These magnificent animals are depending on it.

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.