Thoroughbred racing, more than all other sports, confronts the human participants with their own characters. In any other game, you’re responsible only for yourself. But racing is all about the handling of the horses: At the heart of the contest is the matter of trust, the sacred obligation to do decently and right by a reliant creature. It’s the thinnest of lines between a meaningful pursuit and an abuse. The minute a horse’s best advocate is a Washington lawmaker is the minute that line has been crossed.
It should not take congressional action or another call for a moratorium on racing at Santa Anita by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to force certain basic and comprehensive reforms on thoroughbred racing. In fact, it’s absolutely critical that reforms be voluntary and self-imposed or racing will lose any real excuse for its existence. The owners of Santa Anita Park have recognized this and instituted some excellent measures in response to 26 horse deaths in a season. But they were essentially piecemeal reactive responses to a rash of fatalities that repelled the public, and they have not been fully accepted by other tracks, nor has the question of what’s causing these deaths been solved.
You always hear that nobody loves the horses more than their handlers. But when are they going to show it? If they can’t muster the will to organize and institute a national governing body with a uniform program of protections for horses and penalties for abusers, then they don’t really love them. They just like and enjoy them, until they have to dispose of them.
The best advocate for a thoroughbred is not a congressman. Representatives Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) have proposed the Horseracing Integrity Act, a bill that would regulate the game by law and institute World Anti-Doping Agency-like drug testing. But it should never come to that; anyone who would prioritize the horses’ best interests only because of a law doesn’t belong in the sport.
The best advocates are the many breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, hot walkers and grooms who feel deep partnership and kinship with the horses. One of them is my old friend David Israel, former chair of the California Horse Racing Board. Israel, a former journalist who served six years on the board through 2013 and owns a horse trained in Bob Baffert’s barn, long has advocated for a “voluntary” national governing body, “led by a commissioner with regulatory authority to implement penalties” on every issue from medication to animal welfare and jockey safety to track conditions.
Israel, who is working on a book about his experience with Baffert and who has watched handlers stroking the legs of their charges, contends: “No animals in the world receive better care than thoroughbred horses who are in the care of good, honest, hard-working trainers and their grooms and hot walkers. I’ve spent years on the backstretch without a vested interest, just observing. Kids aren’t scrutinized that closely. Children.”
Poor cosmetics of the sport have obscured those people. Instead, the public sees appalling statistics on the prevalence of breakdowns, combined with frightening visuals such as the criminally overcrowded Kentucky Derby field scrumming in the mud and a horse bolting riderless in the Preakness.
Thoroughbred racing’s best hope for survival is a moral blockade by these good handlers of horses, a movement from within to ostracize noncooperators in reform. Powerful coalitions of horsemen such as the Jockey Club and the Water Hay Oats Alliance have backed congressional legislation only because they despaired of persuading fiefdoms such as Churchill Downs to submit willingly to a national governing body. But the Santa Anita tragedies may be changing that.
As the Jockey Club pointed out in a paper, thoroughbred racing is a balkanized sport with tracks in 38 states, from Churchill Downs to Del Mar, operating under different rules, which “denies the industry the ability to affect dynamic and effective change.”
In practical terms, this made it almost impossible to resolve issues such as the overuse of Lasix, a diuretic administered to horses on race day to make them lighter and faster, a “performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication,” according to the Jockey Club. A lot of horsemen have long believed Lasix weakens young horses biomechanically and contributes to breakdowns. Only in the wake of the disastrous Santa Anita season did the major tracks agree to phase it out, restricting its use on 2-year-olds in 2020 and eliminating it from stakes races in 2021. And it’s still not unanimous: Just 86 percent of tracks signed on.
According to Israel, a national governing body is needed to deal with an even more likely contributor to breakdowns: overmedication by breeders seeking to build up yearlings “with steroids or whatever else they’re putting in them” to sell them at auction. Buyers want a brawny youth with flashy times. Israel sees youngsters that are unnaturally fast for their tender age, and “I don’t know how they’re getting there,” Israel says. “I think they mess around with the younger horses to make them muscled and shiny and faster, when it might night not be the most propitious time to do that.”
There probably is no single cause of the cluster of deaths at Santa Anita: It’s a systemic problem of horses overbred and overmedicated, being overworked and over-raced on a track that was “sealed” after absorbing too much rain and therefore over-hard on them. As the Jockey Club pointed out in its report, “It would be a mistake to view the Santa Anita fatalities as an isolated situation — spikes in the deaths of horses have occurred at other tracks and they will continue to occur without significant reforms to the horse racing industry.”
The problem is that it will be difficult to get at the full explanation given the current construction of racing. Without a governing body that demands “full transparency into the medical treatment, injuries and health of all racehorses,” according to the Jockey Club, “today, we can’t fully see what is going on with a horse because of differing state and track practices, antiquated practices and purposeful deceit about what drugs are given to horses at what times.”
Surely, the pressure to reform horse racing should be greater from inside the sport than the pressure from outside, whether from animal rights groups or Congress or journalists. Horsemen talk all the time about the deep ethical component of their work, the beauty and mystery of training creatures that are not autonomous. This is part of the draw for the audience. The only thing that makes thoroughbred racing a meaningful exercise as opposed to a barbarity is the right relationship between horses and handlers. No one from the outside can legislate that.