People in the thoroughbred racing industry woke up on Sunday morning to find their sport under siege. The New York Times published a photo on Page 1 that depicted a horse dead on the track; it accompanied a lengthy investigative report blaming “drugs and lax oversight” for a high rate of fatal breakdowns.
On the same day, the Los Angeles Times covered the same topic, detailing the death toll at Santa Anita this winter. These two news reports came only a week after the abrupt cancellation of HBO’s “Luck,” when a third horse died during the filming of the TV series.
Deaths of racehorses are always shocking and they have always been an inescapable part of the game. Unlike human athletes who suffer serious injuries and can be rehabilitated, horses usually have to be euthanized. But the issue became more emotionally charged than ever after Eight Belles broke down in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) turned her death into an indictment of horse racing, blamed her jockey for whipping the filly and called for the rider’s suspension. PETA knows how to make headlines, and it made the deaths during the filming of “Luck” a cause celebre.
The handling of horses in “Luck” had been supervised by the American Humane Association since filming began in 2010. The most recent of the three fatalities had been the result of a freak accident — not gross negligence on anybody’s part. A mare being walked on a dirt path reared up, fell backward, struck her head and died. But this mishap gave PETA the opening to launch a media blitz (saying that the series employed “old, unfit, drugged horses”) and advocate that the Los Angeles district attorney launch a criminal probe into the horses’ deaths. HBO promptly ran up the white flag. Days later, Ray Paulick, editor of the online Paulick Report, published a detailed analysis of the PETA claims and debunked most of them. But by then, he wrote, “The lies had been repeated so often that people believed them.” David Milch, the creator of “Luck,” told an interviewer: “The distortion that took place in order to make those accusations was . . . beyond irresponsibility.”
Coming so soon after the much-publicized “Luck” cancellation, the New York Times article made a stunning impact. People who might question PETA’s claims would surely not question the Times. Yet even though the paper’s investigation was exhaustive, its report was dishonest in one crucial respect.
The Times focused on racing in New Mexico, but readers undoubtedly assumed that the horrendous breakdowns and injuries to jockeys in that state were mirrored in New York, home of the country’s top thoroughbred racing.
However, almost all of the New Mexico horror stories cited by the Times occurred in quarter-horse racing — a different sport, with a different breed, a different style of training and a different ethic. If thoroughbred racing is supposedly the Sport of Kings, quarter-horse racing is the anything-goes sport of cowboys. According to the Times’s own statistics, the seven U.S. tracks with the highest percentage of breakdowns or signs of injury were all ones that offer quarter-horse racing — five of them in New Mexico, where supervision was notoriously lax. Yet the Times never drew a distinction between the two sports and did not even mention the phrase “quarter horse” until the 48th paragraph of its report. Subtract the quarter-horse component from the study and the Times might not have a carnage-laden front page story.
Yet even if the sport’s critics distort some aspects of the horse-safety issue, thoroughbred racing is facing a crisis that has been brewing since the Eight Belles tragedy. The industry is alienating large numbers of fans and potential fans who believe the sport is ruthlessly inhumane in its treatment of animals.
That is a misperception — most thoroughbred racehorses are pampered creatures — but the industry nevertheless has a real problem that it has failed to address effectively. In the last decade, several tracks have tried to make the sport safer by replacing traditional dirt with synthetic surfaces. (The Los Angeles Times article Sunday identified Santa Anita’s dirt surface as one of the possible reasons for an epidemic of breakdowns this season.) But blaming dirt is (in my opinion) a specious argument. Racetracks today are surely better engineered and better maintained than they were 30 years ago, but the accident rate is significantly higher. Everybody knows what has changed during that period: the proliferation of legal and illegal medications in the United States. On this subject the New York Times was exactly right: “Breakdowns can be caused by a variety of factors . . . but drugs, often used to mask existing injuries, are the prime suspect.”
Drugs have been a crucial part of the sport since the 1970s, when the United States became the first major racing nation to allow the use of medications on race day. Horsemen argue that thoroughbreds need drugs such as Butazolidin to withstand the stresses of modern racing, and for decades they have resisted most proposals to curtail the use of medications.
But racing may now have reached a critical point. The sport’s fatality rate is being subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. PETA is a formidable and sometimes ruthless adversary. While people in racing may complain that critics distort the facts, the industry doesn’t have a good answer when those critics say that the misuse of drugs is responsible for killing racehorses. Until racing has a proper response to this charge, it will remain under attack.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.