It’s Not a Santa Anita Problem

October 21, 2019

Unfortunately for the thoroughbred industry, and more unfortunately for Santa Anita and the Stronach Group, the political and media climate in California is such that they have targeted the sport most of us love. Their zealous enthusiasm has tentacled to other mainstream media fueled by sensationalist misinformation. The arguments over what is or isn’t wrong with the Santa Anita racetrack look like today’s democrat against republican debates. They are vile, and of course everybody is right and nobody is wrong. Everyone has their mind made up, and nobody hears any differing views.

I was reluctant to weigh in on this for several months while I sat back and watched the game I love both assaulted and misunderstood. Because our industry, in my opinion, essentially failed to uniformly address the problem, I thought I would attempt to bring some clarity to the situation.

First, ask yourself these questions;

Would Mike Smith towards the end of his career lay it down over and over again on a racing surface that was not safe?

Would Richard Mandella run Omaha Beach who he scratched from the Kentucky Derby over a breathing issue (entrapped epiglottis) on a track he thought even might be unsafe?

Would conservative Shug McGaughey, Will Farish, and Lane’s End bring Code of Honor to Santa Anita to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic if he thought the track was less than safe?

Would east coast based Hall of Famer John Velazquez go to Santa Anita to break the graded stakes win record riding for Bob Baffert on a track that was dangerous or not right?

Would Bill Mott send the highly regarded Elate out to face the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over a track he did not feel was safe?

Would the Breeders’ Cup, well aware of the spotlight on the sport, run the marquee event over a dangerous track encouraging the best horses in the world to come and compete?

As a gambling man by nature, I’d have to bet on no to all these questions.

The tragic rash of breakdowns that have plagued the last two Santa Anita meets are an industry problem and not a Santa Anita racetrack problem.

Frankly, and contrary to many an opinion out there, and regardless of what does or does not happen in the upcoming Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita is very likely a very safe racetrack right now. They dug the track up, changed the drainage, and made the surface deep and heavy which should make it safer than it was previously, which is not to say it was unsafe in comparison to the norm of the industry.

Lamentably, breakdowns are inherent to the sport of horse racing. They always have been, and they probably always will be. They happen in the worst ways, and at the worst times, to equine athletes many of us adore. This is a dangerous high stakes ultra competitive sport.

Belmont, Saratoga, and Keeneland are high profile meets which have at times had their fair share of fatalities. None have come under the fire that Santa Anita has but that is primarily because of the climate in California, the fact we make an easy target, the fact we have no uniformed leadership and response, and most importantly we as an industry are not doing all we can to make this dangerous game as safe as it can possibly be. We are perceived in a negative light, somewhat but not entirely unfairly.

I have witnessed several horrendous racing accidents. One of the worst I have ever seen was in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff when the great filly Go For Wand broke down. While we can never stop them all, we can reduce them, makes things safer and better, and prevent some, possibly many more than we do.

One is only as strong as their weakest link. Anything can be taken down if you isolate and go after that weak link. That is precisely what is happening to thoroughbred horse racing. In the wake of the attacks just about the best we came up with is the following;

Well some of our horse are treated well.

Not all our horses break down.

PETA this and PETA that. PETA kills animals, PETA has an agenda. ETC. ETC. ETC.

Many of us love our horses what about us?

Horses love to run.

We are horse racing.

We need our jobs.

In the wake of a public outcry, a public I might add cares nothing about any of us, our jobs, our industry, or the sport itself, that is the best we can come up with. Shoot the messenger, abandon the weak link, ignore the issues. We’re fueling the fire that is burning us.

Santa Anita, like it or not, made a serious effort to address the problem of the breakdowns. They instituted a set of new protocols designed to self police, and create an environment that makes it difficult to race horses that have red flags as to their soundness, injury history, and a propensity to break down. It looks like at this early juncture it is making a bit of a positive difference but it is too soon to be definitive. Don’t be naive, this and in fact nothing will prevent breakdowns, but it is a step in the right direction. These are the types of reforms that are called for today. Whether you agree with them or not, you must remain cognizant perception is crucial. As aforementioned, right now our sport is perceived in a very negative light. We all know the sport is struggling so let’s ask another question. Do we want to fight for our game’s survival from the ropes or the middle of the ring?

There is hope and all is far from lost. We need to lose the every man and entity in the game for themselves mentality, and acknowledge and address the problems as opposed to bashing PETA and inventing catch slogans.

I am horse racing will become I was horse racing if we don’t.

While breakdowns are indeed inherent to the sport, they can and must be reduced and minimized. Nothing less should be acceptable.

The rash of breakdowns has multiple contributing factors. Many of us know what the issues in the industry are. There is no need to laundry list them here. There is no point in arguing them either. The time has come to fix what is broken, and educate people to what isn’t.

If you think all thoroughbreds love to run you have either never been around the racetrack backside, or you are lying to yourself. All thoroughbreds may be bred to run, and many love it but not all. Sore horses who need drugs to mask pain don’t love to run. Horses too old and brittle to compete don’t love to run. We need to race healthy and happy horses, who don’t “need” drugs or have to be forced to run.

They don’t all love to run.

Not many people know this. Some years back I was at Gulfstream in the paddock and saw a horse in a stall cowering. I was not betting the race, a maiden claiming race. I looked in the horse’s face and saw terror. I pulled out my racing form. The horse had run about 15 times. He had never beaten one horse. Not one single horse. Trailed may have been his best comment. I looked at his trainer. His record was not much better. Maybe worse. I could not get the horses eyes out of my head. He ran last. I watched and was glad he made it. I approached the trainer and bought him. He went right to a farm and life of leisure. I slept good.

Horses, unlike humans, can’t choose whether or not they are put in a race. We are in charge of that and we have all chosen to play this game knowing the risks for the horses and also for us. Accordingly, we have an obligation to make things as safe as possible and we are making improvements. We have to do more.

We need to get everyone participating and on the same page. Our defense should not be to attack and bash the PETA’s and activists. Our defense should be to give them absolutely nothing credible to say. Nothing. Zero and zero tolerance toward anything less than that.

We can fight perception, educate outsiders, maybe even bring one or two in, but we have to be united and all for one. This is why I have lobbied for years now that we need a central governing body, and even a commissioner if you will. I realize we can’t even agree to stagger post times of our stakes at many tracks so this is a reach to achieve but we need it now more than ever. We need uniformity in rules and enforcement. We need zero tolerance on serious violations. We need cooperation between racetracks and all stakeholders. We need a lot, and we can’t get any of it in our present environment.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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  1. Oct 21, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    It’s a great analysis, Jon…you said a lot of things which need to be said and understood.
    You articulated how some of the defenses which some of us have offered are ineffective,
    or inefficient or sometimes just distorted.

    You touched my heart with the sad story of the horse who did not want to run at Gulfstream,
    and future disagreements of opinion that I may have with you will be informed by that anecdote.

    Citing names of Nice, Decent, Honest Folks who race horses and work in the industry
    is kind of the opposite of “Guilt By Association” – and represents an “Innocence by Association”
    that is probably not going to save the day.

    There were plenty of Nice, Decent, Honest Folks who owned Slaves or made money from them,
    and their characters, attributes and Social and Moral Authority – in their Era and Zeitgeist –
    were uncorrelated with the immoral realities of Slavery.

    They had a moral, emotional, psychological and Legal “Firewall” which enabled them to do what they
    felt entitled to do.

    The same thing applies to our current situation with Horse Racing.
    There are things about the Sport and Industry which are simply NOT RIGHT,
    and the names of Great People associated with Racing do not make these things any LESS wrong.

    I think my analogy with Slavery fits in with today’s popular Mindsets of Zero Tolerance for all
    the HashTag Causes of today, whether anti-Racism, anti-Bigotry, anti-Sexual Harassment,
    anti-Domestic Violence, anti-Bullying and so on.

    I believe that our Dilemma will boil down to THIS:

    If Racism, Hate Speech, Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence are simply WRONG,
    and there are ZERO contexts where they are permissible…
    how do we convince the Opposition that
    ANY percentage of Horse Deaths is acceptable?

    Is it like saying “You know, I treat these Slaves well, they are fed and clothed,
    and they get Health Care, and I love them – and they love ME,
    and having a certain number of Slaves in the Cotton
    Industry is simply not avoidable in today’s economy.”

    Ultimately, I think our battle to save the Sport and Industry
    will come down to how good and rational our arguments
    are for claiming that any level of Horse Fatalities is acceptable
    in Today’s Moral Climate.

    What led me to this conclusion is the iconic Iditarod Dogsled Race,
    which throughout my life was seen as an event which celebrated
    courage, endurance, tenacity and the will to WIN by
    adapting to and overcoming obstacles.

    These are Great things to cultivate among Citizens, and humans in general.

    The focus has always been on the Heroic efforts of the Humans,
    and their ability to “drive” their Teams of dogs to success.

    Despite “rules” about how much rest the dogs must be given,
    there is no way to run this race without many dogs being
    driven beyond any physical nor mental capacity which they would NORMALLY
    exert. Many of them die during the contest, most will suffer injuries.

    We tell ourselves: “But THAT is what they were specifically bred for.”

    Ummm…were we not saying essentially the same things about Slaves
    only a few generations ago?

    They were BRED to cultivate strength and endurance and subservience.

    In the end, I have no choice but to conclude that many of these dogs
    are suffering simply for the sport and celebration of the Human competitors.
    Like it or not, the dogs are expendable – and disposable.

    There is no way that I can celebrate the winners like I did in the past.
    Dogsled racing – in reality – is not much better than Dog-fighting,
    with both being conducted simply for the entertainment of Humans.

    I cannot see a future where mainstream sponsors will want to be associated
    with the promotion or broadcasting of Iditarod nationwide.

    I am afraid that a similar fate awaits Horse Racing,
    if we are unable to come to terms with the issue of
    how much suffering and fatality among horses is “acceptable”
    for the purposes of our entertainment and leisure.

    Thank you for trying to get people to pay attention to the priorities
    for this battle to save Racing.

    1. Jonathan Stettin Oct 21, 2019 at 5:40 pm

      Thank you. Very interesting analogies and points you bring up. A lot of food for thought.

    2. Oct 21, 2019 at 6:26 pm

      Why is it you bring up slavery on a horse racing post? YOU are what’s wrong with this country! It’s over and done with.

    3. Oct 23, 2019 at 2:28 pm


      First of all, thank you for this article, as you articulate your point well and it is one with which I am in agreement; a governing body that can consistently enforce policies and be transparent seems like it would go a long way toward helping the industry not only function better, but perhaps repair some of the industry’s reputation as well.

      In terms of the race and animal questions raised by this post, I don’t have an answer to this question (perhaps I will by the time I’m done with my dissertation), but I agree that the intersection of animality and race is one that needs more attention. Oftentimes, the slavery analogy is used to advance animal rights (I’m not saying this is what the original poster is doing, to be clear), which can be problematic, but questions of animality and race are so historically intertwined that the association can’t be ignored either, especially since it persists today.

      As I said before, I can’t offer an answer, but if you (or anyone else) is interested in this issue, I do have a book recommendation: Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question. The text might not answer the question definitively either, but it might help further this conversation or simply our knowledge of what goes on at the intersection of animal and racial identities:

  2. Oct 21, 2019 at 9:52 pm

    This article seems sincere.
    But no mention of crappy pedigrees and drugs. Or the watered-down endurance of some horses. Or just plain bad conformation (see “crappy pedigrees”). Or racing them too young. Or how they’re all related to one another now. Or how they’re retired to stud after six races.
    I’m a racing fan. But only transparency will save this sport.

  3. Oct 21, 2019 at 11:53 pm

    Great article. Owners talk about the necessity of a centralized governing body (much like Nascar had achieved). Unfortunately, during thoroughbred owner meetings and in private conversations, much of the information on who to contact in the formation such an organization is splintered and vague. Where can an owner go, John, to get this job done?

  4. waltertnyc Oct 22, 2019 at 9:00 pm

    Last year, 1.2 million dogs and 5.4 million cats met their unfortunate demise due to being hit by a car in the United States.
    Approximately 1,000 race horses die each year in the United States from racing and training related fatalities.  No one in cancel culture is talking about banning ownership of dogs and cats as pets, or keeping them in seclusion where they can never have the possibility of facing harm. 

    1. Oct 23, 2019 at 2:59 pm

      PETA will come after your cats and dogs next. They make their mission to end all pet ownership pretty clear. They don’t hide it.

  5. Oct 23, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Like anything there are pros and cons to this article. The one I want to take issue with is the remark that all horses like to run. I have never met anyone in the horse racing industry who doesn’t acknowledge that some horses do not like to run. There are many owners/trainers that acknowledge that there are certain horses that don’t want to run and they are either retired or sold or retrained to do other jobs. We all have a purpose and horses are no exception. However you are right that the extreme animal rights activists groups are not interested in peoples jobs, livelihood, or the fact that the overall percentage of horse racing deaths is pretty small compared to all that run in any given year. You do have to understand that extreme animal rights activists, in particular the group Horse Racing Wrongs doesn’t just want to end horseracing. It wants to make thoroughbread and other horses extinct. They don’t want one horse to run or do any jobs or be owned by anyone. They want them retired to pasture or euthanized. They make their position very clear on their Facebook page and on their website. Don’t take my word for it, do your homework. And for the record, I am merely a horseracing fan trying to educate myself on the sport and on the groups who want to end it. I have no skin in the game. I don’t own a horse. I am not in the industry nor do I have relatives who are at risk of losing a job. I am merely a fan with the mind to research all sides of an issue. You make many good points on how the horse racing industry can make many improvements. But I will say this. No one and I mean no one is going to come after my dog or cat. No one is going to tell me that I cannot own a pet. It is not up to extreme animal rights activists to dictate to me or anyone else if I should own a dog or a horse or if I should race it or not. They do not speak for me. They do not dictate to me. Do not let them speak for you. I am not a sheep and I will not be bullied. To the horse racing industry… listen up and act now or be bullied into extinction.

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