Time to Poke the Bear

April 8, 2020

It’s time.  We can’t wait any longer.  We need to poke the bear now before it’s too late.

 It’s no surprise that racing in California may be on its last legs. It started well before the calamitous last season at Santa Anita.  It may have started with a handful of vociferous protestors holding up signs at Del Mar.  Or perhaps a scattered few speakers at CHRB meetings. But like the dreaded Covid-19, it spread and it spread quickly.

Before we knew it, the racing accidents at Santa Anita became front page news.  About the same time the local television stations picked up the heart wrenching stories.  Suddenly, the euthanized horses were victims of murder and the battle began. People that hadn’t watched a horse race in decades were suddenly experts and only too happy to buy into the story.

The racing industry responded quietly in many ways. We calmly responded that it was a fluke caused by once in a lifetime rain storms.  The rain caused the track to become unsafe. As more fatalities occurred, we closed down, hired the best of the best and fixed the problem.  But the accidents didn’t stop and the protestors got louder and louder.  With relentless speed, the newspapers and television stations picked up the torch and bullied straight ahead singing the same song. 

As the noise became more resounding, the protestors not only got louder, they grew in numbers and scored knockdowns with every newspaper headline and every blurb that hit the likes of CNN as well as local stations.  Now it wasn’t just the wretched accidents, it was a plethora of things including drugs, whips, horse slaughtering, shady characters and other things that would keep you from bringing horse racing home to mom.

How did the industry react? Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted it.  On March 14, the Stronach Group published an “open letter” announcing a series of changes to increase safety in the thoroughbred industry.  Included in that “open letter” was something that sent a shock wave through the industry.  Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president, was quoted.  Yes, the unethical People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals came on board the Stronach Group.

This implausible relationship had been building for years, since PETA released an edited, undercover video that claimed to document scores of abuses on the backside.  “After we released that investigation,” said Guillermo, “we asked to meet the owners of the more prominent race tracks, and the Stronach Group is the one that said ‘yes.’  They were open to it right from the beginning.”

For once the industry did have a well-choreographed response and it was one of utter disbelief.  Things only got worse from there as the CHRB meetings became lengthy diatribes from speakers dressed in black mouthing identical phrases calling for the end of horse racing. The newspapers and televisions continued to market word of any and all race track deaths while wondering why racing still existed.  The California Attorney General opened an investigation into trainers.  Even though the panel found nothing, the beat went on.

Hopefully, the Covid-19 virus doesn’t run roughshod over California horse racing the same way it is decimating the world.  But I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.  Four tracks in California have been closed for safety concerns.  Forty-eight other tracks have been closed or delayed.  A scant seven tracks remain open, one, Los Alamitos, in California.

Meanwhile, the horses must be fed and exercised.  More than one thousand backstretch workers are wondering if they will still have jobs or places to live, even though there has not been one case of Covid-19 at the California race tracks. With one worker per 4 horses, safe distancing isn’t an issue and masks and gloves are worn. The lack of purses is hurting owners, trainers and jockeys. Things are only getting worse as trainers were just told they owe $1,233 per horse for the worker’s compensation fund that is normally paid by takeout.  As the shut down continues, it appears likely that more trainers will flee to Oaklawn, Gulfstream or wherever.

California horse racing, if not national horse racing, is on life support.  The time to poke the bear was years ago, but if it isn’t done now, I’d suggest packing your tack. The enemy has found a seat at the  heart of local and national horse racing.  They aren’t going away.  They will just come harder. They are organized. But who are these people?

We all know about PETA.  They stopped the circus and want to shut down zoos. They’d love to stop horse racing. They are anything but ethical in my opinion and run provocative and misleading advertising campaigns.  

There is another group that has come into the picture lately and they have surreptitiously formed a group that has wielded great power over the CHRB.  They are animal activists.  They don’t belong to a “particular” group but they show up together at CHRB meetings, the Governor’s office, race track protests, and seem to have a pipeline to Kathryn Barger, the LA County supervisor behind the shut downs of California race tracks and the supervisor that made the motion to have the DA look into the race track fatalities.  These people belong to or have belonged to various “Occupy” groups and generally promote a vegan lifestyle, which is certainly a matter of choice much like the love of horse racing.

Finally, I have heard from what I would consider a reliable source, that there is yet another group with significant money and power that has taken up the cause. But that’s all I know about it.

What I do know is that it is past time that horse racing people wake up and do something about this. What’s going on in California should serve ample warning to the rest of the country that they are coming after you next.  You may think your state will be immune to this scourge, but that’s far from the case. The time to poke the bear is now! And make no mistake about it, the bear is no longer horse racing as we knew it.

Whether it is writing letters, counter protesting, badgering the CHRB, the governor, or your local supervisor – don’t wait.  Perhaps someone connected to the industry will form a group to counter the no horse racing crowd.  It isn’t the time to respond politely.  It’s time to poke the bear.

OP-Ed

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