“We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us”

November 16, 2019

Hollywood Park

I’ve said for a long time racing, specifically horse racing’s shot callers and racetrack managers, don’t know who their customer is. They don’t, or perhaps they consciously choose to ignore them. Either way that is a significant part of the equation that has left the Sport of Kings reeling and fighting from the ropes.

Unfortunately for the game many of us love, that is no longer our biggest hurdle or problem. Now horse racing it appears doesn’t know who its enemy is, hence the play on the famous Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry quote. I have often said when you can’t say something better yourself use a famous quote.

The horse racing industry has unresolved and for the most part escalating issues in many areas. We have drug, both legal and illegal issues. We have rule issues with differing standards in different states and jurisdictions. We have inconsistencies with steward decisions. We have problems with slaughter and aftercare. We have horse shortages reducing fields and prompting racing secretaries to write condition books not conducive to the best wagering opportunities. We have racing offices scrambling to fill races and “hustling” horses into them. We have empty grandstands on most days. We see price gouging on big days essentially locking out the every day player, the bread and butter of the sport. There are announcements of undaunted numbers proclaiming record breaking all sources handles at just about every boutique meet and on every big racing day. None of those comparisons factor in inflation which I am confidant would show a declining trend. We have no central governing body and a slim to no hope scenario of ever agreeing on one. There are barns that run horses to “lose” them in claiming races, at least some of which shouldn’t be running. We are proven to be unable or unwilling to police ourselves. Frankly, most days we can’t even stagger the post times of stakes races from different tracks. The racing industry is dysfunctional and has a failing business model with no firm plan in place to improve. We keep taking that same bucket to the well, hoping the bottom won’t fall out. This is not to say we are not making some efforts to make things better. We have been forced to do that, and have tried, with only modest success if any at all.

Troublesome is the fact none of the above is our biggest hurdle. None of that is what will be the demise. It is the after product of all of that and more cumulatively that can be the end of the game I love.

Racing is now in a war for survival despite many stakeholders and shot callers playing ostrich while Nero fiddles.

Excuse the redundancy but some things need to be repeated.

Let’s keep things real.

The people who care for, own, train, keep, and do just about everything for race horses fall into three categories. Not one, three.

There are those who love and care about horses. There are those who treat horses as commodities or business property. There are also those who abuse and neglect race horses. We’ll come back to this shortly.

Currently our industry is under attack. We have come into the crosshairs of politicians, PETA, which is a powerful organization, mainstream media, animal rights activists, celebrities, and the general public.

Instead of gathering ourselves, all we can muster is some rah rah’s and we love our horses. Well what about the “other” two groups I mentioned above? The ones who don’t really love horses. They are part of “us.” None of us speak for all of us unless you acknowledge the others. All those foes above know that so why don’t we? For every feel good story about a saved horse, a rescued horse, a horse playing with children, I’ll show you five, no ten horror stories. To underestimate those aligned together calling for the abolishment of the sport will leave us the same way Florida left Greyhound Racing. You are only as strong as your weakest link. We have weak links. Those other two groups can bring down the we love horses people like a house of cards. They plan to do just that and we as opposed to preventing it are literally helping them.

I have been involved with rescue both within and outside the thoroughbred industry. My love for animals and devotion to rescue has had me conflicted about the sport I grew up around and have loved my entire life. I fail to understand how any true lover of horses and animals fails to feel the same way.

For the true animal lover, rescue is a thankless job. Of course looking into the eyes of the ones you have saved makes it worthwhile but make no mistake, we live with a deep pain daily. Not for the ones we save, for the countless ones we couldn’t save. Sometimes there is just not enough time. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. There are always more. Always.

Recently Donna Brothers wrote an article principally about PETA and what a horrible organization they are. The article has been heralded and called a life saving article for racing. Exactly what needed to be said. Brilliant. Stupendous. Eclipse worthy. Seriously? Let me know how that works out going forward.

I like and respect Donna Brother’s work. I believe she truly cares about horses and our game. I think she’s proven that and has paid her dues. I think her article is excellent. I shake my head quizzically at anyone who heralds it or states this is just what racing needs. I assure you it is not. Is it news to any of us PETA is an agenda driven, hypocritical, political organization with some deplorable practices? It isn’t to me. If you have been paying attention it probably isn’t to you either.

We are comparing driving children to school to racing horses? This is a defense of our industry? We are going to try and argue all horses love to run and are safer racing than in the wild. That’s a tough sell. It sounds great but if you think those out to stop the sport will buy that guess again. It is as silly as trying to sell an ocean view in the desert. It won’t even phase those calling for the end nor should it.

You think statistics will sway anyone? Maybe we should hope not. There are a lot of them and they all can be spun.

As of 2015 the overall annual mortality rate for horses was 1.4%. The highest annual mortality rates by age group were horses less than 6 months of age at 2.8%. Horses over 20 years of age have a mortality rate of 3.1%. Causes of death varied by age group. Injury, wounds and trauma were a common cause of death in horses less than 1 year of age. Colic was a common cause of death in horses from 1 to 20 years of age. Old age was the most common cause of death in horses over 20 years of age. Colic which is not usually a condition that occurs in the wild is a high cause of death. This comes from USDA APHIS.

According to Live Science and a 2014 article ” In the wild Mustangs can live up to 40 years. Hurt or disabled horses are protected by the herd and can live remarkably long lives when compared with other animal species that live in the wild.”

In a Science Daily Study at the University of Guelph they found that thoroughbred race horses had the highest exercise associated mortality rate of all sporting horses including standardbreds and quarter horses.

Does anyone really think saying let’s sic PETA on puppy mills is going to help us? I don’t think that do you?

As horrible as PETA may be, and they are indeed horrible, they are not our sport’s primary problem or even main enemy. We are. If the best we have is to bash PETA and think that exonerates us, or saves us, or justifies our inability to fix what is wrong with the sport we will face an epic fail. PETA is horrible so horse racing should continue. That’s what we got to fight a war against us. This is what industry spokespeople rally around. This is what what I call cheerleaders are saying.

This is not the time to try and out shout PETA. They have a much louder voice and are not going anywhere. Even if we could out shout PETA, or write more negative articles about them, they are just one group calling for the demise of horse racing. There are others. The way to defeat the PETA agenda for horse racing is too leave them speechless with nothing credible to say about how we conduct and manage the sport. Not cheerleading. Not rally crying. Not slogans. Not fairy tales and feel good stories.

This would also silence all the others in the group determined to shut down thoroughbred racing first in California and next nationwide. Telling politicians to worry about the homeless crisis and not us sounds nice, but helps nothing. How do things work out for the alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge they have a drinking problem? How do things work out for the drug abuser who insists they don’t have a problem? Isn’t it always someone or something else? Isn’t there always a PETA or politician? Are they ever the real problem?

Presently the perception of the sport of horse racing is negative. Perception is everything, but we are also an industry that has real issues to date we have not been able to remedy ourselves. Horses don’t talk. We talk for them. We have dominion over them. For this storied sport to continue to exist and to ever thrive again we have to do better for ourselves. As recently as the 1980’s we were the biggest spectator sport in the country. Today we struggle to continue existing.

The answer is not hit pieces that at the end of the day tell us nothing we did not already know. It starts with everyone who chants we love our horses and allow those in the very next barn to do what we know is wrong if not outright against the rules and or the law. It happens every day at tracks across the country. If you are using the rallying cry we love our horses and you don’t prove that every day and truly live it which includes standing up to those who are destroying things for all of us you are in my opinion more part of the problem than the solution. No less than the time to hit piece PETA, which in reality is meaningless, it is also not the time to be complacent and act as if all is fine. It isn’t. It certainly isn’t perceived to be by those who will have more of an impact on our future than we will if we don’t wise up as an industry.

I don’t even think this Feinstein politician knows about the Horse Racing Integrity Act. Maybe she does, maybe not. I would under normal circumstances never welcome government intervention. These are not normal circumstances. If we can’t police ourselves and clean this sport up, and we want it to continue maybe we have to let the government in.

The first duty is to the horses. We have to eradicate all practices that increase the likelihood of a catastrophic injury. Pressuring trainers and owners to run to fill a race would be a nice place to start. Is there anyone who has ever been on the backside who is unaware of how often this occurs and what type of results it can spawn? This is one basic thing we as an industry have come to accept as a norm. Sure this may decrease handle, shorten fields and lead to less races and racing days. Sometimes less is more.

I’m relatively certain less is more than none.

This is just one small example. How many of us are aware of trainers and owners who push the envelope to the point things are dangerous? How many of us know of outfits that inject regularly? How many of us don’t know who the “liberal’ Vets are? These are things that have become normal for us and they are part of what is killing the game. A few years ago trainer Jeff Mullins said something to the effect of anyone who bets horses is a fool as they will never know all that goes on back here. Do any of you think things have improved or he was wrong? Do any of you think bashing PETA and pointing out what is wrong with them will help the sport?

How many of us know of outfits who do what they need to do to get a horse to a race to maybe lose the horse via claim or to get some bills paid? I am talking about the horses who need more help getting to the gate than they should. They are at tracks all over the country every day watched by cheerleaders saying how much “we” love our horses. This norm doesn’t fly anymore.

We need to change from a moral and ethical standpoint first. All the rest, and there is more can follow.

We can’t rally cry and pretend things are hunky dory throughout our sport. They aren’t and other sports don’t matter right now. Ours does.

In the recently concluded Breeders’ Cup we had a panel of Veterinarians and a safety protocol in place aimed at minimizing the chance of a fatality. They seemingly did their jobs, and the protocol made a difference in that horses entered were scratched to the objections of their connections. One horse was not scratched, Mongolian Groom. A video surfaced showing him off or lame in the left hind leg. During the running of the Classic Mongolian Groom broke down in the left hind leg and was euthanized. Coincidence? Maybe we will never know but as an industry the response was poor. Now they got what they wanted they said. Instead of saying we made great strides and we will learn from this and make things even better, thus safer going forward, we argued the horse was fine, the video was misleading, and hired Dr. Larry Bramlage to do an independent study. I’m guessing he is being paid for his opinion. I’d have sooner seen that money spent on the MRI machine that we apparently need a Go Fund Me campaign for. Does anyone need to read that study to know what it will say? Now I am a gambling man by nature and here is what I’d bet it will say. Protocols were strict and in place. They were followed. The video was not definitive enough to know the horse was lame. None of that, if that is what it says changes the fact a video showed a horse off in the left hind leg and that horse broke down in that same leg in the stretch of a race days later. I don’t believe ducking the facts is the answer. I believe making things safer and having accountability is.

The safety and fatality issues have taken over the sport and have out ranked all the other issues. If we don’t address these issues we won’t get another chance to fix all the others. There is a lot to do and none of it involves rallying cries or bashing anyone else. This is not the time to be patting ourselves on the back. It is the time to take stock, admit we have a problem, adopt zero tolerance towards anything, anything that can impact safety in any way.

There are ways to fix things. There are ways to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. First, we need to worry about us, not PETA or anyone or anything else. It is us who are at peril. We need to work together at policies to self police the sport and eliminate all who abuse the privilege of competing in this great game. You want to shut up Horse Racing Wrongs? Stick a graph in their face showing quarterly declines in fatalities and increasing numbers of horses safely retired to new careers or good homes. Then send it to Feinstein and her cronies. Nothing less will cut it nor save us.

To be crystal clear I have no issue with Donna Brothers’ article. I think it is very well written. I agree with some of it and disagree with some of it but that is neither here nor there. My issue is with the cheerleading and the potential for that to lead to a false sense of complacency. I’d rather be bashed but call it the way it is and hopefully wake some people in position to push strong reform and change up. I’ll let you know when it is time to pat ourselves on the back. This isn’t it.

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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One of the best articles on the state of emergency of our industry. Hits the nail on the head. If we want to save racing we must band together and actively work to save it. If we want the industry to die...we can continue with what we're doing.

Michael Wilson @michaelsrwilson View testimonials