Today is a bad day.
I never expected, walking into work today, I would walk out feeling in shock, saddened and confused about the state of racing today.
Lately, there has been a lot of hype and numerous conversations going on about the risks associated with sports that I love. After several fatal falls on the cross-country course this year alone and now two horse deaths at Pimlico in just 4 races today, it’s easy to understand why people are in an uproar.
This conversation is not a new one. People involved in the racing community and eventers near and far know that there are risks associated with these sports. For years, there have been measures taken to increase safety of participants in these events. However, having two horses die at a Pimlico track packed full of racing enthusiasts and casual fans is certain to spark a whole new wave of conversation.
It’s easy to understand why people are upset. We love these beautiful, majestic animals who pour their hearts out for our enjoyment. We have whole industries that center around their athletic ability and to watch them break down participating in a sport that’s supposed to showcase their athleticism is heart-wrenching. There are websites devoted to painting the picture of Thoroughbred racing as a cruel sport, with horses drugged beyond belief, sent to slaughter the second they stop being profitable, and run until they break down and are no longer usable- or worse.
I’m sure these deaths at such a high-profile event will have critics coming out of the woodwork left and right. The people who are only involved in racing once a year- when there’s a big party involved and the hope of another Triple Crown winner is arousing excitement among thousands who no longer care the second Nyquist loses by a nose. These people will quote statistics found online and admonish the racing industry for being so cruel and terrible. But will you ever find these people anywhere near the shedrows, or actively following a foal out of their favorite mare with tears in their eyes as the horse breaks their maiden? Will you ever see these people with a pitchfork in hand, volunteering at an OTTB rescue? Probably not. So, before these “fans” who know nothing of the industry start criticizing the sport that I love- here’s my opinion.
- All sports have their inherent risks. Hell, my dad broke his leg 3 times playing soccer. I have been riding and training horses for the greater portion of my 24 years of life and I have never once broken a bone. To criticize a sport because it causes injuries is to criticize every sport that ever existed. And the vast majority of horses don’t break legs on the track or have heart attacks and collapse after winning on 9-1 odds. In fact, over 99% of horses that walk on to a race track, walk off safely afterwards.
- No, horses aren’t forced to run. For anyone that’s ever been around horses, you can tell when a horse isn’t keen on doing something. Their 1200 lb body mass can easily tell you when they’ve had enough. Most Thoroughbreds actually enjoy running. Take Homeboykris for example. The 9 year old gelding died doing what he loved doing. Could he have easily been retired as a 5 year old like most other horses? Yes. But he was running and winning until the day he died. With 2 wins in 4 starts this year alone, and a speed figure nearing 100 in March, it’s easy to see this horse loved his job. Don’t believe me? Watch the race replay and tell me you see a broken down, used up horse that hates his job- because you won’t. You’ll see a healthy, in-shape animal, ears perked and head held high as he walked into the winner’s circle, surrounded by the connections that loved him.
- Horses have lives after the track. Contrary to popular belief, Thoroughbreds that just aren’t cut out to be racehorses aren’t thrown away like yesterday’s meatloaf. There are dozens of organizations in the United States alone devoted to re-homing horses when they come off the track. Staffed by dedicated and wonderful people, these organizations help thousands of horses find homes and lives outside of racing. And their track connections help. In 2015, over $100,000 was donated to New Vocations by owners and trainers of racehorses to help fund their aftercare program so that their horses can be successful somewhere other than the track. There are aftercare alliances and programs being launched all the time with the sole purpose of increasing demand for horses off-the-track.
- Health and safety of horses and jockeys is continuing to improve. Helmets and body protectors are continuously being held to higher standards so that jockeys are safer every time they mount. Veterinary care is also improving year after year. With ultrasounds and x-rays, therapeutic hoof-care and other veterinary practices becoming staples in the shed-rows, horses are being better taken care of every day.
I sit at a desk every day talking with racing offices around the country and building files for all the data you see in the programs when you walk into tracks across the country. Hundreds, if not thousands, of races cross my desk and it shocks and saddens me to hear of fatalities in the sport. It’s not a daily occurrence.
I take horses off the track and re-train them to succeed in other careers. I work with these animals every day and see the heart they have for whatever they do. I know the trainers and have seen behind the scenes, where the horse’s connections know their every move and have their utmost health and safety in mind. I know the love owners, trainers and jockeys have for this sport and for their horses because I have seen it first hand.
I help a thoroughbred aftercare program by processing adoption applications. I see how in-demand these horses are after they are done racing. I know how excited people are to bring these animals into their lives and to develop them into something other than a racehorse- something just as great.
Overall, yes it’s a time to be sad and it’s a time to be frustrated. But instead of berating the industry and jumping to conclusions, let’s take the time to think this through logically. Yes, it’s a sad day for racing, but let’s rally around the industry in support. Donate to research to improve health and safety standards. Volunteer at aftercare programs and rescues. Be a friend of the horses by being a friend of the industry.