Horse Deaths Are Threatening the Racing Trade. Is the Sport Out of date?

Horse Deaths Are Threatening the Racing Trade. Is the Sport Out of date?

PARIS, Ky. — 100 9 years in the past, Arthur B. Hancock moved his thoroughbred breeding operation atop a slab of mineral wealthy limestone carpeted by thick, lush bluegrass. He known as it Claiborne Farm.

It’s to horse racing what the Yankees are to baseball: the bedrock of greater than 75 champions and the land the place the immortal Secretariat stood as a stallion.

Now, Walker Hancock, who’s the fifth technology of his household to run Claiborne Farm, is afraid there will likely be nothing left to move right down to the sixth.

He’s terrified, he stated, that the game resides on borrowed time, as are most individuals in what stays the guts and soul of the thoroughbred trade.

Horses have been dying in excessive numbers at a premier monitor and whereas no person is aware of precisely why, the therapy of the animals — earlier than, throughout and after racing — is underneath the harshest scrutiny in years.

“The way in which it’s going proper now, it’s not sustainable,” Hancock, 29, stated of the game. “We acquired to vary the general public’s notion and clear this factor up if we’re going to survive.”

At a latest public sale at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., the standard chatter about quick horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and the opposite Triple Crown races afterward shortly gave technique to speak in regards to the lifeless ones at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.: 23 of them in a three-month span that has practically shut down racing in Southern California.

Practically 10 horses per week, on common, died at American racetracks in 2018, in line with the Jockey Membership’s Equine Harm Database. That’s a fatality price that’s wherever from two and a half to 5 occasions larger than in the remainder of the racing world.

Outdoors of america, drugs for racehorses are strictly regulated, policed and punished, in line with the Jockey Membership, among the many oldest and most influential organizations in horse racing. Cracking down on medicine is important, reformers say, as a result of the medicine permit horses to run unnaturally quick and masks ache, which ends up in extra breakdowns.

This can be a disaster for folks within the sport whose livelihoods depend upon the breeding and nurturing, and the shopping for and promoting, of racehorses.


Walker Hancock, 29, at Claiborne Farm in April. “The way in which it’s going proper now, it’s not sustainable,” he stated. “Eliminating treatment and medicines — it’s a straightforward repair. We acquired to vary the general public’s notion and clear this factor up if we’re going to survive.”Credit scoreLuke Sharrett for The New York Instances

Though the horsemen aren’t precisely cozying as much as the Individuals for the Moral Remedy of Animals, or PETA, breeders acknowledge that the issues the group has raised is perhaps the hammer they should make modifications that can save their sport.

In spite of everything these horse fatalities in California, Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice chairman, had a hand in drawing up guidelines that Santa Anita Park put in place governing the usage of medicine and whips that strategy worldwide requirements and which are anticipated to rework the racetrack into one of many most secure and most progressive within the nation. Final week, Guillermo, who has household roots in Kentucky and grew up driving hunter jumpers, spoke at a Churchill Downs Inc. shareholders assembly and was requested afterward to satisfy with its management.

“You at the moment are coping with a public that has change into illiberal of damaged bones, whipping, drugging and demise,” Guillermo stated. “I make them nervous,” she stated of the horse trade, “although we must be on the identical facet, actually.”

At Claiborne, leggy foals, one lower than 12 hours outdated, chased their moms by way of undulating bluegrass behind wooden plank fences. Pickup vans patrolled its three,000 acres and handed constructions that date to the 1700s. It takes 100 workers to maintain the farm buzzing and the practically 400 horses cared for.

Within the stallion barn stood Conflict Entrance, who instructions $250,000 per mating and is the sire of the seemingly Kentucky Derby favourite, Omaha Seaside, and one other contender, Conflict of Will. Two different horses from Claiborne sires, Reducing Humor and Tax, are within the Derby discipline, which implies 20 p.c of the starters have been bred right here.

Claiborne is the middle of a $5.2 billion ecosystem that places 61,000 folks to work on greater than 831,000 acres. However for a way lengthy?

Horse racing has been on the decline for practically twenty years. In 2002, greater than $15 billion was guess on races in america; final 12 months, the deal with fell to $11 billion. In 2002, practically 33,000 thoroughbred foals have been registered as racehorses in contrast with 19,925 final 12 months.

Within the late 1980s, Rob Whiteley, who taught counseling psychology at Rutgers earlier than getting into the horse enterprise, helped remodel Carl Icahn’s Foxfield thoroughbred operation right into a moneymaking industrial breeding concern. Then he struck out on his personal, bred 19 Grade I winners and landed on the vital trade boards that contemplate guidelines in regards to the therapy of horses.

“They really ignored the destructive pattern in notion and lived in a bubble of self-deception, both not caring or not greedy how many individuals have been turned off by the makes use of of medicine and the sight of riders hitting horses with whips,” stated Whiteley, who bought his horses in 2012, unable to climate the monetary disaster. “I couldn’t advocate anybody coming into the enterprise.”


Mares and their foals grazed within the pasture at Claiborne Farm.Credit scoreLuke Sharrett for The New York Instances

There have been loads of guarantees of reform from a who’s who of trade stalwarts and racetracks, however even the smallest steps towards adopting harder guidelines have been met with outrage and threats of lawsuits from veterinarians, house owners and trainers’ teams.

In 2012, Arthur B. Hancock III and his spouse, Staci, based the Water Hay Oats Alliance with the mission of getting medicine out of racing.

The group shortly grew to greater than 1,800 trade members. It lobbied statehouses and regulators and went public with a number of the sport’s dirtiest laundry to attempt to disgrace horsemen, veterinarians, politicians and regulators into treating thoroughbreds like athletes quite than commodities stuffed with a smorgasbord of anti-inflammatories and painkillers.

The group, together with the Jockey Membership, helped form a federal invoice launched in March with bipartisan assist to create a uniform nationwide commonplace for drug testing and medicine guidelines in racehorses that might be overseen by america Anti-Doping Company. The invoice is backed by house owners and breeders’ associations, animal welfare teams and racetracks, together with the Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita Park, and the New York Racing Affiliation, the hosts of the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Notably, Churchill Downs Inc., the host of America’s most well-known race, and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the Senate majority chief, who counts the corporate amongst his high patrons, don’t assist the invoice.

“He politely and candidly instructed us that he appreciated what we have been making an attempt to do, however till Churchill acquired concerned he couldn’t push the invoice,” stated Hancock, who stated he met with the senator in 2016. McConnell, by way of a spokeswoman, declined to remark.

In an announcement, Invoice Carstanjen, chief government of Churchill Downs, stated the corporate had reviewed the invoice and requested modifications that weren’t addressed. “We don’t imagine a federal invoice is sensible, affordable, or imminent,” he stated.

In a memo obtained by The New York Instances that lays out Churchill Downs’s opposition to the invoice, the corporate cites prices and the truth that trainers and veterinarian teams are towards the measure. It additionally asks whether or not having the assist of the Humane Society of america is “letting the fox within the henhouse.”

The corporate additionally factors to the antidoping company’s function in bringing down the bike owner Lance Armstrong, suggesting Usada would possibly discover a lot improper and couldn’t be trusted to maintain data out of the general public eye.

“Whereas many level to Usada’s efforts in Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban from biking as a optimistic level in its favor, what penalties have there been because of this?” the memo asks. “Biking has taken a beating as a participatory and industrial endeavor.”

The Louisville Courier-Journal not too long ago proclaimed Churchill Downs one of many “deadliest racetracks” in America and reported that the monitor had misplaced 43 thoroughbreds to racing accidents since 2016, a mean of two.42 per 1,000 begins, which was 50 p.c greater than the nationwide common throughout the identical time.

Below stress from animal rights teams and a rising public notion that horse racing is merciless, Churchill Downs not too long ago joined a coalition of racetracks that’s searching for a ban on raceday treatment for all of their 2-year-old races starting subsequent 12 months and to increase that follow for stakes races — the game’s highest degree — in 2021.


A graveyard of champions that helped construct Claiborne Farm’s fame. Practically 10 horses per week, on common, died on American racetracks in 2018, in line with the Jockey Membership’s Equine Harm Database.Credit scoreLuke Sharrett for The New York Instances

It additionally introduced that it might construct an $eight million equine hospital, rent an equine medical director and create a nationwide Workplace of Racing Integrity to develop greatest practices and analysis, however it has declined to endorse the invoice.

“With their monitor document, they need to be working towards this laws,” Arthur Hancock stated. “This can be a life raft being thrown from the Titanic, however as a substitute you bought 55 completely different fiefdoms all going their very own approach whereas our historical past goes down.”

After the filly Eight Belles broke her ankles on the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and was euthanized, Guillermo, the PETA chief, made making horse racing safer and extra humane a precedence. She lives in Northern California, the place the animal rights motion is especially robust. In California, simply 600,000 signatures on a petition would immediate a poll initiative on whether or not horse racing ought to live on. That prompted the Stronach Group to problem the strongest guidelines on the care of horses in america.

Guillermo shouldn’t be accomplished. She needs the game to remove all drugs within the two weeks earlier than a race, bar trainers with a number of treatment violations, mandate full public transparency of damage and medicine data, finish whipping and swap to high-quality artificial tracks.

“You possibly can’t inform me that the trainers and veterinarians and racetracks have accomplished all that they will to guard the horses,” she stated.

The deaths at Santa Anita have prompted an investigation by the Los Angeles County district lawyer’s workplace; condemnations from elected officers, together with Senator Dianne Feinstein, and calls to close down the game altogether.

“We are able to’t let that occur,” Walker Hancock stated.

Like his father, Seth, and uncle Arthur, Walker Hancock was born in Kentucky in a home that has stood on the Bluegrass since 1865.

Like them, he has mowed its three,000 acres, thrown numerous tons of hay and every spring has pulled foals from mares after which watched them develop into racehorses.

Like them, he acknowledges the paradox that what constructed one among America’s oldest sports activities — the love of the thoroughbred — has the potential to place it out of enterprise.

“We acquired to start out proving that we’re doing all that we will to do the very best for these horses,” he stated. “If not, we’re out of enterprise and we must be.”

Comply with Joe Drape on Twitter: @joedrape.

Susan Beachy contributed reporting.

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