“Years ago, I went to the Travers as a fan and NYRA employee; this year I’ll be joining Horseracing Wrongs in protest”

From a reader:

Two decades ago, I went to work at Saratoga Race Course. I had no experience with racehorses, but a summer job “walking hots” was easy to find – I held horses for their baths after exercise, and walked them in a circle until they were cool.

Back then, there were few, if any, organized protests against horseracing. At larger races I would sometimes see a protestor or two, but even though their presence made me uncomfortable, they didn’t stop me from going. “The thing they don’t get,” a coworker told me, “is that these horses wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for racing.”

I don’t remember if I thought of those words the first time I saw a horse fall, but I do remember the horse. He went down in front of the grandstand. Some fans gasped, while others cheered the dramatic turn of events and their resulting good fortune. I felt ill as the veterinary ambulance pulled its curtain. I said nothing to my friends. The sun was shining, the drinks were flowing. We were having a good time.

Over the years I witnessed dozens of accidents at Saratoga and other tracks, but the last involved a mare who spent 23 hours a day confined to a stall at a training facility near Finger Lakes Racetrack. During her 20 minutes of daily exercise in the EuroXciser – a rotating carousel of stalls – her hind leg lodged between panels. The stalls kept moving, and panicked horses cantered over her. The mare’s leg sustained massive damage, and she was euthanized later that day.

It’s taken years to admit my responsibility in the mare’s death. I had led her from stationary stall to mobile one, yanking her over-the-nose chain to make her behave. I didn’t like her much; she was angry, bored, and difficult to groom. In retrospect, her defiance reflected what I was slow to admit: that I was complicit in her suffering.

Afterwards, I had nightmares not only about the horses whose deaths I had seen, but about those who weren’t good enough, who didn’t win, who stopped winning. Some were sold to breeding facilities, while others were “repurposed” as riding or show horses. Others were too broken to be of use, and I knew they had gone to slaughter.

I understand now that my coworker was right to say that racehorses wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for racing, though not in the way she thought she was. I no longer agree that any life is better than none, or that the horses I saw fall were lucky to have lived. About 2000 Thoroughbreds die annually on U.S. tracks; an estimated 15,000 are shipped to slaughterhouses when they’re no longer useful. Some argue that the solution is to strengthen rehoming efforts, but because the lifetime care of a horse is prohibitively expensive and requires appropriate facilities and experience, there are never enough homes to absorb the industry’s excess.

Hundreds of protestors are expected at this year’s Travers Stakes in Saratoga. No matter their numbers, it’s unlikely that devoted fans of the track will be dissuaded, though I hope that casual attendees who have yet to understand the darker side of horseracing will reconsider their patronage. Saratoga and other tracks will perpetuate exploitation as long as people attend. The longevity of horseracing depends upon the consumer. Years ago, I went to the Travers as a fan and NYRA employee; this year I’ll be joining Horseracing Wrongs in protest.

Ashley Pankratz, August 2018

11 Comments

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  1. This is what is needed. A real life experience. You’re right about everything. Animals are “things”. They have NO value unless producing something to be of value to humans. I too witnessed cruelty at barns. Show horses are confined to stalls. They wear hoods and blankets in all weather to try to keep them clean and stunt hair growth. The bit of outdoor time is strictly controlled. They are bored and frustrated. Chains on their ankles that hit their feet to make them step higher. Irritating substances put under their tails to make them hold them up. The list goes on. My beautiful little rescue Paso Fino mare was kicked and severely beaten as a foal by the “breeder”, may he rot in Hell. She was the sweetest animal. She suffered such horrible injuries that she was to be euthanized as she had “no value”. My daughter and I got to her just in time. It was iffy whether she could stand in the trailer to make it to my farm. My older quarter horse was waiting. She lovingly cared for her during the short few years I kept her alive. Her entire back leg rotated at the end. There was no surgery to save her. She was so terrified of men I made sure she never had to experience any fear. She lived a quiet,loving good life with a devoted companion on an isolated pasture. I will never understand how anyone can so abuse another living creature to inflict such pain and suffering. I filed charges against the monster who did this. I was told he was a respected breeder and this was nonsense. There were many others he abused. Money and power that’s all that matter.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Most pro racing people and apologists think that those who are anti racing and on this site have no clue what we are taking about – but so many of us on here were involved In facets of racing and saw the realities.
    As an owner and excercise rider – I saw my horses getting the joint injections frequently, and I saw the horses getting their race day cocktail of drugs. I saw the horses snap legs off while training and racing, I saw the horses colliding during training, breaking spines and necks. I saw the horses jump the rail and hit the pavement, after rotational falls, I saw the horses run off the track and hit the pavement and slip and fall, skidding along the pavement.
    And I advocated for horses that were no longer profitable and scrambled to place them in the few homes that were willing to take in the horses, some too crippled to be much more than a pasture ornament. And when I failed to place them quickly enough- they disappeared, because of course – that stall is desperately needed for the next horse that may make a few dollars for his connections.
    And this is why I am anti racing now. I will be with you all in spirit on travers day, please be a voice for these sad victims of human greed.

  3. Thank you SO MUCH Ashley Pankratz, Mary Porter, and Peggy for your personal stories! It is SO very heartbreaking to read even MORE horror stories about horses that don’t even take place at the race tracks. Breeders are the FIRST RESPONSIBLE PARTIES for all the animal cruelty and abuse. It’s disgusting what they do to these horses from the day they are born. I was not even aware of some of the things mentioned in the first posts…like chains put on their ankles and substances put under their tails WHAT ON EARTH KIND OF HUMAN RACE DO WE HAVE ON THIS PLANET????????

    • All ways possible. Why choose only one? I post the Saratoga & Finger Lakes tragedies on my FB timeline, and any other NY tracks. I want my friends & family to see how close the problems can be, without them blocking me. Rep. Paul Tonko has taken a stand & formulated a bill about racehorse treatment with another Rep.. The protests help tremendously. Fan discomfort makes them see & THINK! THANK YOU, ASHLEY! ❤

  4. ATTENTION EVERYONE: AN IDEA FOR A PETITION TO HELP STOP YOUNG HORSE DEATHS: It’s probably going to take another generation worth of time to get horse racing BANNED, but maybe we can start in steps. It seems that so many of the deaths on the tracks are 2, 3 and 4 year old horses, which is far too young for them to be racing in the first place because veterinary science has PROVEN that a horse’s skeletal structure and bone development is not complete until about the age of six years. I don’t know WHY everyone wants to race their horses starting at the age of two. The reason so many of these young horses have problems is because their bodies are not physically ready to race. BUT – maybe we can start to change the mindset of racehorse owners. ONE OF THE VERY FIRST THOROUGHBRED RACE HORSES IN HISTORY – ECLIPSE – did not run his first race until he was five years old and he won ALL of his 18 races in a row without the rider ever needing to use the whip. He also sired 335 future winners, which is what owners are always so concerned about. Eclipse is considered the greatest race horse in British history (where thoroughbreds were “created”) and his skeleton was even preserved and now stands at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket, England. The POINT to this story is that if the greatest race horse in history won 18 races in a row — yet didn’t start racing until the age of 5 — that COULD perhaps be a selling point to owners and breeders to convince them that MAYBE, just maybe horses would be better equipped to run and WIN races without problems if they weren’t so young at their first start. This is not to say that I condone horse racing AT ALL – NO!! But perhaps we could SAVE some of these young horses from death if we could educate owners and convince them to wait until their horse’s bones are mature enough to handle the stress.
    If anybody agrees with this idea and has thoughts to add on how to do this, please contribute them! THANK YOU!

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