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