Allow me to put a spin on an old legal adage: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have compassion on your side, argue compassion. If you have neither, use some rhetorical flourishes and distract like hell. In a recent Daily Racing Form article, columnist Jay Hovdey reviewed last Thursday’s meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, where, you may recall, activist after activist rose to decry the cruelty and the killing at Santa Anita Park:

“There was no arguing with the animal rights protesters who flooded the [CHRB] meeting on Thursday with their impassioned recitation of undeniably grim statistics. From their point of view, the business itself is terminally flawed, and no amount of anecdotal testimony to the contrary would convince them otherwise.

To them – as opposed to us – Thoroughbred racing is replete with casual sadists and greedy entrepreneurs whose callous disregard for the well-being of its captive horses belies any sob stories of dedication to the health and welfare of the animals. ‘Set them free’ is their mantra. Relegate them to the wilds of unspecified sanctuaries. Race drones or small children if you must. But leave the horses be.”

Well, at least he didn’t (because, of course, he can’t) try to refute the “grim statistics.” Of course, Mr. Hovdey, we are not seeking to set any domesticated horse (or any domesticated animal, for that matter) free. That would be cruel. But you know that already, don’t you? “Set them free,” “race drones or small children” – I get it, having a laugh at our expense. That’s fine. Truth is, I would have ignored this altogether – simply dismissing it as the pathetic rantings of a sad, old racing hack pandering to an equally sad and rapidly fading base – had you not debased yourself even lower:

“In my wildest dreams, while listening to the audio feed of the CHRB meeting and its denigration of all things racing, I imagined chairman Chuck Winner producing a speaker’s request card and calling out the name, ‘Martine Bellocq.’

Martine would enter in her wheelchair, pushed by her husband, Pierre Bellocq Jr., with cap, sunglasses, and gloves protecting her tender skin grafts and her left leg slightly elevated, a concession to the circulatory complications caused by the amputation of her foot.

Her voice is high-pitched and strained now as a result of smoke inhalation and corrosive pulmonary lavage, but Martine would not need to say much. Her actions of Dec. 7, 2017, at her barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, speak louder than the loudest of protests raised in opposition to the life she has led for most of her 64 years.

Of course, someone at the meeting would have pointed out in protest that if there were no horse racing, and therefore no training center, Bellocq’s horses would not have been in danger as a fast-moving finger of the Lilac Fire swept through the southern end of her barn. That sort of logic also would get you tossed as a hopeless lightweight in a freshman class debate.

Bellocq plunged into the smoke and flames that day in an effort to lead her colt Wild Bill Hickory from his stall. That he had shown promise as a young equine athlete was beside the point. The committed caretaker in Bellocq could see only her panicked young creature at horrible risk and did something only a mother, or a fully protected firefighter, would do.

The terrified colt would not budge, though, and became one of 46 horses who died in the fire. Bellocq sustained third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body before Pierre reached her and carried her out of the inferno. He was treated for smoke inhalation, but he recovered and sounded just fine, as usual, when they were reached at home on the afternoon of the CHRB meeting. It had been a tough week.

‘There’s still a lot of healing going on with her skin,’ Pierre said, as Martine coached him from the background. ‘And there are complications with blood clots in her leg, which holds up progress with her prosthesis. I just hope her spirits can hold up.’ And from Martine came, ‘We’ve got to win a race!’

That’s right, the Bellocqs are still in the game, with a small stable in one of the new, canvas-topped structures at San Luis Rey. They had a pair of seconds last month with the maiden full sisters Brite Rivers and Lucky Brite Eye, and Saturday night they had the filly Grey Tsunami entered in a mixed race at Los Alamitos.”

First, what happened at San Luis Rey was a massacre – a massacre, this lightweight says, for which Racing bears full responsibility. (A reminder of that massacre, from Pierre’s memory, The San Diego Union-Tribune: “The first thing I saw was Billy…He laid down, his legs burned to the knees and the hocks. There was nothing below the knees. He must have thrown himself into the shed row, in flames. It’s the most horrible scene I’d ever seen.”) But beyond the snarky shots and crass manipulation lies this uncomfortable truth: While I am sincerely sorry for this woman’s fate, and the suffering she continues to endure, holding her up as the embodiment of “Horseracing cares” underscores the sorry and increasingly desperate state of the industry. “Something only a mother” would have done, Mr. Hovdey? Well:

What kind of mother would rip her child from his actual mother (and other family) while still just a babe?

What kind of mother would keep her child locked – alone – in a tiny room for over 23 hours a day?

What kind of mother would allow her child to be whipped?

What kind of mother would put her child up “For Sale,” as Bellocq did last month with each of those aforementioned horses? (In fact, Bellocq will have Brite Rivers on the market again in just three days’ time.)

What kind of mother would risk having her child fall into unscrupulous hands this way, perhaps even into a kill-buyer’s?

What kind of mother would put her child’s life in grave danger – every two or three weeks – as a means of enriching herself?

A mother? If not for the gravity involved, ‘twould be risible.

(Anticipating backlash, let me reiterate: I feel bad for Ms. Bellocq and wish her the best in recovery. This is really not about her; rather, it’s an indictment of those, like Jay Hovdey, who will stop at nothing – exploiting someone’s personal tragedy, e.g. – in order to preserve their precious bloodsport.)

When I last wrote about the Jockey Club’s “Equine Injury Database” (EID), I pointed out, among other things, how grossly misleading it is. Today, I build on that a bit: In 2017, according to the EID, Saratoga Race Course, one of the minority of tracks that make fatalities public, incurred six deaths. Anyone at all familiar with this site knows that 2017 was an all-time – all-time meaning from 2009, the year the NYS Gaming Commission began disclosing deaths and, not coincidentally (outcry after Eight Belles), the first year of the EID – high for Saratoga, 21 dead horses. So, what gives?

For starters, the Jockey Club only reports raceday kills. The 11 racehorses felled in morning practice? Not applicable, says the JC. The two young, awaiting-next-race horses who died, likely very painfully, of colic? Disregarded. So, that’s 13 dead horses who didn’t merit a mention in the database. Fine. We already knew that. But at this point you may notice that 21 minus 13 leaves 8; the JC says 6. So, again, what gives?

Here are the 21 dead at Saratoga ’17:

Lakalas, May 28, “collapsed and died after breezing”
Queen B, July 6, “fractured leg…ambulanced to clinic – euthanized”
Wanztbwicked, July 22, “suspensory rupture – euthanized on track”
Angels Seven, July 28 (racing), “fractured leg – euthanized on the track”
Howard Beach, July 29, “fractured leg…euthanized”
Positive Waves, July 29, “fractured cannon [and] sesamoids – euthanized”
Brooklyn Major, July 31 (racing), “collapsed and died after the finish of the race”
Marshall Plan, August 2, “fractured condylar – euthanized”
Fall Colors, August 3 (racing), “horse fell…died on track from trauma”
Munjaz, August 3 (racing), “took bad step…vanned off – euthanized”
Lakeside Sunset, August 5, “fractured leg – euthanized”
Unbroken Chain, August 6 (racing), “suffered a fatal musculoskeletal injury”
Duquesne Whistle, August 7, “was euthanized for abdomen colic”
Sweetneida, August 11 (racing), “took bad step, fractured sesamoids – euthanized”
Meteoroid, August 16 (racing), “[multiple] fractures – euthanized on track”
Sayonara Rose, August 17 (racing), “was euthanized on the track for leg fracture”
Travelin Soldier, August 19, “fractured leg – euthanized”
That Mr. P, August 26, “being treated for acute colic without resolution – euthanized”
Aggie’s Honor, August 31, “fractured cannon – euthanized”
Somekindasexy, September 18, “fractured both sesamoids – euthanized”
Roberta Brooks, October 14, “fractured cannon – euthanized”

Now, I can only surmise that the two missing from the Jockey Club’s accounting are the two who perished in steeplechase races. Yet, both (Fall Colors and Meteoroid) were Thoroughbreds, both, obviously, died on those same hallowed Saratoga grounds, both races pari-mutuel. In other words, there was no rational reason to exclude them. Except that doing so – along with excluding training kills – helps make the Saratoga kill-ratio better, and hence the Jockey Club’s (industry’s) overall national ratio.

And this was no isolated incident:

2016 – the Gaming Commission lists 6 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 5
2015 – the Gaming Commission lists 3 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 2
2014 – the Gaming Commission lists 8 Saratoga racing kills; the EID, 6

The evidence is clear: The Jockey Club is not only under-reporting all kills/deaths – no training, no stall – but it is also under-reporting racing kills, rendering (again) its vaunted “Equine Injury Database” worthless. Read my Killed Lists instead.

When it rains… In Wednesday’s Louisville Courier Journal, Tim Sullivan writes, “Of the 25 racetracks that share their casualty counts with the public, only one [Hawthorne] was more deadly last year than Churchill Downs. Over the past three years, only the [Sonoma County Fair] exceeded Churchill’s race-related mortality rate.” Yes, that Churchill Downs, the world-famous home of the Kentucky Derby. The timing of this article, of course, could hardly be any worse what with the goings-on at Santa Anita and “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” just around the bend.

In addition to me being interviewed and subsequently quoted, this article was also a boon for who else was quoted – or more to the point, what he said. Dr. Mick Peterson, the industry’s go-to track expert, likened this moment in horseracing to the Sputnik crisis of the 1950s (really, I’m not kidding), saying: “It really is one of those moments where we need to step back and say we’ve got to do this better, and we’ve got to change how we’re doing it. Because otherwise the industry is not going to survive. People don’t accept (racing fatalities) the way they did.”

Then: “It takes exactly one horse to change the narrative: Battle of Midway at Santa Anita, Eight Belles. People aren’t always watching, but when they are, it matters.”

“People don’t accept (racing fatalities) the way they did. People aren’t always watching, but when they are, it matters.” Imagine that. In an industry that churns out self-indicting statements regularly, this level of temerity may just be unsurpassed. One correction, though: People – the masses – didn’t know enough about the carnage to make a decision on “acceptability” or whether it “mattered.” This, attention on the kills, is a relatively recent phenomenon (my first Killed List was published in 2014).

But back to Peterson’s message to the industry:

Where was this sense of urgency, why did it not matter when 600 horses were dying at Santa Anita over the past decade, 150 on-track alone in just the past three years?

Where was this sense of urgency, why did it not matter when 2,000 horses were being killed across the country last year?

Where was this sense of urgency, why did it not matter as I documented death after death after death on this website (to date, over 5,000 confirmed)?

Where is this sense of urgency, why does it not matter as 12,000-15,000 “retired” Thoroughbreds are being shackled, hung, slashed, bled-out, and butchered at Canadian and Mexican abattoirs this and every year?

Short answer: Nowhere to be found because they, the industry, simply didn’t and don’t care – not about the horses. To them, those animals are simple assets, Horseracing a mere business. That business, their money, is now under siege. Hence, the urgency of which Mr. Peterson speaks. America, you’re being hoodwinked.

Saturday, the Houston Chronicle ran an article entitled, “At Sam Houston, only one horse fatality this meet.” The writer, Hal Lundgren, opened it thus: “Texas tracks have avoided the frightening number of horse fatalities that have darkened racing at Santa Anita in California.” Lundgren then went on to cite a statistic in support: “In 2018, the four horse tracks under Texas Racing Commission jurisdiction suffered a combined 20 horse fatalities.” Only one problem: He’s off – way off.

Just last month, I posted my Texas 2018 report. The numbers, which, of course, I received direct from the Racing Commission, went like this: 21 killed racing, 14 killed training, 6 died off-track. That’s 41 dead racehorses. I can only surmise – my emails and phone calls to the Chronicle went unanswered – that Mr. Lundgren decided to count only raceday kills (one horse, the Commission reported, was euthanized on May 22 for “race-related lameness” from a March 16 race, but was listed on the spreadsheet as “non-racing”; that’s a racing kill to me – hence, my 21 total). But to simply say his story is misleading does not go nearly far enough. (By the way, if indeed he did use just racing kills, comparing that to the 22 killed at Santa Anita, which includes both racing and training, is yet another deception, unwitting or not.)

Since I began my FOIA reporting in 2014, last year’s Texas total was that state’s highest yet. Yes, that’s right, not only was 2018 far worse than what Lundgren portrays, it was the worst, both in terms of on-track kills and total deaths:

2014: 27 dead racehorses – 24 on-track, 3 off
2015: 36 dead racehorses – 28 on-track, 8 off
2016: 32 dead racehorses – 28 on-track, 4 off
2017: 30 dead racehorses – 24 on-track, 6 off
2018: 41 dead racehorses – 35 on-track, 6 off

Look, I don’t know anything about Hal Lundgren. Perhaps he’s an old racing fan and was hoping to create a bit of positivity for an industry that so desperately needs it. Or perhaps his only offense is a lack of clarity, disseminating a woefully incomplete picture. Regardless, what matters here is setting the record straight: Texas Horseracing kills horses – and it’s not getting any better.

Back in December, the Daily Racing Form ran an article entitled “Symposium attendees hear strategies on avoiding dog racing’s fate.” It began thus: “One of the topics being discussed among racing officials over the past two days outside the conference rooms at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming is whether the recent popular vote in Florida to ban dog racing could happen to horse racing in one or more states soon. And many of those racing officials are now acknowledging openly that they are increasingly anxious that it could.”

Two years ago, this same symposium hosted a panel on how best to combat protesters at racetracks – a direct result of our success at Saratoga that summer. At the time, I wrote how sensibilities toward animal exploitation, especially regarding “entertainment,” are changing, and I mentioned Ringling elephants being “retired,” SeaWorld ending its captive-breeding of orcas, and the word “vegan” no longer sounding so alien. Since, more progress:

May 2017 – Ringling Bros. closes shop for good, ending 146 years of animal abuse

Aug 2017 – Illinois becomes first state to ban the use of elephants for entertainment

Oct 2017 – New York becomes the second

Mar 2019 – The city of Los Angeles stands ready to ban rodeos

And, as mentioned in the quote above, the November referendum vote in Florida that will end greyhound racing in that state by the end of next year. (Florida, a state that cannot seem to definitively agree on anything, passed this by over 2-1.) This one cannot be overstated. Florida is home to 11 of the final 17 dogtracks in the nation. When this ban is fully effected (some tracks have already closed, ahead of the deadline), greyhound racing in America will be in its death throes. Truly historic, and for that we owe the lion’s share of gratitude to Grey2K, a group we’ve long admired.

In addition: The National Aquarium will release all its remaining dolphins to a sanctuary by 2020; SeaWorld is still in decline; animal “actors” are ever-increasingly being replaced by CGI; and veganism grows annually – one study has the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan increasing some 600% between 2014 and 2017.

Economically, Floridians had grown weary of propping up the moribund dogracing industry with subsidies. And this, though maybe not to the exact same extent, is the horseracing story. Most of U.S. horseracing – including almost all of the harness variety – receives corporate welfare; I’m fully confident that once the public understands this, like Florida with dogracing, the tide will turn. In other words, that “increasing anxiety” within racing circles is well-founded.

But above all, this is a moral matter, and as the above clearly illustrates, those winds, as they are wont to do, are blowing in but one direction. How can horseracing “avoid dogracing’s fate”? Short answer: It can’t; it won’t. But it’s not enough to simply say that, to passively wait for the demographics to do their thing (horseracing is a middle-aged man’s “sport”; the younger generations, on the whole, eschew it), for horses are suffering and dying now; they need our action now.

In the spring of 1865, with Lee’s army and the Confederacy hanging by a thread, President Lincoln was not content to just wait it out. In a famous telegram to General Grant, he wrote: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”

Let the thing be pressed.