I recently came upon a 2007 article on the role of “On Call” vets at big Racing events – there as a liaison to the media, to communicate and explain injuries to horses during races. As this was published by dvm360, a vet magazine, the article was mostly about that profession and the standards they supposedly aspire to. But a couple of quotes from Dr. Larry Bramlage, the “On Call” vet present when George Washington broke down and was euthanized at the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic, caught my eye.

The magazine led in with this: “Desensitizing the public to the injury was one of Bramlage’s and McIlwraith’s objectives in describing to reporters what was taking place.” Then Bramlage:

“If you give them the information and the prognosis, they don’t leave the telecast with those vivid pictures as they did at the 1990 Breeders’ Cup where there was no one officially to talk about the injuries or the horses. All they could do was show the pictures over and over…”

“Our whole job is to have people leave the telecast remembering it for the races, not the injuries. I think we accomplished that. The right information puts people’s minds at ease and sometimes even if the news is bad, they can feel bad but don’t continue to agonize over it.”

Imagine that. One of the vet’s primary objectives – or, even, “whole job” – is to “desensitize the public” after a horse is killed; to make sure “[fans] don’t leave the telecast with those vivid pictures”; “to have people remembering the races, not the injuries”; to “put people’s minds at ease.” No “agonizing” over dead horses here.

What a twisted, sordid state of affairs. Veterinarians, men and women whose actions are supposed to be wholly informed by care and compassion for their voiceless, vulnerable patients, are, by “desensitizing the public,” actively aiding and abetting an industry that maims and destroys said patients as a matter of course; by glossing the ugliness, they are helping to guarantee that Racing’s (inherent) abuse and cruelty continues ad infinitum. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised, for this is the American Veterinary Medical Association’s first principle on animal welfare:

“The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.”

Exploit away. For shame.

Statements from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS):

“We’re not against racing. We want it done well and humanely…while PETA may be an anti-racing organization [it’s not], HSUS isn’t.” – former president and CEO Wayne Pacelle

“This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports…we need national standards…” – Pacelle

“Two weeks ago, the racing industry celebrated its latest Triple Crown winner, and it’s now enjoying the increased enthusiasm a new superstar brings to the sport. But all of that enthusiasm and support will be difficult to sustain if the industry fails to consider the welfare of the equine athletes at the heart of this sport.” – current president and CEO, Kitty Block

“First, I want to clarify the Humane Society of the United States’ position on horse racing and our interest in this legislation. We are not, in principle, opposing horse racing.” – Block

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs imperils an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Block

“The lack of strong and consistent national oversight of this industry…decreases vital public support for the industry. The Horseracing Integrity Act would address the pervasive drug use in the industry, and – as its name suggests – begin to restore some integrity to horseracing, helping…the business.” – Block

“This change in policy is urgently needed because the administering of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair to just about everyone involved in racing, [including] the fans who wager on the outcome of races…” – Block

“Racehorses are incredible athletes.” – Marty Irby, senior adviser, in a recently-released Facebook video

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs is KILLING [his voice inflection in the video] an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Irby

“Horseracing is a $40 billion a year industry that fuels our economy. Without reform…support from fans will waver.” – Irby

I once called the HSUS’ position on racehorses criminal. It is. But in retrospect, I think that too kind. Horseracing is, by any and all definitions, animal exploitation. Absolutely, positively, unequivocally. Exploitation necessarily involves suffering of some kind. Exploitation, then, must be called abusive. Animal exploitation, then, is animal cruelty. There is no wiggling out of this.

Far worse than the HSUS simply remaining mum on this issue, the self-styled “leading animal advocacy organization” in America is actively trying to help Horseracing survive – indeed to help it thrive. The logic, then, becomes irrepressible: The Humane Society of the United States endorses, at least in this one area, animal exploitation; The Humane Society of the United States countenances, at least in this one area, animal cruelty. Here, a refresher on what that cruelty looks like – cruelty, I remind, that is inherent to horseracing, meaning it could never be eliminated. (note: I will omit the nonconsensual drugging/doping, the HSUS’ virtually singular obsession.)

Commodification: Racehorses are literal chattel, pieces of property to be bought, sold, traded, and dumped whenever and however their owners decide.

Subjugation: “Horsemen” utterly control every moment of their assets’ lives – control effected through, among other things, lip tattoos, nose chains, metal mouth-bits, and leather whips. Force and power; domination of a weaker species.

Confinement and Isolation: In perhaps the worst of it all, racehorses are locked in tiny stalls for over 23 hours a day, making a mockery of the industry claim that horses are born to run, love to run. Adding to this cruelty is the complete isolation of naturally social, herd-oriented animals. In a word, heartrending.

Killing: While the HSUS claims that curtailing and controlling drug use will reduce deaths, the simple truth is that some horses will always die, even if all drugs were ruled out completely (see dead horses in “cleaner” Britain/Australia; see 18-month-old trainees breaking down before ever being injected with raceday meds).

Slaughter: Ignore their hollow “zero-tolerance” policies. Fact is, the vast majority of horses bred to race end up bled-out and butchered. It’s a business, and everyone is trying to find the next Justify; “responsible breeding” does not, will never, exist. Consequently, there are simply way too many has-beens or never-were competing for the available “safe landings.” If in doubt, talk to your local rescues and query them on funding and space. On this, PETA also warrants rebuke for its new feel-good program whereby winning bettors can donate to Thoroughbred retirement. First, it can’t even begin to make a dent. Worse, with this, PETA, too, is now helping Racing rehabilitate its image, thus helping it to become more firmly entrenched in our society.

As previously covered, the HSUS stands against all animal-entertainment – the circus, the marine park, the rodeo, bullfighting, “acting,” and, yes, dogracing – all of it except for horseracing. There can be but one explanation for this: Somewhere within the highest echelons of the HSUS (directors, donors) there are Racing enthusiasts who have co-opted and corrupted this organization. By actively promoting horseracing, the HSUS is abetting the condemnation of countless future generations of horses to lives of crushing negation, terrifying breaks and deaths on the track, and brutal, violent ends in the slaughterhouse. In short, the HSUS is a sham and undeserving of even a dime from anyone who considers him-herself a friend to animals.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of racehorse deaths and injuries to zero, and we have taken many productive steps toward reaching that goal over the past four years.” – NYS Equine Medical Director Scott Palmer, VMD

Midway through Saratoga’s nightmare of a meet (21 dead horses) last summer, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) issued the latest in what seems a never-ending stream of we’ve-got-this-killing-thing-under-control statements. The first thing that jumped out with this one was the length – there were lots of words (over 2,200); the second, related to the first, the almost risible redundancy, with multiple people being quoted saying basically the same thing – “equine safety” is our top priority – and the same “measures” repeated over and over again. (Never mind that these are the same measures that, in one form or another, have been talked about for years.)

“increased veterinary presence during training hours”
“state-of-the-art monitoring of horses”
“the strictest equine medication rules in North America”
“comprehensive trainer education”
“extensive and continuous testing of racing and training surfaces”

Leaving aside for a moment Racing’s many other wrongs – the commodification, the intensive confinement and isolation, the drugging, doping, and whipping, slaughter – what this statement amounted to was nothing less than a master’s course in manipulative marketing (a.k.a. propaganda). Supported by a stable of polished professionals – vets, lawyers, PhD’s – it read as exhaustive, meticulous, scientific:

“[Dr. Mick Peterson’s] tests include the use of ground penetrating radar that looks at cushion depth, moisture, and composition of racing surfaces, immediately identifying any variations outside pre-determined criteria. His team also performs physical samples of the soil using triaxial sheer testing to maintain target clay, silt and sand ratios on the main track. Additionally, Dr. Peterson inspects the overall performance and consistency using the Biomechanical Surface Tester, which replicates loads and speed of a thoroughbred’s leading forelimb at gallop. This test looks closely at vertical and horizontal load on the hoof during impact with the surface.”

“ground penetrating radar…triaxial sheer testing…Biomechanical Surface Tester”

How are the uninitiated, which is to say the vast majority of people out there, to come away with anything but the distinct impression that Racing is all over this, leaving no stone unturned in an almost single-minded pursuit of equine well-being. (Saratoga, by the way, has averaged 14 dead horses a summer since the Commission began disclosing such things in 2009. Which of course raises the question, where was this zeal back in 2010? Answer: They weren’t getting hammered with bad press then.)

But facts, as the great John Adams once said, are stubborn things. So, let’s direct our attention to a few. Follows are the Gaming Commission death totals for NYRA’s three tracks – Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga – for 2013, when the much-ballyhooed “Task Force” implemented many of its supposed improvements, and 2017:

2013 – Aqueduct, 23 dead; Belmont, 38 dead; Saratoga, 9 dead; total, 70 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 17 dead; Belmont, 40 dead; Saratoga, 21 dead; total, 78 dead

That’s an 11% increase in horses dying at NYRA racetracks from 2013 to 2017.

Okay, they’ll say, but those totals include deaths from “non-racing” causes (e.g., colic, laminitis). (By dubbing them so, the industry is effectively saying, “that’s not on us”; morally, however, the how matters not a whit – a dead racehorse is a dead racehorse.)

On-track – racing or training – only, then:
2013 – Aqueduct, 21 dead; Belmont, 32 dead; Saratoga, 9 dead; total, 62 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 14 dead; Belmont, 29 dead; Saratoga, 19 dead; total, 62 dead

No change.

Increasingly desperate, I can then imagine them asking for racing totals only. Okay:
2013 – Aqueduct, 14 dead; Belmont, 6 dead; Saratoga, 5 dead; total, 25 dead
2017 – Aqueduct, 12 dead; Belmont, 10 dead; Saratoga, 8 dead; total, 30 dead

A 20% – yes, 20% – increase. Fancy that. But in the press release, NYRA’s Hugh Gallagher says this: “As a result of these reforms, the number of catastrophic injuries during races occurring on NYRA tracks has been reduced by nearly 50 percent since 2013.” So what gives? Is Mr. Gallagher simply making stuff up? No, nothing as nefarious as that, but they are, as is their wont, dissembling and deceiving. For you see, “catastrophic,” to NYRA, means “musculoskeletal breakdowns” – broken legs, ruptured ligaments – only. In other words, imploded hearts (“sudden cardiac events,” they call them), broken necks, head traumas, and pulmonary hemorrhages need not apply. Imagine the audacity of these people.

But it’s even worse. In 2013, the three NYRA tracks had 247 days of live racing; 2017, 234. That’s a 5% decrease in racedays. Deaths up, number of races down. To be clear, though, I’m not arguing that things are getting worse; only that despite what NYRA and the Jockey Club – an industry group with a vested interest in good news and whose celebrated database I have already debunked – say, they’re not getting better. Since I began documenting in 2014, my annual kill lists have remained remarkably consistent. In fact, though not by a significant margin, the 2017 toll is the highest I’ve yet recorded; for all NY tracks, the ’13 and ’17 totals are almost exactly the same: 122, 121. These are hard facts. Please don’t get distracted by their pony and pony show.

As I have previously written, the simple truth is that the maiming and destruction of racehorses is inherent to the industry. Death at the track is, always has been, and always will be an inevitable part of racing. There is nothing they can do to stop the carnage. Nothing. At least not in any meaningful way. And what’s more, they know it. Now, go back and re-read Dr. Palmer’s quote at the top of this post and try to imagine the gargantuan effort it must have taken to utter those words with a straight face.

Other posts on NYRA subterfuge:

“NYRA Can’t Stop the Killing”
“Spinning the Carnage, the NYRA Way”
“The Truth: Saratoga Can’t Stop the Killing”

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, John Cherwa, author of that paper’s “Racing!” newsletter, wrote this on the death of Magic Mark at Los Alamitos Wednesday:

“No doubt, this is the part of the sport that is most difficult to stomach. It takes a bit of your soul every time it happens, be in [sic] it in a race, during training or back at the barns. It happens at a rate that no one finds acceptable.”

First, Mr. Cherwa, your “sport” is no such thing; it is but exploitation of a weaker species for nothing more than $2 bets. It is mean and cruel, and as you allude to, regularly deadly: Through my seminal FOIA reporting, I estimate that upward of 2,000 horses are killed racing or training on U.S. tracks annually, and this says nothing of the multiple thousands more who are brutally and violently slaughtered as part of Racing’s one-of-a-kind “retirement” program. (By the way, Mr. Cherwa, you also say, “We don’t write about every horse death, not that we aren’t constantly told by the anti-racing folks that we should.” As a matter of practicality, you couldn’t write about every dead racehorse, for if you did you’d have no space for anything else.)

Second, as a longtime fan you must know that the killing is built-in – an inevitable part of what they do. So please spare us the hollow handwringing (“difficult to stomach, takes a bit of your soul every time”), for if you support this industry in any way – be it through bets, attendance, racino plays, or, like you, marketing and promotion – you support the abuse and killing. If, and this goes for the whole “prayers and condolences” crowd too, you help make it (death and destruction) possible, you’re not allowed to cry about it after the fact. In the end, it’s as simple as this: You can love horses. You can love horseracing. But you can’t love both.

Horseracing-as-sport is an obscenity of the highest order. There are, of course, many reasons why, but perhaps the three most obvious are these: First, the athletes in question are utterly unaware of their status as such – worse, they are in fact pieces of chattel, animal slaves. Second, participation in said sport is compelled by whip-wielding human beings. Third, and most telling of all, death on the field of play.

That horseracing kills horses is settled fact. But what most of the public doesn’t know is the magnitude of that killing, nor in how it relates to other accepted sports. We estimate that roughly 1,000 racehorses are killed on “game day” (just racing, not including training) each year. In comparison, here are the game-related death totals for the four major U.S. professional sports leagues over their entire histories:

Major League Baseball, founded 1903, 116 seasons – one death (Ray Chapman)
National Hockey League, founded 1917-18, 101 seasons – one death (Bill Masterton)
National Football League, founded 1920, 98 seasons – one death (Chuck Hughes)
National Basketball Association, founded 1946-47, 72 seasons – zero deaths

In other words, horseracing kills about as many in one day as the other four have in their collective 387 years. A sport? America, you’ve been hoodwinked.