In an article posted on ESPN (“Of Diamonds and Ovals,” 2/15/14), professional handicapper Steve Davidowitz attempts, odiously, to bond his two favorite pastimes – baseball and horseracing. He can do this, apparently, because one, these sports began around the same time (19th Century), and two, a handful of former baseballers find the cerebral challenges of betting (breeding, owning, training) similar to those faced on the diamond, both requiring “focus” and “powers of observation.”

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By now it should be clear that many in and around racing are not necessarily callous, just delusional. They truly believe this stuff. Their sport is storied, their athletes exquisite. The racetrack, like the ballpark, has sights and sounds that recall a more innocent time, lazy afternoons spent with dear old Dad.

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But, Mr. Davidowitz, horseracing is no more sport than hunting. Every day, the movable property referred to as born-to-run, love-to-run athletes die on the playing field, after, that is, being trained to submit and whipped to perform. And most of the ones who don’t will end up in some Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouse, shackled by a hind leg, hoisted upside down, slashed, and bled-out. That is horseracing. Like baseball? Just a figment of your imagination. You’re just a gambler, betting on forced “competitions” between nonconsenting animals. Get over yourself.

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David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (owner of the prestigious Woodbine Racetrack), gave a 2001 speech on the then-state of Ontario Horseracing (which has since taken a significant turn for the worse). With uncommon candor, at least for horseracing, Willmot, a racing-executive legend, shatters horseracing’s greatest myth:

“During the first month that I was CEO, I had a meeting with about eight or ten of our biggest gamblers. During our discussion, I used the word ‘fan,’ and talked about our ‘fans.’ And one of these guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I am not a fan of anything that you or your rich friends do around here. And don’t call me a ‘patron’ either, because I’m not a patron. I am a gambler. …And you think the only reason we are here is to watch you, your friends, and your brown furry animals enjoy your elitist activity.'”

Mr. Willmot concedes: “The truth of the matter is, racing is a gambling business 99.8 percent of the time and a sport the other point-two percent. A $20,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon is not a sport.”

Still, there are holdouts who liken horseracing to pro football, a sport with a gambling component. But disregarding for a moment the conspicuous absence of whips, on-field kills, and ex-player abattoirs, 80,000 people do not flood a football stadium to follow office-pool picks. Simply put, the NFL’s success is explained by fandom while horseracing’s, such as it is, by $2 bets (and increasingly by corporate welfare). To the gambler who drives racing, the horse is inconsequential beyond that day’s program; any fleeting emotional bond is the same felt for a blackjack card.

So please spare us talk of ambiance, tradition, the beauty of equines in full stride, and competitive athletes honing their craft. People don’t go to the racetrack for any of that. Horseracing is no more sport than taking a quarter to a scratch-off. It is unadulterated gaming, nothing more, nothing less. Problem is, VLTs have no bones to shatter, roulette wheels no carotids to slash. Gambling in and of itself is not immoral. Gambling on the backs of suffering horses is.

“Death is delivered pink.” And so begins an ESPN The Magazine article (5/4/09) on the track veterinarian’s unenviable role as killer of the broken. Racing calls it euthanasia, of course, but that’s simply self-absolution. In any event, this is no indictment of the vets, for as long as they continue to hold races, someone must do the dirty work.

The article follows Lauren Canady, the vet at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, early in 2009. In the first race, Canady is summoned, like a medic to the battlefield, by the radio call “A horse is down!” 4-year-old Heelbolt’s ankle has snapped. It is a horrific injury, ankle “dangling and shattered, attached only by skin,” arteries split, and “blood everywhere.” As Canady pulls up, Heelbolt is still calm, the severe pain not yet arrived. On a 0-5 scale, this is a 5. Definite euthanasia.

The scene is set: “His eyes, once coldly fixed on the track, are teary and dilated. His breathing, once quick, has quickened even more. His coat, once shiny from the pumping of oil and sweat glands, has dulled.” The vet goes to work. Stroking “his neck to say good-bye,” she administers a mix of pentobarbital (for deep sleep) and succinylcholine (to shut down the heart and brain).

And then: “Heelbolt falls under the railing, landing shoulder first, his nose in the dirt. He blinks rapidly for 10 seconds or so until his eyes, once beautifully alert, are blank. As his fellow horses, having just finished the race, jog by, his life is measured in shallow breaths — until he is no longer breathing, until he is just 1,200 pounds of expired muscle, his bloody, shattered leg hooked on a railing. It’s hard to know what a peaceful death looks like, but this isn’t it.”

Horses are not, as the author declares, “born to compete,” and heartbreaking stories like Heelbolt’s should not be found on the pages of ESPN. For all our moral posturing, especially concerning animals, passive acceptance of this quote from the article proves that some of our sensibilities remain frozen in antiquity: “…and we’re reminded that one of our country’s oldest sports is one in which the athletes sometimes die during competition.” Deaths on the playing field? Is this 2012 America or 112 Rome? I half expect Rod Serling to appear.

Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” sprinter who became a media darling at the London Olympics for competing without legs, ran a race last December against an Arabian horse in Qatar, ostensibly to raise disabilities awareness. A sorry spectacle, sure, but noteworthy here because of the merciless flogging administered to Pistorius’ equine adversary. In a 100-meter race that took about 11 seconds to run, the horse was struck at least 20 times, roughly 2 lashes per second. Imagine that.


Pistorius, of course, claims to have been unaware of the excessive beating going on behind him, a beating that would qualify as criminal had it occurred in NY. In one way, however, this video is a gift: Side-by-side, stride-for-stride, two supremely conditioned beings “compete.” One, an autonomous and self-driven embodiment of human athleticism, runs free and easy to the finish line. The other, a half-ton piece of movable property, is set (and kept) in motion by a whip. Here, in but 11 seconds, the idiocy in calling horseracing sport and the racehorse athlete is laid bare for all to see.