As the mortality of thoroughbreds at Santa Anita attracts national attention, some animal rights activists — though not all — are pushing for the abolition of horse racing in California.
Several dozen demonstators gathered outside a track entrance Monday, following the weekend death of Kochees, a nine year old gelding that became the 26th thoroughbred to die this season after being injured in training or racing.
Some protesters assert that even if injuries were eliminated, compelling horses to race is “speciesism” and “inhumane,” and expressed hope a measure could be qualified to be placed on a California ballot next year.
“We should not be using animals for entertainment,” said Heather Wilson, one of the protest organizers, who sees a model in Florida’s action last year to outlaw greyhound racing.
Others see need for staying focused on reducing the leg fractures that in many cases become death sentences for thoroughbreds.
The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita and other prominent racing venues, has become a powerful voice pushing for reform, including greater veterinary oversight, tighter limits on equine medications such as Lasix, and banning the use of the whip in most cases.
“We think horse racing is at a precipice,” said a spokesman, Stefan Friedman. “We need to make some wholesale changes in this industry.”
Stronach has had a perhaps unexpected partner and ally in PETA–People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA does anticipate a future when horse racing will no long occur, but in the meantime is focused on actions that will make it safer for thoroughbreds.
But after the death of Kochees, PETA issued a statement calling for an immediate suspension of racing throughout California until rules are “strengthened,” and the investigation launched by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office is completed.
“Nothing short of a zero-fatality rate is acceptable,” said Kathy Guillermo, PETA Senior Vice President.
Friedman spoke appreciatively of Stronach’s “cooperative relationship” with Peta, but rejected the call for a suspension.
“We believe reforms are working,” Friedman said. He noted that after an initial round of changes was made, when the track reopened at the end of March, Santa Anita went seven weeks without a catastrophic injury. But then there were three over a nine day period.
“Obviously, we had a setback,” Friedman said. He emphasized Santa Anita’s committment to insuring adherence to tightened rules, including those requiring horses to be cleared to run by both the attending veterinarian and the track veterinarian, and he warned there would be consequences for violations.
Catatrophic leg injuries are not a new problem in thoroughbred racing, and in fact had long seemed intractable. Earlier this decade, thoroughred deaths following injuries came under examination at tracks in the state of New York.
Scrutiny focused on Santa Anita in February when one of the sport’s equine stars, Breeders’ Cup winner Battle of Midway, was one of two horses that broke down within minutues during morning workouts, and both were euthanized.
The crisis adds to the burdens on a sport long grappling with other challenges. Attendance has been on a decades-long downward trend since horse racing lost its position in California and other states as the only legal option for gambling. Thoroughbred breeding has also declined, and once iconic venues such as Inglewood’s Hollywood Park have given way to more lucrative visions for the expansive property that racing requires.
It’s been nearly a century since thoroughbred racing became a major sport in California almost overnight. In the depths of the Great Drepression, in 1933, voters approved a ballot measure, Proposition 5, that legalized parimutual wagering on horse racing. Santa Anita opened Christmas Day, 1934, soon to be followed by Del Mar and Hollywood Park.
Those who now seek to abolish the sport envision another ballot measure, either qualified by initiative, or placed on the ballot by the legislature. Wilson said four lawmakers have shown interest in introducing such a measure, but declined to identify them.
PETA’s Guillermo is among those who believe that even without a change in the law, horse racing’s days in California are numbered.
“If the current trend continues, horse racing will go away by itself,” Guillermo said. “It’s incumbent on the industry right now to do what they can to spare these horses in the time that the industry has left.”
Friedman expressed optimism that with the right reforms, horse racing can remain viable. “We at The Stronach Group are committed to get this right.”