The fragmented nature of America’s racing industry has been criticized by the head of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who says reform is urgently needed.
Its president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, was commenting following the loss of two horses in the first four races on the card in Maryland last Saturday ahead of the running of the second leg of US racing’s Triple Crown series.
Hours before the running of the 141st Preakness Stakes, the winner of the first race, Homeboykris, was being taken back to his barn after having his picture taken in the winner’s circle when he collapsed and died.
In the fourth race, Pramedya, a four-year-old filly, fractured her nearside cannon bone on the final turn for home on the turf course.
Pacelle, writing in his blog, A Humane Nation, said it did not appear that doping contributed to the deaths.
“Roy and Gretchen Jackson owned Pramedya, and they are both strong believers in not using performance-enhancing drugs on their horses.
“The horse who likely suffered a heart attack, Homeboykris, was the victim of a rare occurrence among racehorses, and the owner and trainer have offered to make public the medical records, showing a level of transparency that I applaud.
“But both cases remind us of the fragility of these animals, and how there are inherent risks in the enterprise of racing,” he said.
“The risk is compounded when the horses are doped up, raced too young, and bred for champagne-glass legs (valuing speed rather than durability) — all of which make them more susceptible to breakdowns on the track.
“These incidents happened to two horses who weren’t being doped, and they’re unfortunately an anomaly in that way – doping is widespread in the racing industry, and there is no national regulatory authority for racing.”
Doping, he said, was typically used on race-day to enhance the horses’ performance or to mask injuries and to get unsound horses on the track.
“Right now, regulation of this industry is balkanized, with each of 38 racing jurisdictions having its own set of rules. They allow different medications, varying levels of permissible medications, different penalties for violations, different rules on which horses are tested for drugs, and different laboratories to do the testing.
“Without one single regulating body, racehorse owners and trainers who are barred from racing in one jurisdiction can simply move their business elsewhere.
“This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports – perhaps more so, since the equine athletes cannot speak up for themselves – we need national standards to prevent unethical trainers and veterinarians from doping horses to improve their chances of winning.
“With so many tracks owned by major casinos, there are now very high purses for the owners of winning horses. That results in many owners and trainers gambling it all on their horses – by putting injured horses on the track in order to recoup their investment in the animal on the off-chance that the horse may win.
“At dozens of lower-tier tracks in the United States, horses are racing too frequently, racing with drugs in their system, and being put at risk by people who care more about profits than the horses or the jockeys.”
Pacelle noted that many leaders within the industry, including the Jacksons and The US Jockey Club, were coming together to find a common set of reforms they can rally around and convince Congress to embrace.
The HSUS has joined the Coalition for Horseracing Integrity in order to push that discussion forward. The coalition is lobbying for federal legislation that would establish a uniform set of rules, testing procedures, and penalties, to be administered by an agency set up under the umbrella of the US Anti-Doping Agency.
“Such legislation is crucial to protect the animals and jockeys in an industry that has proven it cannot and will not regulate itself,” Pacelle said.
“We should not need breakdowns and horse deaths to trigger reform. We have plenty of information now to take action.
“For this sport to retain credibility with the American public, and not be viewed as allowing a free-for-all when it comes to safety and humane treatment standards, Congress needs to act before it finishes work this year.”