US Thoroughbred racing at a critical crossroads, review concludes

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The start of the 2008 Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita.
The start of the 2008 Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita. © Jlvsclrk / via Wikipedia CC BY-SA

The spike in fatalities at California’s Santa Anita racetrack, where more than 30 racehorses experienced life-ending catastrophic injuries in less than 6 months, shows the fragility of horse racing’s social license to operate, according to researchers.

A social license to operate is the public or broad “social” acceptance which grants permission, or a “license”, to an organization to undertake its activity.

In their recently published review, researchers examined Thoroughbred racehorse welfare through the lens of its social license to operate, focusing on the US perspective.

Camie Heleski and her colleagues, writing in the journal Sustainability, explored whether Thoroughbred horse racing is sustainable in the context of current social values.

They note that multiple surveys of the general public, the horse-owning public, and university students show common elements of concern around Thoroughbred racing.

These include concerns about catastrophic injuries, particularly relating to track surfaces; concern over the racing of two-year-olds; whip use by jockeys; drug and medication policies; and aftercare opportunities for retired Thoroughbreds.

“Legitimacy of an industry, consent from industry stakeholders, and trust between the community players, are all essential to have and maintain a social license to operate,” the review team said.

They note that a dramatic change has occurred in commentary related to racehorse welfare concerns in the modern era. This has been due to 24/7 global media access and the proliferation of social media platforms that provide an interactive medium for all interested parties.

“As with many issues, perception is often equated with reality, and horse racing’s tenuous social license to operate should, perhaps, be seen as the new normal.

“Even for those not using the terminology of ‘social license to operate’, it is clear the industry needs to pay attention to its importance and determine the best way to maintain it and foster it.”

They say that scientific research will continue to play a role in resolving racing’s issues.

“Scientific research can also inform the industry’s progress on rebuilding/maintaining its social license to operate.

“Finally, where science shows the industry can do better, it must; where science shows that the industry is doing the right thing, better communication is needed.

“This includes a concerted effort to share information in a way and through a platform that casual fans can access and understand.”

The authors suggest that 2019 will likely go down in history as a “tipping point” in the world of horse racing.

On fatal injuries, the authors said: “While these numbers may be seen by some as ‘the price of doing business’ in a highly demanding, highly athletic equine sport, others recognize that the industry needs to strive harder to achieve as close to zero catastrophic breakdowns as possible.”

They said the racing industry had struggled in 2019 to come together to present a unified front during a time of increased public scrutiny.

“However, it is notable that attempts at accountability and transparency have been enhanced beyond previous years.

“Though many relevant stakeholder groups may not be using the term ‘social license to operate,’ it appears obvious this concept is in their thought paradigms and their actions.

“In March of 2019, The Jockey Club prepared their Vision 2025 document titled, To Prosper, Horse Racing Needs Comprehensive Reform.

Two notable matters were raised: the advancement of the Horseracing Integrity Act, which sets out to establish a uniform, national standard to prohibit doping under the umbrella of an independent body; and the establishment of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition, which has proposed to combine the resolve, expertise and resources to collectively implement enhanced safety measures.

“Representing over 84% of the American graded stakes races, prominent race tracks and racing groups across North America have come together in this coalition endeavor.

“Though still contentious, there is a substantial amount of support for a national governing body and the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019.

“Furthermore, there is considerable support to move the reforms that California racing made during 2019 to many of the other tracks in North America.”

Horse racing in North America is at a critical crossroads, according to the authors.

“Stakeholders have their work cut out for them to maintain sustainability of this longstanding equine sport.

“As one industry participant says, ‘This is not the time to be patting ourselves on the back. It is the time to take stock, admit we have a problem, adopt zero tolerance towards anything, anything that can impact safety in any way’.”

The full review team comprised Heleski, Jill Stowe, Julie Fiedler, Michael Peterson, Colleen Brady,
Carissa Wickens and James MacLeod, variously affiliated with the University of Kentucky, Central Queensland University in Australia, Purdue University in Indiana, and the University of Florida.

Heleski, C.; Stowe, C.J.; Fiedler, J.; Peterson, M.L.; Brady, C.; Wickens, C.; MacLeod, J.N. Thoroughbred Racehorse Welfare through the Lens of ‘Social License to Operate—With an Emphasis on a U.S. Perspective. Sustainability 2020, 12, 1706.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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