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I am an unrepentant fan of horse-racing

In defense of the sport we love

by Seth Merrow

Racing is under attack -- and, perhaps most alarmingly, some of the strongest critics have been either those in the industry or those covering the industry. The firestorm was ignited by the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby and it has continued unabated for just about two months.

It might be time to put things in perspective. To pull back and take a deep breath.

It should be noted that the industry bears some responsibility for the current situation of unrest because it has been slow to react to problems -- both real and perceived -- for so long that it seems safe to assume that some see this moment under the microscope as the perfect chance to pile on and force change. But, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for...

I'd like to take a closer look at some of the issues that have proven to be flashpoints over the past few weeks and offer perhaps a different take.

First, let me reiterate my own feelings that I would like to see the industry go back to hays-oats-and-water, but, I would also like those in the industry with opposing views to have their say so that we can determine what might be the unintended consequences of such a move and decide if we are willing to accept them.

That said, let's look at the issues in the spotlight:

Abolish horse-racing Clearly the underlying premise behind the criticisms of PETA and their ilk is that horse-racing is abusive and the equine athletes would be better off without the sport.

The question then becomes: What is the alternative? And is it better, safer, kinder to the horse?

Even PETA, on their horse-racing "factsheet", doesn't offer up any alternative lifestyles that they would consider preferable.

So let's look at the two most logical choices that "animal rights" proponents might prefer: Running wild. Or, human care off the racetrack.

Horses on the racetrack are sheltered from the elements and predators. Fed and watered regularly. And given medical care for injuries and illnesses. Wild horses have none of those luxuries.

I certainly don't claim to be an expert on wild horses but this study on a herd of wild horses in New Zealand offers some interesting insights and claims that this group shares "many features with other feral horse populations around the world."

While the population of this herd grew during the study the foal-to-yearling mortality rate was estimated to be 50%. In other words, one of every two horses born didn't make it to one-year of age.

And while the study listed adult survival rates as "high", it was interesting to note that adult mortality was calculated partly by studying skeletons -- most of which were estimated to be from horses between four and six years of age.

It would seem then that Mother Nature is not necessarily a kinder taskmaster than life on the racetrack.

The other alternative to life on the racetrack is life on the farm, in the backyard, or in a stable of some kind. Under human care -- but away from the trials and tribulations of the racetrack.

People might imagine this translates to an eternally lush, sun-drenched meadow with a cool stream running through it. Of course the reality is that, while some might actually wind up in that near-idyllic meadow surrounded by pristine white fencing, many horses live in someone's backyard, trotting on bare dirt, surrounded by a chain-link fence and drinking from a tub that hasn't been freshened in a couple of days.

Check out the Animal Cops program on the Animal Planet cable network. It seems like every episode features at least one abused, malnourished horse found in someone's barn.

Recently there was a story in the NY Post that reiterated the plight of some fifty-eight retired NYPD horses that were found malnourished at a farm in 2005.

Like the Mother Nature scenario, the human-care choice is not necessarily a kind alternative.

The upshot is: Wherever horses end up, some will live very well, some will live very poorly [and we should do what we reasonably can to change that], and most will live comfortably and adequately -- and that includes the racetrack.

Horses have no choice I have a friend who has two border collies. Border collies were bred to herd sheep. There are no sheep in my friend's backyard, so the dogs will try to "herd" whatever is available: Kids, squirrels, a pile of wood. They were bred to do it and they enjoy it.

Thoroughbred racehorses were bred to run. Some argue that running, as in a field, and racing are not necessarily the same. But if you watch races long enough you're certain to see a horse stumble slightly at the start and the jockey will tumble off. The horse is then able to right itself and will continue to run with the pack to the finish line. Sometimes these jockeyless runners even "win"! Clearly there is no human coercion involved. The horse could stop, or slow down, at any point.

Let's anthropomorphize for a moment using the information from that wild horse study: Imagine that you are the soul of a horse and the horse-god is addressing you on the eve of your conception -- giving you the option of living as a racehorse with all the benefits [shelter, food, medical care] and risks that go with that, or living in that wild herd, with the 50% chance of not reaching your first birthday, and then a good shot at not living beyond five- or six-years-old. Which would you choose? I'm not sure that decision is as cut-and-dried as many of the horses can't choose camp would have you believe.

Finally on the horses have no choice issue. I often wonder how the people who feel it's abusive to put an innocent life, with no say in the matter, in a situation that has some inherent risk of injury, or perhaps even death -- I wonder how many of those people don't think twice about strapping an infant or toddler in the backseat of the car and heading down the highway?

Drugs = abuse PETA's "factsheet" refers to racehorses as "junkies". And some pundits and critics have, at the very least, implied that racetrack medications are akin to abuse.

Certainly drugs can be mis-used and horses abused by that -- but it doesn't serve any purpose to label horses junkies and imply that the use of drugs is abuse when these medicines do have legitimate theraputic uses.

Two recent high-profile med positive cases involved Clenbuterol [which aids breathing] and Lidocaine [a local anaesthetic]. Not commenting on the particular cases involved, but instead just concentrating on the two drugs: Is it abuse if someone gives their child asthma medicine, or allows the dentist to inject novocaine?

Drugs = cheating This follows from the issue directly above -- many fans, critics, and pundits automatically equate a med positive with cheating and every positive as a stain on the good name of the game.

But if these drugs have legitimate theraputic uses then cheating is not simply in the act of giving the drugs -- it's in the intent. The problem is: The rules are based on maximum thresholds -- not intent.

Since determining intent is such a tenuous process perhaps maximum thresholds are the most logical deterrent. But that system requires that we recognize that not all med positives are indications of cheating.

If a horse gets a local anesthetic for a minor medical procedure and then races before minute amounts of the drug have cleared its system: Was the intent to make the horse comfortable, or to gain an unfair advantage on the racetrack?

Labeling all drug positives as "cheating" simply isn't accurate and portrays the sport in a negative light that isn't deserved.

Don't just say, "It's part of the game." The unfortunate Eight Belles fatality brought about a spate of a pundits trying to seem clever and concerned by offering up that old chestnut, "They can't just say 'It's part of the game' anymore, it's time to act!"

But who was just saying that? Really, find me one serious and respected member of the racing industry who reacted to Eight Belles with a simple shoulder-shrug and a, "It's part of the game," and felt that was that.

The fact is, breakdowns are part of the game -- and it's intellectually dishonest not to say so. But everyone who acknowledges that also recognizes that the game has to do everything in its power to improve racetrack safety.

Maybe thirty years ago, "Don't just say, 'It's just part of the game,'" had some resonance. Today it's a trite response in what looks like an attempt to seem more concerned. Plus, it ignores the action the industry has taken over the past few years, namely: Tens of millions of dollars spent installing synthetic surfaces; the formation and work of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium; the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit; the research supported by the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation; etc.

Horse slaughter Linking the horse slaughter issue to the recent criticisms of horse-racing seems like a red herring. Racing and slaughter are not inextricably linked. Racing does not exist to -- nor was it ever meant to -- serve as a pipeline to the slaughter house.

Yes, racehorses do end up in slaughter houses. But it's vital to be clear that racehorses make up a small number of the horses being slaughtered. Even PETA's own horse-racing "factsheet" states, "One Colorado State University study found that of 1,348 horses sent to slaughter, 58 were known to be former racehorses." Clearly, ending horse-racing, or just ending the slaughter of racehorses, will not mean the end of the slaughter industry.

If folks want to end horse slaughter, fine. But linking it in an effort to stain horse-racing seems disingenuous.

The whip The idea of abolishing the whip got some air-play during the Triple Crown telecast season. I think it's hard to argue though that such a drastic move should be made without a lot of debate and discussion. Maybe that discussion is worth having -- but most troubling about the topic getting attention recently was the timing.

After the demise of Eight Belles a PETA spokesperson hypothesized that perhaps the fatality was due to "the fact that they’re allowed to whip the horses mercilessly."

Certainly any reasonable follower of horse-racing would strongly dispute that notion -- but when pundits discuss banning the whip just days after the PETA statement it can only serve to muddy the waters for an audience that, during the Triple Crown season, includes neophytes who will link the PETA claim with the TV commentators' wish to arrive at an ugly misconception about the sport.

And the ban-the-whip discussion is often preceded by remarking that the uninitiated have a bad perception of whipping. Well, if it's truly a case of perception, then banning the whip is the weakest of solutions. Instead the industry and the racing media should address and correct the perception.

Two-year-old sales... Breaking through the starting gate... Running back on short notice A few topics have seemed to get the "while we're at it" treatment -- being offered up as problems that should be addressed if racing is going to examine itself. These are three that have been mentioned by fans and/or columnists over the past two months [the last, running back on short notice, getting traction over the weekend when a Dutrow horse broke down after coming back on two days rest].

All three have a common link for me -- they all seem bad in certain cases, but the interesting thing is: If someone took the time to separate the anecdotal from the empirical, there would be no debate.

For instance, sure those blazingly fast 2YO-in-training sales workouts seem as though they could be detrimental to young horses. But are they? Do fast workers end up being more susceptible to injury? Are they able to race less often? Are they retired earlier?

Some months back I received a "study" that listed fast workers from the Barretts 2YO sales for the past two or three seasons. The list showed the auction price and compared it to the price the horse eventually earned. Most horses did not earn back their purchase price. The implication was that the fast works were detrimental.

But the "study" was presented in a vacuum. How did these fast workers and their subsequent careers and earnings compare to horses that hadn't been fast-working 2YO sales graduates? While the list showed many not earning their purchase price it also included a dozen or so "home-runs", horses that earned high six- or even seven-figures. Given the total number of horses on the list, that seemed like a pretty good percentage.

Without context it's hard to really know if 2YO-in-training sales workouts are a bad thing.

Similarly a columnist recently suggested scratching all horses that break through the gate before a race. This idea received attention immediately following Barbaro's Preakness. The argument is typically that "most horses that break through the gate prior to a race don't win."

Great -- but think about it for a minute... Most horses that stand in the gate comfortably and don't break through also don't win! Most horses -- period -- don't win!

I wonder how the connections of Fio Rito might feel about a rule change scratching a horse that breaks through? For folks that don't remember, Fio Rito, a star at Finger Lakes, won the 1981 G1 Whitney at Saratoga -- after breaking through the gate. Watch enough races and you see it happen, horses win, and/or run well, after breaking through.

And internet fan forums were aflame this weekend after the Dutrow horse broke down in a race where he was coming back on just two days' rest. Irate fans called for some minimum number of days off -- citing the short layoff as a certain cause of the horse's problem.

But, all three of these issues could be laid to rest -- one way or the other -- simply with some math and research. All of these issues have definitive numbers attached to them that would show if they actually are a problem, or just seem like a problem. How do the careers of 2YO fast workers compare to the careers of horses that didn't blaze a quick 2YO auction workout? Do horses that break through the gate perform worse than odds as compared to the horses that don't break through? Is a short layoff likely to produce a poor performance or cause injury at a rate significantly higher than a longer layoff?

If some of these things are really detrimental to the horse, let's change them. But let's not do it simply because they seem bad.

In the current climate I'm sure like I'll seem like an industry apologist to some. That's not the case.

The racing game has plenty of issues and problems that need to be addressed. If this moment in time causes the industry to work in an expeditious and cohesive manner to get things done, maybe this last two months is all for the best.

But, as I said in the title of this piece, I am an unrepentant fan of horse-racing and I don't want to see a Chicken Little atmosphere cause a knee-jerk overreaction because overreaction can be just as bad as inaction.


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