Above the fold: Racing in the Times

This is Sunday Book Review day, but I’m afraid things have to diverge from the usual editorial calendar.

Let’s talk about the New York Times story, shall we?

New York Times horse racing image

Above the fold.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s this: an investigative report from Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, Dara L. Miles, and Griffen Palmer, published in today’s edition of the New York Times, entitled Breakdown: Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks—Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys. And it’s just as awful as the name would indicate.

Joe Drape is the most familiar name on the list of contributors for me, anyway; he is the Times’ most active horse-racing correspondent and a fairly regular face on Twitter (@joedrape). But I usually see Drape’s byline on the Sports page: occasional racing stories, or the Triple Crown-season feature The Rail. 

This piece isn’t on the Sports page. This is the headliner of today’s New York Times.

I was excited when Neville Bardos made the front page, period.

But this. . . this is something else, altogether.

If you get to the webpage and can’t get past the photo of the abandoned Quarter Horse gelding, Teller A Gone, lying in a Ruidoso, NM, junkyard, I forgive you. It isn’t a terribly graphic picture, to my mind; for one thing, if you’ve been with horses for any length of time, you’ve probably seen them die, and for another, this one could be mid-nap, for the uninitiated (or illiterate). Not to mention the New York Times regularly runs horrifying gory images of humans in various stages of dying, death, or decomposition, and this is, if you’ll pardon the term, “just a horse,” without any bullet holes or gaping wounds or flies buzzing around its dried tears.

But I don’t think readers are going to view it that way, and who can blame them: in America, animals, especially those that the average American would generally think of as a “pet,” are a hands-off area. Don’t mess with our dogs, our cats, or our horses, Americans say, again and again. It’s never “just a horse” to the casual, uninvested reader, and such a phrase could start street fights amongst the horse-owners in the suburbs. In short, this isn’t going to go over well.

If you can get past the photo, read the article first, and then make your own judgements about whether or not you can click on the photo. Because it’s really a link to a five-minute documentary video, and you can fit a lot of breakdowns into five minutes. Horse after horse after horse goes down. There’s no blood, it’s just race replays, the kind you pull up yourself on the Internet. If you wanted to. I wouldn’t.

It’s amazing how much it hurts, how it never gets better. The sick feeling in your stomach when a horse goes down. There is footage of Archarcharch hobbling to the ambulance after the 2011 Kentucky Derby. I tasted coffee in my throat where there should not have been coffee. I wiped a tear away. Seeing horses in agony is a trial you never learn to live with.

There are really great quotes in the video, especially from state vets at Finger Lakes, who are frustrated and saddened by the horses who are entered into races on the verge of falling apart. But then again, there are the breakdowns. So maybe don’t watch the video. You don’t need to. You know. We know. Preach to the choir, but we know.

But maybe other people don’t. Maybe there are people sitting in my favorite cafe right now, reading the Times with their egg and cheese panini and their Stumptown coffee, shaking their head over dead horses and maimed jockeys, over drugged animals and discouraged vets. Maybe the owner is remembering that I am a former exercise rider and an enthusiastic racing fan, and he’s thinking, “Maybe I got that girl wrong, she’s into this crap? Killing horses to make a buck?”

I’ll bet if I go in there tomorrow morning, he’ll ask me about it.

Someone is going to ask you about it.

People are going to be talking.

It’s going to get ugly. Uglier, really, than it has been. Uglier than the PETA videos. Uglier than the cancellation of Luck. We’re heading into Triple Crown season, the only time of year when horse racing makes any sort of media presence known at all, with the truth breathing down our necks. Horses die, with alarming ease and inventiveness, on any given day in any given sport. But lower-level claimers running in the United States of America die far too often.

Is this report good, or bad, for racing?

I don’t believe in sitting on fences. Maybe it’s because I always lined the top board of my fences with electric tape. Whatever the cause, I like to force myself to make a decision, to climb off the damn fence. I won’t sit on the fence on this one, and say, Well, on one hand, it’s important that these issues are raised, but on the other hand, the media is continuing to demonize horse-racing by only showing the bad, and penalizing horsemen by chasing people away from the track, lowering handle, and continuing to lower horse-racing’s esteem in the public eye, and that is simply going to lead to tracks shutting down, people out of work, horses out of work, and valuable research dollars being lost that are funded by horsemen groups and organizations like the Jockey Club, meaning that veterinary medicine will lose ground in its fights against injury and disease.

(That’s not even sitting on the fence, is it? That’s apologizing by way of saying “But look at all the good things racing does do!” Racing does contribute to wonderful things… that is why I am pro-racing, all the time, every day. But I’m also not a fan of sugar-coating things. Some might say, I can’t.)

I’m going to clamber off the fence on the Good side. This is a good article. This is an important, thoughtful, eye-brow-raising article, which examines real problems, concludes that break-downs are linked to drugs, and then talks to invested people on both sides of the drugging debate, and examines the moves that have been made to clear our horses of drugs and the counter-moves that have been made in resistance.

It also pushes the need so many fans and horsemen alike see, for a national governing body for horse racing. State-run racing commissions oversee horse racing, and again and again certain commissions prove that they are not policed, they have no teeth, and they are not willing to go to bat for horses. If there isn’t going to be a national governing body to say “This is how things are going to be done,” then they are going to continue, especially at cheap racetracks like Ruidoso Downs, to offer high, casino-financed purses to horses that are being held together, for the sole purpose of winning those purses that are several times their financial value, with every kind of drug they can get into that horse’s system.

One of the first things I learned about horses and veterinary medicine: if you suspect colic, don’t give your horse Banamine until the vet has seen the horse, because Banamine masks pain.

Apparently, that’s one of the first things some of these trainers learn as well. They just use that information differently than I would have.

And when efforts to help horses and riders by national organizations like the NTRA and the Jockey Club are scorned by racetracks? Thanks for nothing, guys. We know where your heart truly is, and it isn’t in the best interests of the horses. From the Times report:

Race officials have always done their best to hide fatal breakdowns, erecting screens around fallen horses and then refusing to disclose the tracks’ accident rates.

Fifty-five tracks pledged that they would seek accreditation, requiring among other things prerace inspections and postmortem examinations, or necropsies. Fewer than half have kept their promise.

“Some tracks do not have the money to spend to meet our standards; others think it’s window dressing and why bother,” said Michael Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance. “Any follow-up with tracks has gone unanswered.”

The safety of horse and rider is going unanswered, but I think it’s safe to say that no one in the racing office is ignoring calls from the casino organizations. Purse money has become the paramount concern of certain racetracks: not attracting new fans, or protecting the lives of the animals and people who go out on the track themselves. Purse money, the great band-aid, keeping bad horsemen in business while the racetrack visitors turn left at the casino entrance and never even consider the horses on the oval out back. Are casinos going to keep racing afloat long enough for industry leaders to fix its problems, or are casinos going to simply hasten its departure?

The New York Times report is damning, yes, but it’s damning of problems that we know must go. The use of drugs in horses. The faulty title of “therapeutic” given to painkillers. These two quotes are especially telling:

Mr. Stirling [chairman of the national medication committee for the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association] and others say sore horses should not be denied therapeutic medicine when needed. “If you’re a horseman and you’re trying to keep a horse going and keep him happy and healthy as you can, then these therapeutic medications are very helpful,” he said.

“Therapeutic drugs, by definition, are used for healing and curing,” said Arthur B. Hancock III, whose farm produced three Kentucky Derby winners. “Drugs that mask pain and enhance performance are not ‘therapeutic.’ They are what they are: performance-enhancing drugs.”

Mr. Stirling is making the case for broke horsemen everywhere, who have to run a horse as often as possible in order to make a buck, or make a living, whatever the case may be. While I know it’s hard to make a living with horses, in whatever business, I disagree categorically with anyone who thinks it’s acceptable to dose a horse with a painkiller and send it out, whether to jump a Grand Prix course or run a race. I side whole-heartedly with Mr. Hancock on this issue.

In the end, of course, you can look at this as just another story taking horse racing out behind the woodshed while other horse sports go on their merry way. I have yet to see a New York Times article on the drugging debate in the hunter show-ring. No one has opined on the trainer who wrote in the Chronicle of the Horse that everyone going into the hunter division should just be allowed to legally tranquilize their horses and save themselves the trouble of finding work-around sedatives that aren’t found in blood-tests yet. I’d say it’s because horses don’t die in the hunter division because of drugging, but of course, that isn’t true. It’s because hunters are not a betting sport, because hunters are not televised, because they do their dying in private, respectably, not out on a public track with the sort of people you wouldn’t let your horse-crazy daughter anywhere near cheering them on.

But racing is the sport that gives all other horse sports their advances in technology and, ironically, safety. Horse racing dollars fuel the veterinary research studies that save premature foals, bring back horses with soft-tissue injuries, rescue horses with previously fatal injuries. Look at Neville Bardos, brought back from the brink of death, a recovery largely credited to hyperbaric oxygen treatments. A therapy that started, where else, with racehorses.

Racing is beautiful, and beneficial, and it can be better. It must be better. So when people ask you about this article, you tell them:

“There are good people and bad people in horse racing. An article like this allows the good to speak out and the bad to be exposed. We’re going to keep fighting to end horse drugging and ban the trainers that run their horses into the ground. Good trainers are able to win without drugging their horses to death. Have you heard of this guy Graham Motion?”

As Horse Racing Business puts it in their summation of the article:

While justifiably railing against the New York Times may make you and me feel better, venting won’t do anything except expend negative energy. People who genuinely care deeply about the sport of horse racing–and the animals and humans involved—need to reform the sport, regardless of whose toes get stepped on in the process. Especially work to rid the sport of race-day medication and the thugs who give racing a bad image. Especially do everything possible to make racing surfaces safer for jockeys and horses. If a racetrack surface temporarily goes bad due to weather, or whatever, cancel the day’s races.

Get angry about images of dead horses and sensational writing if you want. But then admit that it is broken, and work towards fixing it.

Click here for: The New York Times, Mangled Horses and Maimed Jockeys.

Related on this site: Ignoring the Good: A Horsewoman’s Response to the New York Times Expose

Related on this site: Senator Tom Udall  (D-NM) Response: “A Disturbing Picture” 






Filed under Media Coverage, Outside Sites, Racing, veterinary medicine

24 responses to “Above the fold: Racing in the Times

  1. Lois Keays

    I totally agree with your statements. Nor will I sit on the fence. The Industry needs to be Regulated and measures of Enforcement standardized. If the UK and Europe understand the harm of Race Day medications, WHY is it such a difficult pill for North America to swallow?
    I have forwarded this article to all of the Associations that represent me as a horse owner and breeder, suggesting the current peril faced with the loss of slot revenue in the Province of Ontario, Canada may have been preventable, had the Industry faced its problems with transparency and accountability. How much bad press does one Industry require before it can admit it is WRONG and contributing to its demise?

  2. Sarah

    I think it’s a good article, although I had a tough time reading (not to mention watching the videos). Sometimes airing dirty laundry is the only way to get it clean. I love watching horse races, I’m not going to deny it. I also spend hours volunteering at a CANTER farm each week, taking care of retired, injured racehorses recovering from surgery. I’m frequently angry at what I see – we have a 3 year old in right now who raced once, came up lame, and after surgery has a prognosis of only pasture sound for the rest of her life. I’m in the process of getting a new OTTB for myself who raced 6 times – 5 of those times he was at the back of the pack. He ended up with a new trainer, one month later wins a race – and was immediately unsound and required surgery. Did something happen in that month that suddenly allowed him to win but then breakdown? Was it inevitable? I don’t know – but I think there needs to be far more accountability in the industry. There is such great buzz right now about the future potential of retired racehorses but someone needs to convince those involved that they are worth treating in such a way that allows them to live full healthy lives, not just keeping them going long enough to run one more race.

  3. Another good piece: http://www.buttonwoodfarm.blogspot.com/2012/03/horse-racing-is-king-dead.html

    “While the racing industry has more committees and governing bodies than I can figure out, it seems some credible group should form to state with purpose what they believe best practices are for the industry. This should range from drug policy, to penalties for rule infractions (how is is that trainers who have not only been accused but found to be guilty of infractions still race horses on the biggest stage? Due Process?? Just another egg in the face of the game), racing surfaces, racing dates, appropriate purses for lower claiming races (in NY, at a meet where 17 fatalities occurred, there were purses of $27,000 for horses with a claiming price of $7,500 (http://www.drf.com/news/aqueduct-nyra-adjust-bottom-claim-level-purses-following-breakdowns).

    If there was such a group, the New York Times article would have referred to them, and there would be a divide, those who want change and those who oppose it. There is no group, so there is no known divide, only fractious voices who prefer to identify excuses rather than answers.


  4. Beautifully written, Natalie. I refer to it on the post I started right as yours hit my email.

    We can be part of a solution and are in a better place than ever to effect change. It is particularly (and personally) disturbing to me that CA has the highest number of deaths–higher than NY or KY, in fact. WTF?

    My mission is becoming clearer.

  5. Christy Heffner

    Thank you! I was already sick of seeing people whining about how the article will negatively impact racing. Good. Money is the force here. While I absolutely agree about the benefits to all horses from racing dollars, maybe the industry needs a strike to the knees to clean up its act. If average people see what really goes on and decide to spend their money elsewhere because of it, well, … Clean it up racing community. I love racing, have two OTTBs, and volunteer for Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue in MD. But most o us are tired of cleaning up their mess. It’s bad for everyone. Kudos to Adena Springs, Three Chimneys, Lanes End, and a whole slew of individual owners and trainers who do right by their horses. Boo to the rest of you (aka Coolmore). Personally, I’m glad for this piece. Now let’s put on our big girl panties and effect some change.

  6. Tracy Nazzaro

    Thank you so very much for your thoughtful response to the NYT article. I knew it would be published today and I read it last night (& watched the video) in complete horror. However, I was not prepared for the shock I felt when I picked-up the paper this morning and saw the article on the front page.

    I have been writing about horse racing for over four years, mostly chronicling “feel good” stories to encourage more engagement with the fans and attract new fans. Along the way, I have learned about drug abuses but have not written about them. This is the dark side of racing that everyone prefers to not think about and secretly hope that someone else is attending to. How immensely naive of me.

    I feel this article will bring change. (Oh, and we should brace ourselves because I hear there are two more installments). For one, I am going to turn my attention to how change can be brought about and how I can personally be involved. I was contacted recently by a group writing anti-drug legislation for the state of Kentucky. I will contact them tomorrow to see how I can get involved. I should not have waited so long.

    I love horses and I love horse racing. It is time to make this sport safer for everyone — no exceptions.

    Thank you again for your very thoughtful blog.

  7. Great article, Natalie, and so was the NY Times one.Yes, it’s about time American racing cleaned up its act.If other countries don’t allow drugging, why do we? And who really pays the price–the horses and the jockeys. I hope this is a wake up call to many. I’m glad this is front page news. Let’s bring about some changes!

  8. and of course they leave out the dirtiest laundry of all — the 20,000 + thoroughbreds sent to slaughter every year, some just days off the track, others after a short break, and the fillies-turned-broodmares who don’t produce anymore. they are just as much a part of this picture as the drugged and broken down horses. except they die at the slaughterhouse, inhumanely, instead of euthanized at the track. please don’t forget them, they are the ultimate victims.

  9. “No one has opined on the trainer who wrote in the Chronicle of the Horse that everyone going into the hunter division should just be allowed to legally tranquilize their horses”- I opened it for discussion on my blog a couple days ago. Whatever readers I have don’t really seem to be fired up over it (slaughter or horse diving is a far more popular subject). It certainly raised my eyebrows- I lean more towards the horse at its natural finest and in favor of prohibitions on dangerous drugs.

    Anyway, I hadn’t seen The Times article, and glad to read about it here on your blog. I didn’t go and read it, but I would say the article would be “bad” if the tone implies all racing is dangerous and inhumane. “Good” if it merely sheds light on inadequacies in the sport that are overdue for improvement.

  10. Pingback: NY Times investigation says NM horse racing tracks among the worst in the nation; causes a stir within the sport « Capitol Report | New Mexico

  11. Pingback: NY Times investigation says NM horse racing tracks among the worst in the nation; causes a stir within the sport

  12. I fear that you will see this as fence-sitting, but the big purses don’t just support the horsemen — they also support the owners. As you know, owning and racing a horse is a mighty expensive proposition, and there has to be, I think, some sort of middle ground with purse money, unless we want racing to go away because no one’s willing to own a racehorse because there’s absolutely no chance of making any money.

    As in any animal industry, though, profit shouldn’t ever be put ahead of humane treatment of animals. It’s a shame that so often, the two seem mutually exclusive.

    • Someone commented on another blog that this had elements of class warfare and was an attack against the wealthy owners. I think it’s rather harder on the poor owners.

      Horses are not cheap, in general. Look at the situation in Puerto Rico. Horses are owned by people who run flea market stalls for a living. They can’t afford to do the right thing by the horse if the horse gets hurt. The horse runs, the horse gets hurt, the horse dies. The short and sad life cycle of the Puerto Rican racehorse. I don’t want to see that sort of situation in American racing. Horses are not for everyone. Attracting in people who can barely pay their rent to buy cheap horses and run them slap-dash for the big pay-out is another side effect of the huge purse. Check out some of the owners at Aqueduct.

  13. I used to love horse racing – would watch any race I could, from the time I was growing up. But I never watch now, and never go to the racetrack – I’ve seen too many break downs happen. I do think they’re more common now, even in the upper levels of the sport, due to poor breeding practices with an emphasis on speed and not on soundness or longevity. Also I think any horse who has suffered a major fracture should be banned from breeding – I thought the attempts to save Barbero for breeding were grotesque – the poor horse suffered immensely.

    The drugging is dangerous and inhumane but the racing organizations and regulatory bodies have to have the guts to fix it and the will seems to be lacking. I found the pernicious connection between racing and casino gambling (larger purses so more incentive to run hurting horses) to be particularly disturbing.

  14. Jim Culpepper

    I have a lot of conflict about all of this; the subject is worthy of a book if writing for the purpose of persuading sociopaths to stop acting crazy were not an act of lunacy of itself. Given how the body politic stays strung out on pain killer because they hate their life, how weird for them to care if drugs, incompetent trainers, riders, vets or breeders cause horses or jockeys to be hurt. Bear in mind that these same people sacrificed many virgins through incompetent and mostly unwarranted war making.

  15. I thought the article was extremely well-written, sadly factual. Don’t forget about the Quarter Horses. They have it just as bad, actually worse. TB’s,
    at least, have their advocates. Who advocates for the QH runner? NO ONE.
    There are all kinds of stats on TB’s going to slaughter. QH’s? Notsomuch.

    Your points are perfect.
    When will the big boys listen? When it hits their WALLETS.

  16. So, I generally agree with you, and to be honest this is still milling about in my brain, because it really spurs a lot of conflicted thoughts in my head. I’m a natural fence sitter, what can I say? 😉

    I think my problem with this article is this: the methods and the tone go a bit too far in the pandering for controversy for my taste. And of course, that sells papers. But, if the intent was to draw attention to some real problems and ultimately spur change (and I hope it was); I fear it may have backfired.

    Horse racing has a hard job selling itself to the general public. It’s hard to explain, it’s complicated, and trying to tell people that horses have a natural ability to break themselves just standing still doesn’t really get through to most people. So when a story comes out like this, and hundreds of people comment and compare horse racing to BULL FIGHTING, and don’t take, or are given, a chance to see why anyone would be involved in this in the first place–well, it makes it all too easy for those who could make change in the industry take a insular “Well, they’re never understand, so why are we even trying anyway, if people are going to react this way.” And THAT, my friends, does no favors for the horses.

    Listen, I am all too aware of the bad apples and the bad policies and the things that need to change. I have talked until I’m blue in the face trying to explain why racing needs to be around, and how many people are doing good work to make changes. But the casual person reading this doesn’t see a few bad apples. They see everyone in the whole industry as careless, money hungry monsters. When the story is framed this way it makes it all the harder for those good people to justify why any changes should be made at all. And it makes it all the harder to shout that good news to the rooftops when the reply becomes “That’s nice that you’re trying, but with such a corrupt sport what’s the point? Best to rid the world of it.”

  17. You know, I am going to give this a shot. Writing about the good bits, I mean. And send it to them. What the hell, yes?

    • Yes, yes, and yes.

      I guess I’m just tired of the constant negative onslaught. I’m tired of defending a sport I love over and over and over again to people who only hear the bad things. I’m tired of wondering if people think I support the abuse of horses just because I like going to horse races. And I’m tired of saying “no, really, you should HEAR about all the awesome things going on, let me tell you” only to be met with a dubious expression and a pat on the head and a “sure they’re doing good things Jen, sure.”

  18. Spent enough time backside to know that it’s true…took mine home…
    many other owners have done the same. There is a valid reason why the sport is dying.

  19. Annette

    I am thankful every day, multiple times a day, for the great people in horse racing, and for the fact I own the horse of my dreams because of a couple of them.

    My horse was a low level claimer at small tracks in the Southwest. He did well enough to earn his keep, but not well enough to be worth a lot. He was running in claiming races where he could be claimed for about $10k, and really just figuring out how to work out the use of his legs because he was nearly at his full 16.3 hands during his career. His owners knew a trainer who was the drug-and-run type had his eye on my horse, and knew if he were able to claim him that this guy would run him until he broke down.

    Rather than allow him to keep earning them money until the other trainer could claim him, they gave him away to a non-racing home. I bought him 4 1/2 years later after he had evented in the time gap; and his vet check was the cleanest my vet had ever seen, much less for a horse who had raced 11 times.

    Because of great owners who are true horse lovers, I ended up with a fantastic, sweet TB who lives up to all the best stereotypes, and I have a love for horse racing and the good people in it.

    I’d like to know how valid the numbers given are – but if the number of horses who break down is that high in relation to drugs given, WOW. I absolutely think something needs to be done about the drugs, and think it’s a terrible, terrible thing. I think it is in Hunters, too. I just can’t even imagine thinking the way I see some people post on the Chronicle forums. I guess that’s why my reaction to my horse being tense and over exciteable at dressage shows was to get more lessons and clinics so I could learn to ride better.