“Those who think they can simply wish away a legal, multibillion-dollar enterprise with a rich history that employees thousands, supports local economies and is enjoyed by millions are fooling themselves. … The reality is that, for now, no matter how many horses stumble to their deaths at Santa Anita; no matter how much protesters shout at racing fans as they pull their coolers through the gates of the Saratoga Race Course; no matter what kind of negative press follows the industry’s safety record, labor practices and administration, the Sport of Kings will see another summer. And another summer after that. Bet on it.”
And so begins a shallow and terribly misleading editorial by The Daily Gazette (Schenectady) editorial board last Sunday. Most glaringly, it utterly ignores the sea changes in the “animal-entertainment” sector over just the past few years: Ringling shuttered, SeaWorld exposed and in decline, rodeo prohibitions spreading, and most relevant to the issue at hand – dogracing in its death throes.
When Floridians voted overwhelmingly to outlaw dogracing last November, they did so because it was rightly deemed cruel, wrong, unethical, or whatever term you care to use. In fact, dogracing is outright banned in 41 states – banned, as in rejected by the people as morally intolerable. The board, I’m sure, is very much aware of this, but lacks the courage to declare what any intelligent, objective person can easily discern – in regard to the welfare of the animals involved, horseracing is dogracing. No need to guess, however, whence comes this cowardice – money, as the board makes clear at the top. Dogracing is seedy tracks, lowlife bettors, hand-to-mouth owners – a two-bit gambling business. Horseracing is Churchill Downs, Tom Brady, Stronachs and sheikhs – “The Sport of Kings.”
Locally, horseracing is the Saratoga behemoth, with its teeming turnstiles and bustling boutiques. Never mind the 14 horses who perish there every summer. There’s cash to be had and jobs to be filled, and far be it from us, a mere local newspaper, to get in the way of that. But here again, the board fails to present a full and honest picture: Relative to the industry at large, Saratoga is an aberration. It, and maybe five or six other tracks – out of about 100 – are financially sound. Most of the rest are being wholly propped up by subsidies, and for a good portion of those – including all of the harness variety – everything said about dogracing above fully applies.
The editorial goes on to cite the latest desperate attempt by the industry to assuage an increasingly uneasy public: the “Thoroughbred Safety Coalition.” “Encouraging progress,” they call it. Again, a bit of homework by the board would have revealed that this is what Racing does each and every time the heat gets hot – Eight Belles in ’08, Aqueduct in ’12, Del Mar in ’15 and ’16, Saratoga in ’17 – promise “reform” and a “commitment to equine welfare,” and all the while the bodies continue to pile up.
As to the aforementioned “shouting,” since it is us (HW) doing the protesting, I deeply resent both the characterization and the imagery it evokes. We are there to educate. We do this by holding fact-based banners and signs; respectfully offering informational leaflets; and, yes, by chanting – which as even a middle-school student could tell you is a time-honored tool of protest employed by every great social-justice movement in our nation’s history. This past summer, any shouting that did occur came at the provocation of patrons – more specifically, men getting in the faces of some of our female protesters and calling them the vilest of names. And I for one will push back on that every single time.
Look, I know there are lots of people out there who think we have no chance, that Racing is too big, too powerful, too entrenched. I know there are others who simply deride us as “extremists.” When I hear this, I think of Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – “At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. … But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” – and take solace in the knowledge that all social-justice activists who went before were, too, dismissed as crazy (“Gay marriage?” “You must be joking!”). Truth is, once begun, these fights for rights – be they labor, civil, gender, sexual, etc. – go one way. And so it will be with animal rights, including those of enslaved racehorses, no matter how hard the small-minded reactionaries resist. In fact, it’s happening as we speak.