An Expert Weighs In on Rich Strike and the Systemic Barbarism of Horseracing

This morning, I present a guest post from Melanie Sue Bowles. Melanie is the founder of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, one of the nation’s oldest and most successful privately-run organizations for horses. Melanie has also authored three nonfiction books on the hundreds of animals who have found their way to the sanctuary. She is, in short, a true expert on equine nature, and I am grateful for her contribution.

“Rich Strike and the Systemic Barbarism of Horseracing”
by Melanie Sue Bowles

The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. A come-from-behind 3y/o colt, Rich Strike, won. What transpired as he was being led to the winner’s circle by outrider Greg Blasi was a revealing display of the systemic barbarism in the Thoroughbred racing industry.

This is not a reference to the cognitive dissonance from racing enthusiasts: apparently, it’s acceptable or at least “normal” for jockeys to beat their horse to get them over the finish line, but it’s not okay for the horses to be beaten once they’ve crossed it, as evidenced by the outrage on social media. Regarding Blasi punching the fractious colt? Was Blasi right? Was he wrong? Did his actions escalate or deescalate the dangerous situation? I wasn’t there and can’t answer those questions. But truthfully, that is not the conversation we should be having. Blasi’s behavior was a consequential distraction.

The conversation we should be having is how Rich Strike got into this situation. A situation where he was incapable of controlling himself, and as a result the young colt suffered egregious consequences. Is Rich Strike to blame? Of course not. He’s not to blame because he was failed by every single person who has access to his life. Everyone who perpetuates the systemic barbarism of the Thoroughbred racing industry – from the owners, to the trainers, to the grooms, to the jockeys and everyone in between, including the fans. All of them failed this horse. Just like the thousands of other horses who are being failed living in servitude at tracks and breeding farms all across this country.

How are these horses being failed? They are weaned too soon, and started under saddle too young. They haven’t had a chance to mature. They are stalled too much, enduring excessive isolation and confinement. They are not socialized; they never experience play or the important dynamics of interacting with other horses. They are not provided the training they need to be safely handled. The typical life of a Thoroughbred is stressful, emotionally and mentally traumatic, physically damaging, and goes against everything natural and everything horses need to thrive. They are stripped of the intrinsic right to participate in their own life. And they are just babies.

Race Day. We have a horse who is essentially still an infant. He’s at the height of rambunctious energy, he should be moving about with other horses, learning, growing, but the days beforehand – most of his life, really – he’s been locked in a stall. His sleep rhythm is on human time, not his own. Rather than natural grazing – something so crucial to equine gut health – he’s given large meals of high-energy feed. His testosterone is raging. Roll all this up and set him down on the adrenaline-fueled grounds of the Kentucky Derby. The noise, the frenetic activity, the smells. The hats. Oh, those hats. He can feel the nervous excitement of the people around him. He can sense the pent-up power of the other horses.

Rich Strike is being called a “storybook underdog,” an “inspiring hero.” He’s neither of those things. He’s the equivalent of a child who has been deprived of ANY natural movement, forced to work like a “seasoned athlete”; he’s ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he was relentlessly whipped to obey the only training he’s ever received: RUN. He won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period.

After the race, it was clear Rich Strike was ready to explode as he was being led to the winner’s circle; he bit outrider Greg Blasi and tried to ravage Blasi’s pony. Why? Because it was a perfect storm: the young colt is the equivalent of a child, ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he’s never been provided the training he needs to control his behavior.

And that is the systemic barbarism of this “sport,” and it will never change because owners and trainers don’t make money by allowing horses to mature physically and mentally and by allowing them to socialize and simply “be a horse.” Owners and trainers don’t make money by giving horses, especially stallions, the skills they need to be handled safely. All that is wasting time. And these young Thoroughbreds suffer, pay the price, because everyone around them has failed them.

Rich Strike won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period. Not because he wanted to be the next inspirational feel-good story. Believing that Rich Strike or any horse cares whether or not he won a human-derived contest is absurd and it is anthropomorphism at its worst.

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  1. Exactly, living on our schedule, not their natural doings, being. Of necessity, we do that with our pets too!

  2. Horseracing and Pari-Mutuel wagering go hand in hand with systemic barbarism. Horse racing is inherently cruel. Racing is sadistic and brutal to the horses. The racing people engage in pseudo horsemanship. What these pseudo horsemen do is to operate with the Modus Operandi that it is normal to do the abnormal in that they expect and demand that young, underdeveloped colts and fillies be exploited for racing and wagering as though they were full-grown, adult horses. Saddling a yearling colt or filly and putting weight, especially a rider, on his or her back is completely contradictory to what is kind and ethical! This is only one of many major sticking points that I don’t ever expect these morally depraved minds steeped in this barbarism will ever really want to stop. As long as it is profitable for the human beings, they will engage in pseudo horsemanship. There are so many people who are not concerned about the comfort or health of the horses.
    These sadistic people consider the horses to be a piece of meat whether it is for animal consumption or human consumption. To some people, a horse is “Alpo on the hoof” and that is definitely in the context of hate speech from one human and his friends towards another person that they didn’t like when he was riding a horse. They were mocking the person riding the horse. Even though this was not an incident of horse racing, it shows the mentality of certain types of people and their attitude towards horses in general.
    It’s wrong to exploit horses this way but as long as there are morally depraved people who prioritize their net worth as being more important than anything else, horses will continue to need activists to stand up and speak up FOR them to protect them from this hideous cruelty of being exploited for racing, wagering, breeding and meat.

  3. DITTO on all counts.
    Thanks so much for this insight and thanks so much for your outstanding dedication to the unwanted horses you provide a home to.
    When I’m driving past the million dollar farms in Lexington, where I once lived and owned one of those farms, I marvel at how beautiful they are.
    I love to watch the weanlings frolicking together out in those beautiful KY paddocks and then my positive thoughts quickly shift to the reality of what these horses will soon face and be forced to endure.
    In fact, the first year of their life is the best (assuming they have a great start as described) because after that it’s “business,” – all business at the sole detriment of every single horse that will be forced to transform into a commodity for human egos and to churn multimillion dollar wagering profits.
    They are called racehorses and, as you describe, everything natural is taken away from them so that they can be a mere gambling bet for a bunch of gambling addicts who care nothing about the horse.
    Even worse, all of the people who make millions off of these racehorses from the owners, trainers, the sales auctions houses of Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton etc,, and the wagering companies (TVG, XpressBet, 1st, Bet America etc. etc.) who continue to boast about their billion dollar profits don’t contribute one dime to aftercare and/or don’t implement even a 1% mandatory financial contribution to racehorse aftercare.
    It’s no secret that once a racehorse can no longer flip a buck they become a liability that needs to be dumped.
    Of course the industry figured that all out by providing a dumping system called the “claiming ranks,” where hell on earth is bestowed upon these racehorses every single day.
    Furthermore, we often find winners of over $250,000 dumped by their former connections (CHRIS AND DAVE, DR DRE, THE DEPUTY, TIERGAN, FOXTAIL, BETSY BLUE, etc. etc) into the claiming ranks where they are repeatedly claimed by the claiming parasites whose sole goal is to squeeze the lemon dry until they get claimed or dropped dead.
    These claiming parasites know that they will not be held accountable so that the never ending money machine keeps on beating while the dead racehorse is replaced with another.
    Equally worse are those racehorses sold to Puerto Rico where their living hell continues if they make the journey alive because many of them are sick to begin with because their owner/trainers did not provide essential medical care and, instead, dumps them into a shipping container for a long journey where the neglect continues.
    All of this is condoned by the horse racing industry whose favorite lines “we treat them like family” is a joke in light of the many wrong doings going on when it comes to their “family members.”
    It’s a known fact that about 90% of racehorses become part of their unwanted racehorse mess, in one form or another, and that’s when they expect everybody else, who was never involved with this exploitation, to take care of them or off to the slaughterhouse they go.
    10% continue their life of servitude as a reproductive machine (broodmares) or stallions.
    RICH STRIKE is just another victim of horse racing and the doping (legal or illegal) only exacerbates a horrific situation to begin with.

    • Well said. I winter in ocala, while everyone is excited to see all the foals in the fields, it gets me depressed. Their time of freedom, playing , moving about and grazing is short lived. They will be in a solitary 12×12 only to come out and be beaten to run. So sad, I now know I’m not alone in seeing these foals future.

  4. Again, I’m left in tears — how could they! — where’s conscience? — did you mention that after all this, it’s the PSYCHO-APOLOGISTS who blame the HORSE when things go wrong (or right) for them — SHUT DOWN this EVIL industry of Horseracing —

    • I’d like to make a small edit — “…-APOLOGISTS who blame the BABIES when things go wrong … ” — imagine BLAMING the CHILDREN for Adult acts in the human realm!

  5. Thank you so much Melanie, now I just pray the apologists READ your experience!!!

    • A gentle reminder, Bonnie – the apologists are not our audience – they choose to ignore individuals like Melanie Sue Bowles in order to remain comfortable in their support of horseracing. When it comes to the full understanding of equines – physically and mentally – no one compares to Melanie. No one. Racing and its fans don’t want to acknowledge the truth about horses…doing so would compel a reasonable and compassionate individual to refuse support of an unnecessary industry that steals horses’ lives and places them in harm’s way every time they demand they train or race.

      We’re often asked (in accusations we know nothing about horses so how could we comment on horseracing?); “Do you ride?” – what a ridiculous question, as if riding a horse equates to knowing horses. I’ve seen more “riders” in my 30-plus years with horses whose knowledge about them is the equivalent of a pre-schooler’s math skills. Even more ridiculous, their education on horses is via how racing treats/“cares for” their racehorses – it’s nothing more than warehousing them and maintaining them to keep them running for checks.

      To Melanie, THANK YOU for the years of selfless service you and Jim so lovingly provided to the many animals who were so fortunate to find their way to you!!

      • Granted … Joy. You are correct. But, I think some of them do read our posts on occasion. I’m not gonna say which two tvg hosts made reference to something I had been saying … “why do so many of the male trainers look like used car salesman?” the two made a joking reference to it in their attempt at witty banter 😒 there were a few other instances I picked up on. This was a while back … during the Mongolian Groom controversy. When everything was at fever pitch.

        • Bonnie, you are correct! – without a doubt they read here! But the thing is, the horses could be blessed with human language, beg to be set free from their use in racing, and the apologists would still claim the horses love being raced and have a great life. They’re either that much in denial or that dense.

          On another note, I’m sure you’ve seen Rich Strike is not going to the Preakness. Many are saying “how wonderful they’re not risking the colt” – “great they’re giving him time to recover” – “two weeks is too short a time to race again”…etc and you get the drift, I’m sure. Kinda bizarre, isn’t it? – given their exclamation is always racing = running in pastures. Yea, right.

          • Exactly, Joy. As if any of them give a rat’s ass about the welfare of any of these innocent ANIMALS. Their mindset is …. as long as I don’t have to go out looking for future employment!

          • Joy, when hearing “Ritchie” won’t be in the Preak, it crossed my mind he may have been injured somehow during the Derby. And of course they aren’t announcing he needs recovery.

            • Nancy, that’s what I not only thought but assumed! Injury. Never admitted by them, of course.

  6. Melanie, Wanda, Gina & Joy – you have said it PERFECTLY. I can feel the love in your words. Thank you.

  7. Ladies, I read all your comments and thank you for your insights always. I’m a longtime wolf advocate/activist but also volunteered at my local horse rescue here in New Mexico. There I had the privilege of working with an 8 year old off track Thoroughbred who’d broken his ankle at Belmont after winning 5 of his 6 starts. He was a lucky one. Someone repaired that ankle and he ended up with a family out here. When his owner passed away he came to the rescue, 8 years old and already not to be ridden due to stifle and arthritis issues. For three years he was the love of my life until another volunteer adopted him at last. So….I am with you all….thought I’d share a happy ending to brighten your day!

  8. The sad thing is, this is how EVERYTHING has become devalued in our world today – animals, wildlife, habitat, the environment, all life everywhere is sacrificed or destroyed over the worship of MONEY and the loss of all morals and ethical values. We see the same lack of respect for life in the poaching of wild birds out of their homes to be sold for pets, no matter how many die in the process. Horseracing is a microcosm of the worst of this, focused on one animal and one industry. but the devastating disease of moneyworship is behind all of it.

    • Pitch Perfect post. Dead on Right. Now, if we can quit eating pigs,and cows … and such! Great points abs314

    • Nothing is valued today but money. Even human life is dirt cheap. Murders, abortions, trafficking. This is exactly what happens when morals and ethics are abandoned.

  9. So well said, Melanie. I felt like you were reading my mind. Thank you for all you do.

    • what can yoyu tell us all about the enriched “feed” that is given to them. howis it drugged?

      • Enriched feed is supposed to be for older horses and horses that are hard-keepers, plus horses need extra vitamins, minerals and calories when they are expected to perform. The activity doesn’t necessarily have to be as demanding as racing, but racing is probably the most physically demanding activity of all for horses. Some horses will look like they are starving to death if they don’t get good quality hay plus some brand of enriched feed in addition to grazing on pasture. Some horses will still look like they are starving to death if they don’t have the grain in addition to the hay and pasture grass. There are various brands of enriched feeds for horses. Saying that the feed is enriched doesn’t mean that it’s drugged. Enriched means that nutrients were added back to the feed that were lost in processing and/or storage. I personally have not owned a JC registered Thoroughbred, but I have owned an AQHA registered Quarter Horse that had racing bloodlines. He was what my dad called, “not a grass horse” meaning he needed more than a 250 Acre grass pasture to keep weight on. I didn’t want him to get too thin. He loved grass though! Plus dry feed!

    • All makeup companies also need shut down many animals die testing that crap

      • Yes, the list of animal cruelties is never ending. There is a choice of getting cruelty -free products when it comes to make-up, however.

  10. Right on Mel! And you haven’t even mentioned the horrors for those horses that don’t make the racing wins or the aftermath of damaged horses for the breakneck speeds they achieved in their youth. Mel knows the horrors of mankind’s infliction of pain on animals of all kinds. For years, Mel and her husband, who shares the same love of animals, have witnessed from the aftermath of abuse. They have opened their home, their land and built facilities to be able to take in abused horses, dogs, cats and even two pigs. With loving care and a huge expense, they have rescued, doctored, fed and housed animals in desperate need of love and tender care. They are both saints in my book!

  11. What a brilliant, spot-on analysis of these non-fatal events that occurred on the Sport of K(ill)ings’ biggest stage. Thank you, Ms. Bowles!
    I particularly appreciate your references to statements made in the (highly credible, always journalistic) Racing Press, most of whom found a way to offer their own “expert” takes on Rich Strike’s so-called “Will to Win.” (And his ensuing “aggression,” AND a made-up defense of Chubs Blasi’s “discipline” that’s really just straight-up abuse.)
    Of course, these same “journalists” go absolutely silent when racing KILLS its own athletes every damned day. So they’re certainly not going to take any part whatsoever in the conversation we should be having.

  12. Thank you, Melanie, for this excellent article. So many people have no clue.

  13. Spot on. The show horses are right up there w abuse issues too. Many ppl think because I have horses I must like racing. When they bring it up, they get an education. Just like any other business without the ppl buying and backing this industry it’d fail to exist. Thank you Melanie for trying to show the world of the cruel abuse of these baby horses raises, tortured to eventually break, then shipped alive to be slaughtered.

  14. I noticed rich strikes tongue hanging out to the side in many of the Pat race photos and video – im not a horse expert but that did not seem right to me . Is it possible his asshole jockey hurt his mouth by being too aggressive with his bit? On another note – does anyone know how many times rich strike was shipped during the race ? Also it looked to me like he wasn’t whipping as much as jabbing the end of the whip into the horse . Anyone have any thoughts? Again I’m not a horse expert just a horse lover and advocate

    • I didn’t see how many times RICH STRIKE was whipped by the jockey. PETA announced in an email before the Kentucky Derby that they were betting that the “winning horse” will be whipped more times than the rules allow, or something along those lines. After the outrider incident caused such a scene, I didn’t see anything about the number of times the jockey whipped the winning horse anywhere. Obviously, whipping horses to make them run faster is CRUEL but the rules of racing say certain things and that includes the use of the whip. Each jockey must use the whip in a certain way and a certain number of times in any given race. Any violations of the whip rules are supposedly punished, but the so-called punishment is a joke. This industry needs the jockeys as much as they need the horses to fill out the race cards for this diabolical shit show.
      The horse’s tongue is tied up somehow so the horse cannot get his tongue inside of his mouth. I can’t say what I would like to do to the morally depraved creeps that do this to the horses!!! It is ABSOLUTE BARBARISM to tie the tongues up and the whipping and everything else about forcing horses to perform as gambling chips for demented people!!!!!!

  15. well i did see that the jockey sonny leon has recently had a violation for mis use of whip or excessive use of the whip- cant remember the exact wording….causing visible injury to the horse he was riding .. among other things of course…and yes anyone can see the punishments they issue are a JOKE- how is he still allowed to ride if hes’ been suspended 5 times since november!?!?!? they should have a three strikes and your OUT rule- maybe then the jockeys would take the rules seriously .Not that they should even be able to do any of this at all… I wasn’t aware of the horses tongues being tied… so so sad .. it makes me sick

    • Lauren, it appears that the RACING COMMISSION STEWARDS don’t take the whip rules too seriously and that has a lot to do with why the violations of the whip rules continue.

  16. He ran faster because he was beaten HARDER . I have never ever seen a Jock tear into a horse the way Leon did – as far from hand riding as riding can be – and it made the colt rage because he could not escape any of it by running – all the trauma he endured in his life .
    HRW needs to report on Leons current suspension and highlight this man’s vicious manner of riding and the Stewards apparent nod of approval .

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