Santa Anita, so proud of its recent (but highly dubious) “safety” record, has notched two kills in two days. Pray for My Owner collapsed immediately after the 7th race Friday – “sudden death.” She was just four years old, still an adolescent. Yesterday morning, Barraza went down while training. This one garnered attention in the racing press: Barraza, also four, was a multiple stakes winner and “earner” of $260,000. Said (to DRF) trainer Vladimir Cerin: “He was a really cool horse.” Now, next widget up.

This is 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.

With the close of racing this past Saturday, the ’21-’22 season at Turf Paradise is officially in the books. Over that six-month, roughly 120-date period, Turf, I have confirmed, hosted 43 kills – and that, of course, is only what they are disclosing. Here are the victims. (I’ll get more detail with my FOIA.)

Florida Two Step, Oct 28, training
My Proposition, Oct 29, training
Cats Blame, Nov 9, racing
Ambers Storm, Nov 10, stall
Half Cocked, Nov 30, racing
Wasjuannowpaul, Dec 6, stall
Naughty Swagger, Dec 14, racing
Originate, Dec 17, training
Midnight in Maui, Dec 20, stall
Alleyesfollowbelle, Dec 27, training
Tazeeti, Dec 27, training
Midnight Luck, Dec 29, racing
Creative Plan, Jan 7 (euthanized Feb 11), racing
C Dub, Jan 10, stall
Pay Tavasco Rent, Jan 13, stall
Raagheb, Jan 14, racing
Tamarando’s Mine, Jan 17, racing
Adorable Brittany, Jan 17, racing
Wed O’s Champ, Jan 19, racing
Aries, Jan 21, stall
Lily Malacara, Jan 21, stall
Cause I’m Leavin, Jan 26, training
Circus Ride, Jan 27, racing
Ms Michelle, Feb 9, racing
Sky’s the Limit, Feb 10, racing
Kodiak King, Feb 16, racing
Supah Sista, Mar 4, racing
Copper Peg, Mar 9, training
Distinguished, Mar 11, training
Black Drop, Mar 11, racing
Brewery Gulch, Mar 17, training
Bud Lovweiser, Mar 20, stall
Reign On, Mar 21, stall
Lil Ms. Phyllis, Mar 22, stall
Declared Best Card, Mar 24, racing
Sawmill Favorite, Apr 4, stall
All American Candy, Apr 6, racing
Green Eye Woman, Apr 19, training
Launch Pad, Apr 20, training
Bellybutton Icon, Apr 28, racing
Make Me Blush, May 3, racing
Autism’s Ribbon, May 4, training
The Valiant One, May 5, stall

Again, it’s not even close to being the worst of it, but… Word comes that Sonny Leon, the “winning” jockey in the Derby, is currently serving a four-day suspension in Ohio for “careless riding” in an April 27 race at Thistledown. Specifically, Leon “deliberately and aggressively steered [his horse] towards the rail to block on-coming horses.” This is Leon’s fifth suspension since September; the highlight of those: “inflicting visible injuries on one of his mounts through misuse of the whip” (Courier-Journal).

Of the jockey’s methods, Jeff Perrin, Leon’s agent, says: “You do have to be aggressive to win. I think there are judgment calls that people make, and I don’t want to comment on it too much for political reasons. But you have to be aggressive.”

“But you have to be aggressive.” Had enough yet, America?