“[A] good race can chart multiple arcs: the frontrunner, the disappointment, the underdog. Who holds its stride when a competitor is on its heels? Who gets in whom’s head and falls apart? Who finds out its extra gear has an extra gear? No matter who you are, there’s a horse for you.” – Seerat Sohi, Yahoo Sports

It’s rare these days that a racing article can still make me angry. But last week, Yahoo Sports published a piece by Seerat Sohi, (mostly) an NBA writer, that did just that and more. Its title: “Why horse racing can appeal to a younger crowd and overcome its ugly past.” Yes, it is as horrible as it sounds – at once, tone-deaf, ignorant, and obtuse.

(Note: I held off writing in the hope of reaching the author; I did not succeed.)

Sohi opens by explaining how, sports-starved during the pandemic, she turned to racing, albeit with low expectations: “Let’s be clear. I wasn’t planning on liking horse racing. Even though I thought it would be tedious…I was ready to play the ponies.” But then, “a dozen beautiful horses leaped from the gates, and I was entranced. I was shocked by how entranced I was.” From there, it was waxing (poetic) time:

“Watching my first race was like grazing the edges of an ancient stone, feeling its power, its ancestry, that sense of entering into an ancient lineage. … The sight of a horse on the run is life-giving, inspiring. It sets off something carnal. The way they tried to best each other, stride by stride, made me want to run.”

She then laments that, despite being “tailor-made for a generation that needs a break to check its phone every 90 seconds,” Racing is not drawing the young. And though she cites “attitudes toward animal cruelty” as a factor – the last of seven mentioned, one of which was “Netflix” (?) – it’s quickly dismissed: “I’m not sure how much that applies to an audience that tunes in every Sunday to watch men mash their heads against each other.” Not the same at all, of course, something the kids surely know. Still, she says, “It isn’t a failure of the product itself. The races are invigorating.”

Of the gambling component, she asks: “But does horse racing even need to hitch itself to gambling?” It’s not, after all, like poker, “because horse racing is a real sport. There’s intrinsic pleasure in watching it. Gambling lubricates the experience, but isn’t dependent on it.” Did I not promise obtuse?

And then, because it seems everything nowadays must be reduced to this, race:

“But the more I read about the mainstream narrative of horse racing, the more disconnected I felt from the races, and it occurred to me why…it took a pandemic and a white boyfriend for this 26-year-old Canadian woman of Indian descent to finally tune in: modern horse racing isn’t designed to appeal to me. The heroes in American horse racing culture are almost always white. That’s on purpose. … Young equestrians are now questioning the horse racing world’s lack of response to George Floyd’s homicide…challenging the sport they love to tackle diversity problems and its deep-seated white privilege.”

So, horseracing is racist. Not speciesist (she probably doesn’t even know what that word means), but racist. Precious.

She closes thus: “If you’ve never watched horse racing…there are races everywhere, all the time. Check one out. Watch the way the horses move. It’s for you.”

Vile – from start to finish.

Of the charges leveled above, however, the most unforgivable is ignorant. Ms. Sohi is a paid journalist. It’s her job to know her subject. And no, providing Wikipedia-like snippets of racing history or citing the number of black jockeys in the 1875 Kentucky Derby doesn’t cut it. Had she done a modicum of research, she would have found that contemporary racing is in the news because of on-track kills, slaughter, whips, drug scandals, and federal indictments – none of which she mentions. At all. (And no, she doesn’t get credit for the “ugly past,” as article titles typically come from editors.)

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s not ignorance at all. Perhaps Ms. Sohi is very much aware that over 2,000 horses die, horrifically, on American tracks each year; that 10,000-15,000 more are violently bled-out and butchered at horseracing’s singular retirement facility, the slaughterhouse; that racehorses are kept locked – alone – in tiny 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day; that they are bought, sold, traded, and dumped like common Amazon products; that 90-95% of them have ulcers; that – well, you know the drill. Perhaps Ms. Sohi knows all this – and just doesn’t care. But either way, gross incompetence or simple heartlessness (she does refer to the horses as “its” throughout), for shame, Seerat Sohi (and, of course, Yahoo Sports). For shame.

(full Yahoo article here)

Statements from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the self-styled “nation’s most effective animal protection organization”:

“We’re not against racing. We want it done well and humanely … HSUS isn’t an anti-racing organization.” – former president and CEO Wayne Pacelle

“This is a national industry, and like football or baseball or other major American sports…we need national standards….” – Pacelle

“[T]he racing industry [is] now enjoying the increased enthusiasm a new superstar [Justify] brings to the sport.” – current president and CEO, Kitty Block

“First, I want to clarify the Humane Society of the United States’ position on horse racing…. We are not, in principle, opposing horse racing.” – Block

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs imperils an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Block

“The Horseracing Integrity Act would – as its name suggests – begin to restore some integrity to horseracing, helping…the business.” – Block

“This bill [HIA] is a gamechanger for equine athletes. It is a pro-animal, pro-industry measure that will not only help restore fairness to the sport….” – Block

(Note: The Horseracing Integrity Act would be bad for horses.)

“Racehorses are incredible athletes.” – former senior adviser Marty Irby

“The widespread use of both legal and illegal drugs is KILLING [his voice inflection in the video] an industry that employs 400,000 Americans.” – Irby

“Horseracing is a $40 billion a year industry that fuels our economy.” – Irby

(Note: Those employment and economic-impact numbers come directly from the industry and are basically pulled out of thin air.)

As an advocate, I recognize the great challenges presented by food and testing. It’s why I understand, though remain conflicted on, a subtler, more incremental approach: “Meatless Monday,” “Replace, Reduce, Refine.” But animal entertainment – that is, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes killing of animals as a way to pleasantly pass time? We – 21st Century America – should be ashamed at even having this conversation. It must end. Yesterday. Thing is, the HSUS agrees as it pertains to…

Circuses, Acting: “The HSUS opposes the use of captive wild animals as performers in circuses, film, television and commercials.”

Marine-Mammal Shows: “It is unacceptable for marine mammals to be held in captivity for the purpose of public display. [I]t should be rejected outright.”

Bullfighting: “The HSUS opposes bullfighting.”

Rodeos: “The HSUS opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized, since they typically cause torment and stress to animals, expose them to pain, injury or even death and encourage an insensitivity to and acceptance of the inhumane treatment of animals in the name of sport. Accordingly…we oppose bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, ‘wild horse racing,’ chuck wagon racing, steer tailing and horse tripping.”

and…

Greyhound Racing: “The HSUS opposes greyhound racing. This practice leads to an unacceptable level of greyhound exploitation and suffering solely for profit. The industry promotes and tolerates an overproduction of dogs, resulting in an annual surplus numbering in the thousands, many of whom will end up being destroyed. The sheer waste of life is a scandal.”

Everything, that is, except horseracing, even as all it’s written on dogracing (and, as a matter of fact, the rodeo) clearly – at least to those with functioning brains – applies to the equine version. (Actually, I would argue that horseracing is worse because of slaughter. Talk about “scandal.”) The why here isn’t important. What is, what matters most, is what this says about the HSUS.

Horseracing is, by any and all definitions, animal exploitation. Absolutely, positively, unequivocally. Exploitation necessarily involves suffering of some kind. Exploitation, then, must be called abusive. Animal exploitation, then, is animal cruelty. By (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to horseracing, the HSUS is (very publicly) stating it is not philosophically opposed to all forms of animal cruelty. By actively trying to help Racing survive (thrive), the HSUS, with its enormous influence and reach, is abetting the continued condemnation of countless horses to lives of crushing negation and gruesome, terrifying deaths. And all for nothing more than $2 bets, entertainment. To say the HSUS is no friend to horses doesn’t quite capture it. What the HSUS has done/is doing to these beautiful animals is downright criminal.

(As if the above weren’t enough, consider these figures from 2018, the most recent available on GuideStar: In that year, the HSUS took in over $100 million in contributions and grants, had a payroll of almost $40 million, and was sitting on almost a quarter-billion dollars in assets at year-end. Imagine if just a portion of that were used on ending horseracing. Criminal, indeed.)

Horseracing Wrongs was recently featured in an ESPN online piece, “Racing on the Edge.” While I am certainly grateful for the opportunity, the finished product was something one might expect to find in an apologist rag like the Paulick Report or Thoroughbred Daily News. Bad enough that the “reform” message – that horseracing can be fixed (with a clear subtext that it is worth fixing) – was front and center, but to carry that message the network (manipulatively, in my estimation) cast a track vet, Jeff Blea, who was disabled in his former life as a jockey. A compelling human-interest story, sure, but I fear the average viewer’s sympathies will be grossly misdirected.

Anyhow, here are my major points of contention:

– Of the so-called equilateral triangle of vets, owners, and trainers, Blea says, “Everyone is doing the same thing…what’s good for the horse.” C’mon, ESPN, this is an industry rife with dirty play and you allow Blea’s untruth to go unchallenged?

– When Blea conceded that “[Thoroughbreds] are susceptible to injury because there’s a massive body…running on four spindly legs,” I awaited the logical followup: If they’re susceptible to fatal breakdowns, why are we forcing them to race in the first place – especially for nothing more than lousy $2 bets? Alas, it never came.

– Blea brings back the original Santa Anita boogeyman: the rainy winter (he actually used a pothole analogy). But earlier in the segment, I had said – factually, of course – that Santa Anita averages 50 dead annually, effectively debunking the hard-track line. Blea’s turn at distraction was allowed to stand.

– Then to the crux of the matter: “Animal welfare is critically important to people…so with that cluster [I had already established ’twas no “cluster”] of injuries we had last year, I think it created those reforms such as medication reform, veterinary oversight, more involvement on a day to day basis.” And: “But we can get close to [zero kills]. Every year, we can get closer to it, and a little closer the following year, and a little closer the following year. And if we keep doing that, that’s a good thing.”

Reform, as I’ve said repeatedly, is a ruse; “we can get close to zero” is a load of rubbish. And Blea knows it. What was required was tough, objective journalism, demanding this of Mr. Blea and the industry he represents: Where was this zeal for horse safety before it all hit the fan last spring? Nowhere, of course, because dead horses simply didn’t matter, or didn’t matter enough for them to get all hyper vigilant about it. How many thousands and thousands and thousands of racehorses were sacrificed prior to all this talk of “medication reform, veterinary oversight, more involvement on a day to day basis”? It’s a sad joke, really. The simple truth is this: The urgency we see today stems from livelihoods threatened, not concern for the horses.

And just in case anyone out there is still unconvinced that ESPN is compromised on this issue, in a story on racehorse fatalities, how many do you reckon they showed? Yup, you guessed it, not a one. Instead, we were treated to picturesque shots of Santa Anita and the horses and their people going about their workdays. (And although the piece was focused on breakdowns, there was nary a mention of Racing’s greatest evil of all – slaughter.) All this is to say, ESPN, you’ve sorely disappointed.

An example of what should have been shown:

Four of my favorite quotes from renowned philosophers…

“The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. … What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality (1840)

“The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever…. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible? The way in which we answer this question depends on the way in which each one of us, individually, answers it.” – Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975)

“The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us – to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money. Once we accept this view of animals – as our resources – the rest is as predictable as it is regrettable.” – Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (1983)

From our executive director, Nicole Arciello:

After a few years of advocating for racehorses, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was feeling sad and helpless on the big race days – the hype, the ads, the posts from those unaware of the cruelty attending Derby parties. I saw posts from other advocates who felt the same way.

I was determined to take that day (and others: Preakness, Belmont, Breeders’ Cup) and make it a day of positive action for the horses instead. We will no longer sit idle and allow the smoke and mirrors to continue unchallenged.

Last year on Derby Day, we staged a “National Day of Protest to End Horseracing.” The feedback we received not only from advocates who were able to attend protests, but from those following the live-streams and media coverage, was extremely positive. The day was changed from a day of sorrow to a day of action. This year, we were planning the same until Covid-19 arrived and changed everything. The race was rescheduled, but we advocates would not let the still-suffering (and, yes, dying, because some racing continues) horses be forgotten. But, I wondered, how best to go about that? Enter “The Virtual Rally to #EndHorseracingNOW.”

I asked everyone with the means – data, wifi, social-media accounts – to take part in an all-day event. Not for just an hour or two, but 24 hours of continuous posting to Facebook and Instagram, and an all-day Tweet Storm, too! It was a lot to ask.

So as I awoke at 5 am Saturday, I was delighted to see that people all over the world were already tweeting and posting and sharing our event! The outpouring of support was amazing! I’d seen other virtual events with 20 people “interested” or “going,” but we had over 500!

As the day unfolded, there were posts of rescued horses, activists at previous protests, dogs wearing our t-shirts, stories of people turning their backs on the industry and people sharing our information. Our hashtags – #EndHorseracingNOW and #HorseracingKillsHorses – trended on Twitter for the first time ever! While I’m always optimistic that the day for liberating these beautiful creatures will come, yesterday gave me even more hope. I am more certain than ever that their day is near!

Thank you to all who participated, and a heartfelt gratitude to those who donate, who read this blog, who attend events, who sign petitions and who post on social media!

Thank you for being their voice!