While it may be hard to believe, the North Carolina legislature is actually considering a bill – the “North Carolina Derby Act” – that would introduce Thoroughbred racing to that state. (There are steeplechases in NC; one, Charlotte, recently recorded a kill.) Yes, that’s right, some tone-deaf politicians aim to bring a cruel, increasingly moribund industry to the great state of North Carolina. And so the battle is joined.

After reading a favorable board editorial in the News & Record, North Carolina’s third largest paper, I submitted my own, focusing, of course, on the cruelty and death. It was accepted and published today. I thank the editors for this wonderful opportunity to educate. (While the full text appears below, please clink on the link – again, here – to show our support for the paper.)

As the General Assembly considers whether to legalize horseracing in North Carolina, it is crucial that citizens and legislators be presented with all the information, starting with the fact that this proposal is about 70 years too late.

While there was a time when horseracing was popular, those days are long gone. The “Foal Crop” – the number of new Thoroughbreds entering the system each year – is about half of what it was just 30 years ago. All other metrics – racedays, races, field sizes, and, yes, attendance and handle (amount wagered) – are also down.

Demographically, things could not be worse: the typical horseplayer (regular bettor) is a middle-aged man; the younger generations are simply not interested. The reason for this is twofold: changing sensibilities, which we’ll get to later, and, of course, competition for the gambling dollar – lotteries, casinos, and now sports (real ones, that is) betting. And the effect has been devastating: Since 2000, 39 U.S. racetracks have been shuttered; only one new one has opened – and that only because it is being heavily subsidized by the state. In fact, the bulk of the American horseracing industry subsists entirely on corporate welfare, with wealthy owners pocketing public funds that should be going to general-good issues like education and infrastructure.

But equally if not more important is the moral aspect to all this. Self-serving, romantic rhetoric aside, stripped to its core horseracing is ugly and mean and cruel:

The typical racehorse is torn from his mother as a mere babe, thrust into intensive training at 18 months – years before his body is fully developed – and first raced at two, the rough equivalent of a first-grader. From there, the incessant grinding – again, on an unformed skeleton – begins, because if he’s not racing, he’s not earning. He is pumped, legally and otherwise, with myriad performance-enhancing, injury-masking, and pain-numbing chemicals. He is confined (alone, in a tiny stall for over 23 hours a day), commodified (lip tattoos, auctions, “claiming races”), controlled (cribbing collars, nose chains, tongue ties, blinkers), and cowed (bits and whips). And quite often, killed.

Through FOIA, Horseracing Wrongs has documented over 7,000 deaths at U.S. tracks just since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training across America every year. Cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma, broken necks, severed spines, ruptured ligaments, shattered legs. Over 2,000. Every year. In addition, hundreds more die back in their stalls from things like colic, laminitis, or, simply, “found dead in the morning.” And to be clear, this is not just a “cheap track” problem: Saratoga, which bills itself the “oldest sporting venue in the nation,” averages 15 dead a summer. Santa Anita, another elite track, has averaged 50 kills annually since 2007. And at Churchill Downs, home of America’s most celebrated race, the Kentucky Derby, 86 horses have perished over the past four years.

Then, too, slaughter. Two separate studies indicate that most – some 10,000-20,000 annually – spent or simply no-longer-wanted racehorses are mercilessly bled-out and butchered at “career’s” end. In truth, horseracing needs slaughter. In 2019, HorseRace Insider, a pro-racing publication, admitted the following: “The Jockey Club will not support a slaughter-free industry because it will cost $120 million per year to fund the care of the 20,000+ horses bred each year.” Again, The Jockey Club, Racing’s most prominent and powerful organization, will not support a slaughter-free industry – and for proof we need look no further than its refusal to endorse the SAFE Act, a bill that would prohibit the slaughter of American horses – because of cost. Imagine that.

As mentioned at the top, sensibilities toward animal exploitation, most especially regarding entertainment, are rapidly evolving. In just the past few years:

– Ringling Bros. has closed its doors for good, ending over a century of animal abuse.

– SeaWorld, after being exposed by the film Blackfish, has ended the captive-breeding of orcas and remains in slow, steady decline.

– There are rodeo bans in cities as diverse as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, and Fort Wayne.

– Both New York and Illinois have outlawed the use of elephants in any form of entertainment; New Jersey, Hawaii, and California have forbidden all wild-animal acts.

– And most relevant to the issue at hand, after the historic (and overwhelming) referendum vote in Florida in 2018, dogracing in America is all but dead. In fact, dogracing is outright prohibited on moral grounds in 41 of our 50 states.

Clearly, the winds of change are blowing in one direction. And despite its desperate marketing – “tradition,” “beauty,” “The Sport of Kings” – horseracing will not be spared. Indeed, in just the past year, two of the nation’s most influential papers – The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer – have called for racing’s outright end.

So, this is no time to look back, North Carolina. Horseracing in 2021 is an economic nonstarter. But of far more import, it is simply wrong. North Carolinians are known for their warmth, kindness, and generosity. We are only asking that that be extended to these intelligent, sensitive creatures. Please say no to horseracing.

Excerpts from an opinion piece in the Concord Monitor Wednesday:

“When I was a kid, my favorite movie was ‘Phar Lap,’ based on the true story of an Australian racehorse. I loved that movie and that horse. It was tragic and made me cry in heartbreak. A kind boy trains a mistreated horse, and then he wins and wins and wins horse races.

“As moving and memorable as that movie was, it never made me particularly curious about the realities of horse racing. I thought jockeys were interesting, and the horses were extraordinary specimens of beauty, strength and agility. I would wonder about the treatment of the horses from time to time, but that was it.

“Fast forward to today. Working with the NH Animal Rights League, I volunteered to research the reality of horse racing because of last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. And here are the facts.

“According to the organization Horseracing Wrongs, over 1,000 racehorses died on-site in 2019. That is about 20 a week and does not count deaths from other sites related to horse racing (private training facilities, euthanized on farms, the thousands of ‘retired’ ones sold to slaughter).

“Although the use of illegal performance-enhancing and pain masking drugs is rampant in horse racing, even if a horse is drug-free, the strain of a 1,200-pound animal storming down the track at 40 mph exerts incredible stress on the horse’s comparatively fragile legs.

“Ending horse racing is within our power. Look to greyhound racing for proof of that. Only three states now have greyhound tracks. After a long awareness campaign and the changing of laws by animal rights activists, we have realized that racing dogs for monetary profit is not okay, and the same is true of horses.

“Horses have a long history of working for us. They helped plow our fields, pulled our wagons, went to war with us, and even died on our battlefields. Isn’t it time we do something for them? Romanticizing the Kentucky Derby and horseracing is harder to do when you know the facts.” – Emily Murphy