As the desperation mounts in the wake of 31 dead horses at Santa Anita and the unrelenting (and unprecedented) national media coverage, here are a few simple actions advocates can take to keep the pressure on. First, sign our petition asking Ziggy Marley to cancel his upcoming (July 20) Del Mar gig. Second, deluge the Governor’s office, as well as those of other politicians, with emails and calls of protest (note: please make clear that you are not interested in reform – just an end).

Change petition to Ziggy Marley

Governor Newsom

California’s state legislators

California’s national legislators

Recently, Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles, a wonderful group seeking the liberation of four elephants from the LA Zoo (and the end of captive elephant breeding in that city), created this video on Santa Anita. It features the indomitable Heather Wilson. Kind thanks to Heather, and to Kiersten Cluster and all at Elephant Guardians.

This morning, the Times Union, the Capital Region’s largest newspaper, published a Horseracing Wrongs op-ed: “US horse racing industry engaged in wholesale carnage” (also found below). Yesterday, WAMC presented me an opportunity to rebut NYRA’s (specious, of course) “safety improvements.” Transcript and audio can be found here.

The recent string of racehorse deaths at Santa Anita Park in California has attracted widespread national attention and, in the process, left the horseracing industry scrambling. The timing, of course, could not be worse, what with Triple Crown season arrived and Saratoga just around the bend. Part of their strategy of distraction is to almost exclusively focus on drugs and the effects thereof. While the (obviously) nonconsensual drugging/doping of horses is a wrong, it is in fact just one of many. But more to the point, the clear and unmistakable message (to the masses) of such a narrow focus is that all that ails Racing is a rampant drug culture; all that’s required is a bit of housecleaning. Then, Racing can be made whole, the horses protected.

In truth, horseracing kills horses, inherently. From breeding for speed (big torsos, spindly legs); to working pubescent bodies (the typical horse doesn’t fully mature till six; the typical racehorse begins training at 18 months); to the incessant grinding of those bodies (if they’re not racing, they’re not earning); to forcing them to “race” at an unnatural rate (breakneck), in an unnatural way (always counter-clockwise), through unnatural means (perched, whip-wielding humans); to the commodification (the average racehorse is bought and sold several times over the course of his “career,” making his long-term well-being of no concern to his current people) – racehorses are made to be expended, and for many that means death in the dirt.

Since 2009, when the state began to make these things public, over 1,300 horses have died at New York State racetracks – an average of 138 every year. But that’s just onsite. How many more of the “catastrophically injured” were euthanized back at the owner’s farm or after being acquired by a rescue? How many more, still, killed at private training facilities? Nationally, Horseracing Wrongs, primarily through our seminal FOIA reporting, has documented over 5,000 confirmed deaths since 2014; we estimate that over 2,000 horses are killed racing or training on U.S. tracks annually. Cardiovascular collapse, pulmonary hemorrhage, blunt-force head trauma. Broken necks, crushed spines, ruptured ligaments, shattered legs. In addition, hundreds more succumb to colic, laminitis, “barn accidents,” or are simply “found dead” in their stalls.

Then, too, slaughter. While the industry desperately tries to downplay the extent of the problem, cunningly flashing its hollow zero-tolerance policies and drop-in-the-bucket aftercare initiatives in defense, the truth is, the vast majority of spent racehorses are brutally and violently slaughtered – 10,000-15,000 Thoroughbreds alone each year. In short, it is no exaggeration to say that the American horseracing industry is engaged in wholesale carnage. Again, not hyperbole – carnage.

Sensibilities toward animal exploitation, most especially regarding entertainment, are rapidly changing. In just the past few years:

– SeaWorld, in the wake of outrage over the film Blackfish, has ended the captive-breeding of orcas and remains in a precipitous decline.

– Ringling Bros., after 146 years of animal abuse, has closed its doors for good.

– Illinois and New York have both outlawed the use of elephants for entertainment.

– The National Aquarium will release all of its remaining captive-dolphins to a seaside sanctuary by 2020.

– Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Pasadena, Fort Wayne, St. Petersburg et al. have banned the rodeo; Los Angeles stands poised to do so soon.

– And just this past November, Floridians voted overwhelmingly – by over 2:1 – to outlaw greyhound racing in that state by the end of next year, a monumental win for animals that will in one fell swoop shutter 11 of the nation’s final 17 tracks – leaving dogracing in America all but dead.

So the question becomes, why should horseracing be exempt? Why is it allowed cover under the banner of sport when in fact it is nothing more than a garden-variety gambling business? In a landscape that abounds with other options – casinos, lotteries, real sports involving autonomous human beings – hasn’t the time at long last arrived to stop wagering on the backs of suffering – and dying – animals?

End the cruelty. End the killing. End horseracing.

Allow me to put a spin on an old legal adage: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have compassion on your side, argue compassion. If you have neither, use some rhetorical flourishes and distract like hell. In a recent Daily Racing Form article, columnist Jay Hovdey reviewed last Thursday’s meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, where, you may recall, activist after activist rose to decry the cruelty and the killing at Santa Anita Park:

“There was no arguing with the animal rights protesters who flooded the [CHRB] meeting on Thursday with their impassioned recitation of undeniably grim statistics. From their point of view, the business itself is terminally flawed, and no amount of anecdotal testimony to the contrary would convince them otherwise.

To them – as opposed to us – Thoroughbred racing is replete with casual sadists and greedy entrepreneurs whose callous disregard for the well-being of its captive horses belies any sob stories of dedication to the health and welfare of the animals. ‘Set them free’ is their mantra. Relegate them to the wilds of unspecified sanctuaries. Race drones or small children if you must. But leave the horses be.”

Well, at least he didn’t (because, of course, he can’t) try to refute the “grim statistics.” Of course, Mr. Hovdey, we are not seeking to set any domesticated horse (or any domesticated animal, for that matter) free. That would be cruel. But you know that already, don’t you? “Set them free,” “race drones or small children” – I get it, having a laugh at our expense. That’s fine. Truth is, I would have ignored this altogether – simply dismissing it as the pathetic rantings of a sad, old racing hack pandering to an equally sad and rapidly fading base – had you not debased yourself even lower:

“In my wildest dreams, while listening to the audio feed of the CHRB meeting and its denigration of all things racing, I imagined chairman Chuck Winner producing a speaker’s request card and calling out the name, ‘Martine Bellocq.’

Martine would enter in her wheelchair, pushed by her husband, Pierre Bellocq Jr., with cap, sunglasses, and gloves protecting her tender skin grafts and her left leg slightly elevated, a concession to the circulatory complications caused by the amputation of her foot.

Her voice is high-pitched and strained now as a result of smoke inhalation and corrosive pulmonary lavage, but Martine would not need to say much. Her actions of Dec. 7, 2017, at her barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, speak louder than the loudest of protests raised in opposition to the life she has led for most of her 64 years.

Of course, someone at the meeting would have pointed out in protest that if there were no horse racing, and therefore no training center, Bellocq’s horses would not have been in danger as a fast-moving finger of the Lilac Fire swept through the southern end of her barn. That sort of logic also would get you tossed as a hopeless lightweight in a freshman class debate.

Bellocq plunged into the smoke and flames that day in an effort to lead her colt Wild Bill Hickory from his stall. That he had shown promise as a young equine athlete was beside the point. The committed caretaker in Bellocq could see only her panicked young creature at horrible risk and did something only a mother, or a fully protected firefighter, would do.

The terrified colt would not budge, though, and became one of 46 horses who died in the fire. Bellocq sustained third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body before Pierre reached her and carried her out of the inferno. He was treated for smoke inhalation, but he recovered and sounded just fine, as usual, when they were reached at home on the afternoon of the CHRB meeting. It had been a tough week.

‘There’s still a lot of healing going on with her skin,’ Pierre said, as Martine coached him from the background. ‘And there are complications with blood clots in her leg, which holds up progress with her prosthesis. I just hope her spirits can hold up.’ And from Martine came, ‘We’ve got to win a race!’

That’s right, the Bellocqs are still in the game, with a small stable in one of the new, canvas-topped structures at San Luis Rey. They had a pair of seconds last month with the maiden full sisters Brite Rivers and Lucky Brite Eye, and Saturday night they had the filly Grey Tsunami entered in a mixed race at Los Alamitos.”

First, what happened at San Luis Rey was a massacre – a massacre, this lightweight says, for which Racing bears full responsibility. (A reminder of that massacre, from Pierre’s memory, The San Diego Union-Tribune: “The first thing I saw was Billy…He laid down, his legs burned to the knees and the hocks. There was nothing below the knees. He must have thrown himself into the shed row, in flames. It’s the most horrible scene I’d ever seen.”) But beyond the snarky shots and crass manipulation lies this uncomfortable truth: While I am sincerely sorry for this woman’s fate, and the suffering she continues to endure, holding her up as the embodiment of “Horseracing cares” underscores the sorry and increasingly desperate state of the industry. “Something only a mother” would have done, Mr. Hovdey? Well:

What kind of mother would rip her child from his actual mother (and other family) while still just a babe?

What kind of mother would keep her child locked – alone – in a tiny room for over 23 hours a day?

What kind of mother would allow her child to be whipped?

What kind of mother would put her child up “For Sale,” as Bellocq did last month with each of those aforementioned horses? (In fact, Bellocq will have Brite Rivers on the market again in just three days’ time.)

What kind of mother would risk having her child fall into unscrupulous hands this way, perhaps even into a kill-buyer’s?

What kind of mother would put her child’s life in grave danger – every two or three weeks – as a means of enriching herself?

A mother? If not for the gravity involved, ‘twould be risible.

(Anticipating backlash, let me reiterate: I feel bad for Ms. Bellocq and wish her the best in recovery. This is really not about her; rather, it’s an indictment of those, like Jay Hovdey, who will stop at nothing – exploiting someone’s personal tragedy, e.g. – in order to preserve their precious bloodsport.)