In a recent Guardian article, former exercise rider Elizabeth Banicki explains why she has turned against horseracing. Some of the highlights:

“I have come to a time in my life where I cannot watch a horse race. It evokes too much anxiety and fear, flashbacks of catastrophe, so I close my eyes and pray only for the horses to make it home safely.”

“I galloped thousands of horses and so many were battling damaged and otherwise malfunctioning legs that one of my strongest general recollections is of working from on top of their backs to actively help them from stumbling and falling. I galloped horses who moved so poorly it was as if every step was a new agony. Their chronic pain coupled with the unnatural way they are forced to live can lead to depression, frustration and listlessness. Some horses get so angry they charge, teeth bared and intent to hurt, anyone walking by their stall door.”

“Horses that are chronically injured but still in training, still running races, are called ‘cripples’ in racetrack slang, and a trainer who engages in the practice of treating their horses this way is called ‘a butcher.’ These are terms all racetrackers in America understand. The rigors of training and running ensure that virtually no horse finishes a career unscathed and most are done by five years old.”

“Eventually I made my way to Santa Anita in Los Angeles. At Santa Anita I landed a job with a prominent outfit galloping some of the best-bred horses in the world. Though I was working on the top string for a prestigious trainer, I was not exercising the stars. Instead I rode mostly the ‘sore’ horses, the ones who needed nursing through their gallops. Some warmed up and their stride softened and found a rhythmic safety. In those cases, I settled in as passenger staying out their way as they trained themselves. I was routinely reprimanded for not making my horses gallop fast enough, because in my barn overall fitness took priority above the quality of the legs. If the legs didn’t hold up there was a fresh set waiting to be shipped in.”

“…when a horse is hurt, aggressively medicated, and forced to train and race repeatedly at speeds that exceed their natural inclination, then it constitutes abuse. The current standard in American racing – lots of medication and extreme speeds on legs too young to endure it – is abusive and the horses have no choice in the matter whatsoever. It isn’t simply an issue of animal rights, it is one of ethics and morality.”

“I came to a time late in my career when I could no longer ignore inside of me what I was seeing outside. The tapping of ankles on a three-year-old that released a projectile stream of fluid followed by steroid injections. Horses hobbling to, around and from the track. Young horses breaking their legs in half. I justified doing my job by telling myself, and sometimes others, that these horses would have to train whether I was there or not, and if I could make it easier on them by being kind, letting them go slow and cutting the distance short when I wasn’t being watched, then I was helping in some way to combat the greater doom they faced.”

(full article)

The Los Angeles Daily News reports this for Saturday, Santa Anita’s biggest day of the racing calendar (seven “stakes” races, including the $1 million Santa Anita Derby): “…the announced crowd of 30,713 was the third smallest in the past 75 runnings of the Santa Anita Derby, about 5,000 below the recent average.”

Excellent, indeed.

Part of that, of course, is a direct result of the Horseracing Wrongs-sponsored protest. Local activists came out in force – and the media followed. Speaking to the News, long-time HW supporter Wayne Johnson said: “I don’t think people are going to want to come to a track where horses are dying… People will look back at Santa Anita in 2019 as the tipping point.” And a special debt of gratitude to Heather Wilson for spearheading the effort. Here’s Heather in KTLA’s coverage.

Moral progress is at hand; let us seize the moment.

In the just-concluded three-day Grand National meet in England, three horses were killed: Forest Des Aigles and Crucial Role Friday, Up for Review in the main event yesterday. Said a Jockey Club Racecourses director, “As a sport of animal lovers, we wanted every horse to come home – and sadly that’s not been the case…” (BBC).

“Animal lovers.” Contemptible. Anyhow, I came across the following article written by a former bettor and Racing enthusiast. In it, he recounts his transformation from part of the problem to part of the solution. (The article was penned and published prior to the most recent deaths.)

“The day I realised everything about horse racing was wrong”

Friday night, the Los Angeles Times ran this headline in its sports section:

“Santa Anita breathes a sigh of relief after no horses die on first day back”

Imagine that.

The article then went on to quote some racetrack patrons:

“I’m holding my breath.”

“Everyone is worried about the horses. All I’m thinking is, if anything untoward happens today…”

The article continued: “The race ends clean, all seven horses crossing the finish line, and only then is there audible applause from the crowd… No horse died. ‘OK,’ said racegoer Frank Reynoso, taking a deep breath. ‘That’s one.’ But because there was no clear reason for the deaths [not true – it is horseracing itself], there could be no clear answers. That’s why so many people showed up at the track Friday with nerves jangling and fingers crossed. For now, there is relief. In eight races, there were no fatalities, which brought a giant collective sigh.”

Leaving aside for a moment that something “untoward” – a euphemism if ever there was one – did happen just two days later (the 23rd “untoward” thing on the Santa Anita track since New Year’s), what do the above say about a day at the races? If, in the course of being entertained by captive animals, you are “holding your breath” that none will die, if your “nerves are jangled” and “fingers crossed,” if all is tense while awaiting the finish and safe returns anxiously counted, perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time to re-think your participation in and support of that product.

More to that point: The aforementioned fan Reynoso added, “We’re saddened by everything that has happened…it’s been hard to see. But they’re going to race whether we’re here or not, and we love it here, so we’re coming.” To which I reply:

To those who wager on horseracing, we implore you to reconsider. And ultimately, you hold all the cards – no more bets, no more races; no more races, no more kills. And – no more abusing unformed bodies; no more extreme, relentless confinement; no more whipping; no more drugging and doping; no more buying and selling and trading and dumping. No more auctions, no more kill-buyers, no more transport trucks, no more abattoirs. No more maiming, destroying; pain, suffering. No more.

In a landscape that abounds with other gambling options – casinos, lotteries, real sports involving autonomous human beings – hasn’t the time at long last arrived to let the racing-horse be? You, the bettor, have within the capacity for mercy. We ask only that you exercise it. Please. For the horses.

The article, by the way, is also noteworthy for this:

“The crowd was reminded of the trouble before even entering the track, as several dozen protesters stood on a grassy area outside the front gate waving signs and chanting. ‘Horse racing needs to be abolished,’ said Heather Hamza, leading what she called a group of concerned citizens backed by the group known as Horseracing Wrongs. ‘The world is watching this track. Every horse that is killed here will make big headlines. We need to be part of those headlines because we’re telling them to stop it.'” Thank you, Heather, and to all who came and stood for the voiceless.

Saturday, the Houston Chronicle ran an article entitled, “At Sam Houston, only one horse fatality this meet.” The writer, Hal Lundgren, opened it thus: “Texas tracks have avoided the frightening number of horse fatalities that have darkened racing at Santa Anita in California.” Lundgren then went on to cite a statistic in support: “In 2018, the four horse tracks under Texas Racing Commission jurisdiction suffered a combined 20 horse fatalities.” Only one problem: He’s off – way off.

Just last month, I posted my Texas 2018 report. The numbers, which, of course, I received direct from the Racing Commission, went like this: 21 killed racing, 14 killed training, 6 died off-track. That’s 41 dead racehorses. I can only surmise – my emails and phone calls to the Chronicle went unanswered – that Mr. Lundgren decided to count only raceday kills (one horse, the Commission reported, was euthanized on May 22 for “race-related lameness” from a March 16 race, but was listed on the spreadsheet as “non-racing”; that’s a racing kill to me – hence, my 21 total). But to simply say his story is misleading does not go nearly far enough. (By the way, if indeed he did use just racing kills, comparing that to the 22 killed at Santa Anita, which includes both racing and training, is yet another deception, unwitting or not.)

Since I began my FOIA reporting in 2014, last year’s Texas total was that state’s highest yet. Yes, that’s right, not only was 2018 far worse than what Lundgren portrays, it was the worst, both in terms of on-track kills and total deaths:

2014: 27 dead racehorses – 24 on-track, 3 off
2015: 36 dead racehorses – 28 on-track, 8 off
2016: 32 dead racehorses – 28 on-track, 4 off
2017: 30 dead racehorses – 24 on-track, 6 off
2018: 41 dead racehorses – 35 on-track, 6 off

Look, I don’t know anything about Hal Lundgren. Perhaps he’s an old racing fan and was hoping to create a bit of positivity for an industry that so desperately needs it. Or perhaps his only offense is a lack of clarity, disseminating a woefully incomplete picture. Regardless, what matters here is setting the record straight: Texas Horseracing kills horses – and it’s not getting any better.